And God Said It Was Good: The Celtic Ecological Alternative to the
Augustinian Domination of Nature
+Taoiseach Thomas J. Faulkenbu
The ecological holocaust experienced in the late 20th Century need not be rearticulated. The litany of environmental abuses is well documented and experienced by postindustrial man. The thrust of this paper is that a particular form of a Christian weltanschauung ~ Augustinianism ~ was a major contributing factor to an attitude of alienation from and domination of nature; and, that there was, and is, another Christian weltanschauung ~ Celticism ~ which provides a viable and Scripturally-based alternative to the mistakes of Augustinianism.
The Augustinian paradigm permeates Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. Although Molinism may be the practical expression of Roman Catholic faith, Augustinianism is the "official" doctrine of the Church of Rome. And, historically, the major Protestant Reformers (specifically Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli) inherited and built upon an Augustinian foundation.
The Augustinian Paradigm
There are four key elements to the Augustinian paradigm: hierarchy, dualism, prevenient grace and predestination. Each is a contributing factor to a weltanschauung of alienation and domination.
Augustine articulates a hierarchic structure in both the heavenly and earthly spheres. The heavenly realm is portrayed as one of descent from God at the apex through the angelic realm to man and terminating with the animal world. It is a cosmos consisting of a heavenly world of proximity to God (and, therefore, status) and an earthly world of remoteness from the Almighty (and, therefore, insignificance).
Concomitant with this hierarchic structure is Augustine's quasi-Manichaeanism which posits a radical dualism between the spiritual realm (proximity to God and, therefore, good) and the physical realm (remoteness from God and, therefore, evil). God is radically other than His creation ~ a fact accentuated by man's fall from grace as a result of Adam's sin in the creation story of Genesis. God is fundamentally separated from His creation and the crown of God's creation, man, is equally alienated from both God and the balance of the cosmos.
It is within the framework of hierarchy and dualism that Augustine posits a theory of prevenient grace by which God unilaterally and irresistibly spans the gap between Himself and His creation. Man's alienation from God and his fall from proximity and closeness to God is so severe that man has become totally depraved and devoid of the ability to make any choice free of selfish or base motives. Added to this theology is Augustine's proposition that all are predestined to salvation or damnation at the disposition of God.
The result of this Augustinian paradigm is an hierarchic physical world alienated from its Creator and faced with a divinely mandated fatalism. Humankind functions within this paradigm by establishing an hierarchy of its own and by resigning itself to providence. The hierarchy is reflected in non-egalitarian social structures and, specifically, in man's domination of nature for his own ends under the guise of a "stewardship" more indicative of a controlling, overpowering "lordship" than in that of the servant "Lordship" of Christ.
The Celtic Divergence
Celtic Christianity is the expression of the Christian faith as understood by the inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Northumbria, the Isle of Man, and Breton during the period from roughly the 4th Century to the 12th Century AD. It is an expression of Christianity which has been characterized as "Pelagian" or "Semi-Pelagian" when, in fact, the term "non-Augustinian" is more descriptively accurate. It is a form of Western Christianity more reflective of Eastern Orthodox spirituality (especially in its Coptic and Ethiopian manifestations) than the normative Latin Catholic mode which predominated on the Continent.
Celtic Christianity rejected the Augustinian conceptions of cosmic hierarchy, dualism, prevenient grace, and predestination. The theology, prayer life, and ecclesiology of the ancient Celtic Church were in direct opposition to that of the Church of Rome and Augustine. The fact of which caused a protracted campaign of destruction of Celtic Christianity by the Church of Rome both directly and through its later agent, the Church of England (See of Canterbury) via the Augustinian campaign against Celtic theology, Roman censures of Celtic liturgical practices, Roman eradication of Celtic ecclesiastical structures, and Roman elimination of Celtic spiritual practices.
The Roman/Augustinian campaign against Celtic Christianity stretching from the Councils of Carthage in the 5th Century to the Synod of Cashel in the 12th Century is not the focus of this paper. However, it provides the requisite foundation to understanding that Celtic Christianity was dissimilar to Roman Augustinianism.
The Celtic Foundation
The foundation of Celtic spirituality and its theology is found in the sacred geography and prayer life which has roots in pre-Christian Druidism. Just as Continental Christianity was filtered through a Greco-Roman paradigm, Celtic Christianity found expression through that of the pre-Christian culture of the British Isles. This expression manifests itself in an enthusiasm (en theos) for sacred spaces (i.e., holy wells and sacred stones) and a penchant for oral elucidation of the faith found in the bardic tradition.
The immanence of God in Celtic Christianity is distinctly dissimilar from that of Augustinian Christianity in which the carnal milieu was clearly a temporary dwelling to be left behind in preference for existence on a superior, unblemished plane.
