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The Celtic Way of Evangelism
How Christianity Can Reach the West ... Again
By George G. Hunter III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Gospel to the Irish
Around A.D. 400, Patricius (Patrick) was growing up in what is now northeast England. His people were "Britons," one of the "Celtic" peoples then populating the British Isles, though Patrick's aristocratic family had gone "Roman" during the Roman occupation of England. So Patrick, culturally, was as much Roman as Celtic; his first language was Latin, though he understood some of the "Welsh" spoken by the lower classes. His family was Christian; his grandfather was a priest. Patrick was baptized, he had acquired some Christian teaching, and he knew the catechism, but he became only a very nominal Christian; he enjoyed ridiculing the clergy, and in the company of other "ungoverned" youth, he lived toward the wild side.
When Patrick was sixteen, a band of Celtic pirates from Ireland invaded his homeland. They captured Patrick and many other young men, forced them onto a ship, sailed to Ireland, and sold them into slavery. The pirates sold Patrick to a prosperous tribal chief and Druid named Miliuc (Miliuc moccu Boin), who put Patrick to work herding cattle. Patrick lived the next six years in two settings. He spent blocks of time in Miliuc's settlement with the people, and he probably resided in a compound with other Briton slaves—some of whom were Christians, who would have welcomed Patrick into their fellowship. He spent other blocks of time in wilderness areas managing a herd of cattle, perhaps assisted by an industrious border collie or Welsh corgi.
During his six years of enslavement in these two settings, Patrick experienced three profound changes. First, in the periods when Patrick was herding cattle in a wilderness area, he experienced what theologians call God's "natural revelation." He sensed, with the seasons, the creatures, the nights under the stars, and the ever-present winds, the presence of God; he identified this presence with the triune God he had learned about in the catechism and had heard about from his people back home and from his Christian peers in Miliuc's compound. In his (more or less) autobiographical Confession Patrick tells us,
After I had arrived in Ireland, I found myself pasturing flocks daily, and I prayed a number of times each day. More and more the love and fear of God came to me, and faith grew and my spirit was exercised, until I was praying up to a hundred times every day and in the night nearly as often.
Patrick became a devout Christian, and the profound change was obvious to his captors.
Second, Patrick changed in another way during the periods he spent with his captors in their settlement. He came to understand the Irish Celtic people, and their language and culture, with the kind of intuitive insight that is usually possible only, as in Patrick's case, from the underside. Miliuc's people knew that this slave understood them.
Third, in time Patrick came to love his captors, to identify with them, and to hope for their reconciliation to God. One day, he would feel that they were his people as much as the Britons were.
One night, after six years of captivity, a voice spoke to Patrick in a dream, announcing the good news of his imminent freedom. The voice instructed him to awaken early and walk to a seacoast: "Your ship is ready!" He walked for several days, reached the seacoast, saw the promised ship, and negotiated his way on board.
The data for piecing together the next quarter century of Patrick's story are limited, and scholars fuss over the scant data we have, but the story line runs something like this. The ship probably took Patrick to Gaul, though perhaps to England or Rome. He spent time in Gaul (with the monastic community of Saint Martin of Tours), and he probably spent time in Rome, but mainly he returned to his people in England. He trained for the priesthood—perhaps in Rome or in Gaul, more likely in England. His training immersed his mind in the Scriptures and grounded him in the basic orthodox theology that prevailed in the Western church of the time before Saint Augustine's mighty influence. He then served for years as a faithful parish priest in England.
One night years later Patrick experienced another dream that was to change his life again. An angel named Victor approached him with letters from his former captors in Ireland. As he read one of the letters, he "imagined in that moment that [he] heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, ... and they cried out, as with one voice 'We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.'"
When Patrick awakened the next morning, he interpreted the dream as his "Macedonian call" to take Christianity's gospel to the Celtic peoples of Ireland. He proposed to his ecclesiastical superiors that he be sent on this mission. The bishops of the British church, probably with the strong encouragement of Pope Celestine, affirmed Patrick's vision. Patrick was ordained a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history's first missionary bishop. The tradition tells us that he arrived in Ireland with an "apostolic team" of priests, seminarians, and laymen and laywomen in (or about) A.D. 432.
Patrick's mission to Ireland was to be such an unprecedented undertaking that it is impossible to overstate its significance or the magnitude of the challenge they faced. Why? Because the Irish Celtic peoples were "barbarians."
