It was during my sophomore year at the Christian college I was attending that I got my first sense that something was wrong with this picture. I wasn’t exactly sure how to articulate what was wrong or even what “this picture” was. But something inside of me said “This isn’t the Way of Jesus.”
The guest chapel speaker was telling some compelling stories about how he and his fellow missionaries were furthering the Kingdom of God in remote villages around the world. He told one specific story about a tribe in Africa. He and his people had been working with this tribe for several months before there was a huge breakthrough that convinced him of God’s movement in their midst—the tribe started wearing clothes.
I remember looking toward the stage in dumbfounded wonder at what I had just heard. Some of my fellow students seemed to be rather impressed by this tale, but I just sat there. It took me nearly the rest of the day to put some words around it. I finally pulled the headphones off of my roommate’s ears and said, “He didn’t make them Christian, he made them American!”
In the 4th century CE Christianity experienced an incredibly significant shift. Constantine became the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. In 313CE the empire officially became tolerant of Constantine’s new religious affiliation, and in the decades that followed, the once persecuted minority religion became the official religion of the Roman Empire with lots of power to show for it.
In college I remember struggling with how I viewed this moment in history. For all intents and purposes, Christianity had won! It was victorious over the persecutions that tried to smother it! But still, something about it troubled me.
Some Christians who were alive at the time have helped me to better understand my uneasiness. They were also greatly distraught about this union, seeing it as a threat to the heart of what it meant to follow Christ. These men and women of history have become known as the Desert Mothers & Fathers. They saw the marrying of Christianity and the Roman Empire as an unholy and unsustainable union. One was a religion committed to following a Rabbi who was constantly aligning himself with the powerless, the other an empire constantly achieving its goals through dramatic displays of power and violence. One or the other would cease to be what it was truly meant to be, and the greatest fear was that Christianity would be the one suffering that loss of orientation and identity. As a result, they withdrew from the empire, denounced material wealth, and lived lives of faithfulness to Christ in the desolate wilderness. This, in their minds, would serve to preserve the truest heart of Christianity.
In the centuries that followed Christianity’s rise to power through the Roman Empire, there was at least one large body of Christians who became a sort of thorn in the side of Rome—Celtic Christians. As is also true in terms of military domination, the empire just couldn’t quite wrangle these people in! They didn’t do a great job of following the rules as defined by Rome—they allowed the ancient religion of their land to have voice within their Christian doctrine, and they valued the role of women as leaders in their communities of faith, to name a couple examples. Even after the Synod at Whitby, when the Roman Mission was victorious over the Celtic Mission, it was centuries before most of the Celtic world was compliant with that decision. I am married to a fiery woman of Irish descent and I like to imagine the Celtic church as having the same tone toward the empire that she does toward others who try to hold her down.
I think that Celtic Christianity strikes a significant chord with many of us today, because it represents a call back into the Desert. Unlike the chapel speaker who believed that replacing cultural norms was equal to sharing the Gospel, we are looking for something that recognizes the influence of the empire and says, “No Thank You!” We are looking for a spirituality that reconnects us with the Rabbi who aligned himself with the powerless. We are looking for a spirituality that welcomes and fosters the mysticism of the Desert Mothers & Fathers. We are looking for a spirituality rooted, not in the empirical struggle for domination and control, but in the Love of the One from whom we all came.
Celtic Christianity has offered me an alternative to the “picture” that so troubled me years ago. The Desert is calling, and a great many of us are beginning to hear it.
Ben Edwards is a member of Celtic Way's Board of Directors. Read more about him here.