For a star to form, there is one thing that must happen; a gaseous nebula must collapse. So collapse. Crumble. This is not your destruction, it’s your rebirth.
– Jonni Parsons
Christianity is declining in most of Western culture, perhaps even collapsing. The West has been deeply shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition and its loss comes with risks. Yes, the current forms, institutions, and expressions of Christianity must die off – they’re flawed, outdated, even abusive. Yet there’s a core wisdom that merits being kept and reengaged. Much of what’s best, most humane, most dignified about the West has its origins in aspects of the Christian tradition.
The current decline has been unfolding for at least the last 200 years. The roots of humanist, secular, and even naturalist thought were nourished in Christian soil. The vision of an ordered universe, the emphasis, even it times only slight, on a reasoned theology that sought to understand the world and humanity, the assertion of human dignity and the core concept of love of neighbor – these and related concepts eventually give rise to notions of pluralism, diversity, tolerance, free inquiry, and so forth.
Upon careful observation, the current decline is the result of the ongoing, natural pull toward secularism and humanism unleashed by the better aspects of the tradition itself. What’s declining are institutional, denominational, dogmatic, and supernatural expressions of the now recognized untenable assertions of the tradition.
Can Christianity be salvaged? Can something meaningful be pulled from the wreckage? Perhaps, but it will require a revisioning of Christian theology and practice along naturalist and humanist lines. While I support the continuation of the basic Christian moral vision, I hold out little if any hope for Christianity overall.
The West needs to deeply examine its history and traditions for spiritual ideas that can then be reintroduced through the lens of evidential reasoning and aligned with the best of human knowledge. The result of such a project appears to be a form of nature-based humanism that is intellectually rigorous and reasonable and whose practice is organic, simple, and authentic. Most ethnic and regional Western cultures have traces and inspirations of pre-Christian, indigenous spirituality rooted in nature. For me, forms of such spirituality flavored by Celtic experience and culture are highly appealing.
By evidential reasoning I mean a manner of thinking and analyzing that asks for evidence and rational justification for theological claims made, akin to the reasoning that underlies scientific method, without lapsing into scientism. It owes much to soft methodological naturalism. It requires applying the best of human knowledge – science, social science, historical scholarship, anthropology, cultural studies, neuroscience, and psychology to theology and the Christian tradition.
By Celtic spirituality, I mean a way of Christian practice inspired by traditional forms of Christianity of the Irish, Scottish, English, and Welsh peoples, one that is strongly nature-based, sacramental, simple, humble, and grounded in smaller, noninstitutional, intimate communities.
My hope here is to develop the outline of a spirituality that is acceptable to the contemporary, educated, postmodern mindset, one that might appeal to those wanting to move beyond unjustifiable theologies, stale expressions and limiting denominational and institutional boundaries, yet one that is authentically capable of transforming those who engage it.
What needs to emerge is a non-institutional, horizontal, intellectually credible form of spiritual practice and thinking that focuses on nature and questions of human meaning, but puts aside supernatural assumptions. Such is the natural spiritual expression of the personalism, humanism, and liberalism of the West.
Obviously, I’m not the first to propose such an approach. We swim through ongoing conversations and writings which provide intellectual context and shape our thinking. The ideas presented here have been gleaned from many authors and sources. This broad project has been engaged in various ways by thinkers such as Loyal Rue, Jerome Stone, Donald A. Crosby, Starhawk, Bill Plotkin, Thomas Berry, Glendys Livingstone, Joanna Macy, Jason Kirke, , Charles Taylor, and Don Cuppit to mention but a few.
My own spiritual history has been varied. I’ve benefited from the love and insights of different traditions and communities. But I feel the time has come to return to my cultural, intellectual, and spiritual roots which are Irish and Western. But what I’m returning to can’t be earlier forms or understandings of Christianity or supernatural spirituality, since those are untenable, spent and dying.
New, reasoned forms of Western spirituality must be dreamed. This is my own, particular understanding and expression of such. My ideas continue to develop and change; they remain in flux, but they have coalesced sufficiently to share with others.
I seek to present my ideas clearly, simply, but above all, briefly. Conciseness is often at the cost of thoroughness. Obviously, any of the topics briefly discussed in these essays merit book length works, if not more. Above all, I hope to offer my insights in ways that are humble and inviting, while remaining open to dialog, challenge, and disagreement, welcoming a valid diversity of approaches.
Some will find my ideas misguided, flawed, and even dangerous. Others may find in these essays ways to create a meaningful spiritual practice in our contemporary world. Some may find their reactions mixed. I welcome comments, questions, and criticism, my email is below.
This is not a purely academic or intellectual venture. Myself and a few others are exploring a home-based, non-affiliated, diverse, spiritual community we’re currently calling Nourish, here in the Grand Rapids-West Michigan area. People would meet to socialize, share meals, discuss ideas and books, and celebrate holidays. Nourish is not a church nor affiliated with any tradition. It’s an attempt at organic, local, authentic spiritual community.
Also, this site isn’t a blog. While I will continue to refine my thoughts here, I’m not going to engage in daily or weekly posting. From time to time, I may post a new essay. I also have a section of resources – links to others’ essays and a reading list with recommended books. Additionally, there’s a section with information on Nourish.
Spirituality isn’t limited by place, culture, or ethnicity. However, the seeds and inspiration for my project took root in the early 1990s during the four years I was living and studying in Ireland. My predominant heritage is Irish. Irish culture and spirituality traditionally have strong and deep nature-based tendencies – a mystical love of the land, a closeness to nature’s rhythms, and a poetic sense of the passing of the seasons, a strong sacramental nature, and a deep, abiding sense of human dignity and the need for real community. The photography and symbols used on the site are therefore all Irish.