Perhaps the oldest and most perennial issue in the history of Christianity's world mission hangs upon two terms: Christianizing and civilizing. In a classic essay, Pierce Beaver tells us that mission leaders, including the Protestant mission leaders of the last several hundred years, have usually assumed that the two goals of a Christian mission are to "evangelize" a people and to "civilize" them. Beaver explains that, in the formative period of Protestant mission, there was never even
debate about the legitimacy of the stress on the civilizing function of missions. Debate was only about priority; which came first, christianization or civilization? Some held that a certain degree of civilization was first necessary to enable a people to understand and accept the faith. Others argued that one should begin with christianization since the gospel inevitably produced a hunger for civilization. Most persons believed that the two mutually interacted and should be stressed equally and simultaneously.
In practice, a Protestant mission's civilizing objectives for a people were scripted more by the culture of the sending nation than by Scripture. Beaver reports, for instance, that in the sixteenth- to eighteenth-century period of Spain's colonial expansion, "Spain ... endeavored to transplant Christianity and civilization both according to the Spanish model." Likewise, the seventeenth-century Puritan mission to Native Americans organized converts into churches and into "Christian towns" in order to enculturate the Indians into what Cotton Mather called "a more decent and English way of living." Beaver reports that "even in countries with a high culture, such as India and China, European missionaries stressed the 'civilizing' objective as much as their brethren in primitive regions because they regarded the local culture as degenerate and superstitious—a barrier to christianization."
The much earlier period of Roman Christianity's expansion, prior to Patrick, had struggled with these same issues but was afflicted by two versions of this problem, both different from the later Protestant versions. The perspective of the ancient Roman Christian leaders can be baldly stated in two points: (1) Roman Christian leaders assumed that some civilizing had to comefirst. A population had to already be civilized "enough" to become Christianized; some degree of civilization was a prerequisite to Christianization. (2) Then, once a sufficiently civilized population became Christian, they were expected in time to read and speak Latin, to adopt other Roman customs, to do church the Roman way, and in other ways to become culturally Roman people.
This Roman perspective seems to have surfaced in the second century and then prevailed until the time of Patrick. The first-century apostolic movement reached several peoples, at least, who were neither civilized nor subsequently Romanized. The apostolic tradition reports, for instance, that Andrew planted Christianity among barbarian populations of Scythia, that Thomas reached Parthians and Syrians, and that Matthew's martyrdom ignited a Christian movement in a cannibal population named the Anthropophagi.
From the second century on, however, historians report no organized missions to the "barbarian" peoples, such as the Celts, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Franks, the Frisians, the Huns, and the Vikings, who lived at the fringes of the Roman Empire. By now, the Church assumed that reaching barbarians was impossible; a population, by definition, had to be literate and rational enough to understand Christianity, and cultured and civil enough to become "real" Christians if they did understand it.
Why did the Roman Church regard the Irish Celts as barbarians? What could have given them that idea? The Romans did not know the Irish people. Ireland was geographically isolated from the Roman Empire; Rome had never conquered or controlled Ireland, or even placed a Roman colony there.
Historically, however, Romans had observed other Celtic peoples, and they had heard about the Irish. The history of the Keltoi peoples predated the Roman Empire by more than a thousand years. Celtic tribes had once been the dominant population of Europe, and they had been the greatest warriors of Europe. The European Celts were not a race, with a common genetic lineage, so much as a macroculture—a linguistic and cultural family of peoples. However, each Celtic tribe was distinct from the others, with its own gods, laws, customs, and language or dialect.
Consequently, the Celtic tribes had little experience in organizing across tribal lines. So, in warfare, each Celtic tribe fought for itself but was not organized to fight in league with other tribes against a common enemy. An analogy should clarify this important point. A zoologist once informed me that a tiger will defeat a lion in battle, but five lions will defeat five tigers because the lions fight as a team and the tigers do not. The five lions take on one tiger at a time. Each Celtic tribe was a formidable tiger in battle, greatly respected and feared. The Romans, with legendary strength in organization and coordination, were the lions in a lengthy series of battles against specific tribes to incrementally expand their empire.
For two centuries, the lions pushed the tigers westward to the Celtic fringe of western Europe—places like Gaul, Brittany, and the British Isles. In Patrick's time, the British Isles featured several Celtic peoples—most notably the Britons in what is now England, the Picts in what is now Scotland, and the Irish (or the Scots) in Ireland. In the two centuries following Patrick, hordes of the Irish invaded Scotland and absorbed the Picts, thus accounting for the term Scots-Irish and explaining the similarities in Scottish and Irish accents and culture to this day.