The Celtic Christian attention to the immanence of God within the natural world ~ an experience of the spiritual magnitude of existence within and through nature ~ is confirmed in the mellifluous poems emanating from the eremite movement of the 7th Century and in the prayers, incantations and hymns in Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica (the accumulation of prayer themes that derived from the oral traditions of the Highlands and western islands of Scotland).
St. Machan's prayer (9th Century) epitomizes the Celtic Christian experience of the sacred within the world of mundane existence:
"I wish, O Son of the Living God,
O ancient, eternal King,
For a hidden, little hut in the wilderness,
That it may be my dwelling.
An all-grey, little lark
To be by its side,
A clear pool to wash away sins
Through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Quite near, a beautiful wood,
Around it on every side,
To nurse many-voiced birds,
Hiding it with its shelter.
And facing the south for warmth;
A little brook across its floor,
A choice ground with many gracious gifts
Such as which be good for every living plant...
A pleasant church and with the linen altar-cloth,
A dwelling for God from Heaven;
Then, shining candles
Above the pure white Scriptures...
This is the husbandry I would take,
I would choose, and would not hide it:
Hens, salmon, trout, bees.
Raiment and food enough for me
From the King of fair fame,
And I to be sitting for awhile
Praying God in every place.
Here is not the negation of nature found in Augustine but an affirmation that the God of Heaven dwells with His creation and can be found in "every place." In the eremitic cell or hermitage (disert) is established the re-creation of a new Eden indicating that the immediacy of God is not to be experienced in a paradisiacal after-life but to be savored now. The natural world is a blessed reflection of theophany.
Nature is a type of supplementary sacred text, analogous to the Scriptures, which discloses the divine. What the monastic bards sought and discovered in the earthly world was an image of the creator God.
It should not be supposed, however, that Celtic Christian spirituality is pantheistic for God transcends His creation as "high King of the Universe". Yet, His power (or energy) permeates His creation.
St. Patrick's Breastplate invokes the power of God which is revealed in nature:
"I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock."
He stands by recourse to the potency of God. And this power is seen in nature which reveals God's clarifying effulgence, magnificent glory, propitious action, profundity, steadiness, and decisiveness.
Celtic Hagiography and Iconography
The legendary biographies of Celtic Saints are replete with references to the sympathetic relationship of nature to the godly person. And Celtic illuminations of the texts of Scripture (the Celtic equivalent of iconography) are fraught with the depictions of the natural world.
St. Ciaran of Saigher prayed for a small bird which had been seized from its nest by a hawk. The hawk laid it's bleeding prey at Ciaran's feet. It is said that his only companions in his monastic life were animals and that a wild boar tore down branches to build the saint's first shelter.
St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise is said to have had a fox as his childhood companion and that during his monastic life he would rest his book on the antlers of a tame stag.
The two Ciarans provide examples of the Celtic affinity to animals and nature which runs through the Celtic saints from Patrick to Brendan and Columbanus.
This same affinity is reflected in the illuminations of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Intermingled in the Celtic knotwork (indicative of eternity) one finds a menagerie of cats, dogs, mice, badgers, stags, all manner of animal and a plethora of foilage.
The hagiographies of the Celtic saints and the Celtic religious artwork associated with the Gospels are representative of a Christian weltanschauung which views the creation in terms of interaction rather than alienation.
St. Morgan and St. John Scotus Eriugena
St. Morgan of Wales (more popularly known as Pelagius Britto) and St. John Scotus Eriugena are the seminal theologians of Celtic Christianity. While their theologies have been controversial ~ often bringing them in conflict with the remainder of the Western Church (Morgan with the Augustinians, Eriugena with the Synod of Valence) ~ they articulate the beliefs of Celtic Christianity.
St. Morgan posited the practical Christianity found in the Epistle of St. James which seeks to unite orthodoxos with orthopraxis (faith and works). For Morgan, as for the ancient Celtic Christian, God's saving grace permeated His creation in such a way that it was readily available for the Christian to utilize in leading a righteous life. Eriugena's incarnational theology accentuated the Celtic belief that Christ's Incarnation has transfigured the entire cosmos. In Morgan and Eriugena is found the Celtic belief that while God transcends His creation He is also mysteriously present in it by means of His grace and His energies. As such, nature is a "fifth gospel."
It should not be supposed that Celtic Christianity possessed a credulous attitude toward nature. Indeed, the ancient Celt lived in a world pervaded with the hazards ingredient with a frequently hostile climate. Yet it was also through nature that the Celtic Christian saw the same image of God reflected in the written Gospels. Nature was perceived as something of which mankind was a part. And, although it and man existed in a "fallen" condition, neither it nor man is unredeemed. Because of Christ's Incarnation as well as His Atonement nature and mankind have been transformed.
The Christianity lived by the ancient Celtic Church espoused dispersion of power (both divine and human), cooperation with God and His creation, the individual's free will and the boundless opportunities God places before humankind. From that model 21st Century man might begin to perceive an ecological alternative to despotic accumulation, dichotomous reality, the domination of nature, and fated results.