So the Romans had observed some Celtic peoples historically; indeed, Julius Caesar had even written about them. Furthermore, the Romans had heard many rumors about the Irish Celts. Why did the Romans think of the Celtic peoples, particularly the Irish, as barbarians? They reached this conclusion for at least five reasons: (1) The Romans tended to regard everyone who wasn't culturally Roman as barbarian. (2) The Romans regarded literacy as a sure and certain sign of being civilized; the Irish Celts, with a rich oral tradition, did not read and write and were not interested in doing either one. (3) The Irish were known to be "emotional" people, volatile personalities who expressed the full range of human emotions, which could get out of control. The Romans believed that emotional control was essential to being civilized. (4) In warfare "all the Celts ... stripped before battle and rushed their enemy naked, carrying sword and shield but wearing only sandals and torc—a twisted, golden neck ornament ... [while] howling and, it seemed, possessed by demons!" (Roman soldiers would have noticed that!) (5) Furthermore, the Celts were known to decapitate some conquered enemy warriors and to practice human sacrifice in some of their religious rituals. For such reasons, the Romans stereotyped the Irish Celts as barbarians, and therefore probably unreachable. Nevertheless, by Patrick's time there was some interest, especially at the papal level, in the possibility of reaching barbarians, and that is probably why Patrick's Macedonian vision found Pope Celestine's support.
Patrick's mission to Ireland was unprecedented and was widely assumed to be impossible. The Irish context of that period, however, provided strategic advantages for Patrick's mission. Ireland was populated by about 150 tuaths—extended tribes—each tribe fiercely loyal to its tribal king. Ireland's total population numbered between 200,000 and 500,000 people. 18 By Patrick's time, all of the tribes spoke the same language that Patrick had learned while a slave, and they now shared more or less the same culture, so Patrick understood them.
Indeed, the fact that Patrick understood the people and their language, their issues, and their ways serves as the most strategically significant insight that was to drive the wider expansion of Celtic Christianity and stands as perhaps our greatest single learning from this movement. There is no shortcut to understanding the people. When you understand the people, you often know what to say and do and how. When the people know that the Christians understand them, they infer that maybe Christianity's High God understands them too.
Brendan Lehane identifies other contextual factors conducive to a Christian movement in fifth-century Ireland. For perhaps one thousand years, no outside religion had penetrated Ireland, so without a tradition of suspicion, the Irish gave Christian advocates a willing hearing. Philosophically, the Irish were accustomed to paradox, which prepared them to appreciate some of Christianity's central truth claims. Their belief that Ultimate Reality is complex, and their fascination with rhetorical triads and the number three opened them to Christianity's triune God. Christianity's contrasting features of idealism and practicality engaged identical traits in the Irish character. No other religion could have engaged the Irish people's love for heroism, stories, and legends like Christianity. Some of Christianity's values and virtues essentially matched, or fulfilled, ideals in Irish piety and folklore. Irish Christianity was able to deeply affirm and fulfill the Irish love for nature and nature's creatures, and the Irish belief in the closeness of the Divine. Christianity fueled and amplified the Irish love for learning and adapted to the Irish preference for oral tradition and memorizing rather than writing and reading. Christianity's strategic approach contrasted, however, with what the Irish had observed in their primal religion. The Druids, Ireland's traditional religious leaders for centuries, had enhanced their status and power through closely guarding their secret knowledge. The people easily perceived the difference in Christianity, which was "open to all, it kept no secrets from anyone, and had as its aim the happiness of the whole population."
After years of reflection on how the Irish might be reached, Patrick moved into mission. We do not know nearly all we would like to know about his movement's approach and methods, though our discussion of the Irish context included several answers. Often, his writings tantalize us more than they inform us. Moreover, we cannot be certain how much of the Celtic Christian movement's later approach in Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe was pioneered and modeled by Patrick and how much his successors developed the approach after him. But from a handful of ancient sources, we can piece together the following outline of a typical approach, which undoubtedly varied from one time and setting to another.
Patrick's apostolic band would have included a dozen or so people, including priests, seminarians, laymen, and laywomen. Upon arrival at a tribal settlement, Patrick would engage the king and other opinion leaders, hoping for their conversion or at least their clearance to camp near the people and form into a community of faith adjacent to the tribal settlement. The apostolic (in the sense of the Greek word meaning "sent on mission") team would meet the people, engage them in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared receptive. They would pray for sick people and for possessed people, and they would counsel people and mediate conflicts. On at least one occasion, Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish. They would engage in some open-air speaking, probably employing parable, story, poetry, song, visual symbols, visual arts, and perhaps drama to engage the Celtic people's remarkable imaginations. Often, we think, Patrick would receive the people's questions and then speak to those questions collectively.
Excerpted from The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George G. Hunter III. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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