This post is the most recent post in a series I am doing on my friends (and family!) who are doing cool things I want you to know about. You can read two other posts in this series here and here. In this post, I interview my friend, Justin Coutts. Justin blogs about and does online virtual groups pertaining to Celtic Christianity and spirituality.
And by the way, his online group is interfaith. Both his blog and group are hospitable to people who belong to the Christian faith or to people who are just curious about religion and spirituality.
I have enjoyed Justin’s work over the past few years. And I have greatly enjoyed learning more about Celtic spirituality, a spirituality which has many affinities with my own spiritual practice (Quaker Christian).
So, I thought you would enjoy learning about his work, too. Here is the interview.
Photo by Mitch Hodge, courtesy of Unsplash
S (Shelly): Tell us a little bit about the work you do.
J (Justin): I run New Eden ministry, which is an entirely online community. I have enjoyed experimenting with the online model and find that it has both advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage is that the community connects with people across the world, which is good for a bunch of reasons. And the things we are interested in talking about in the group are not very common.
I live in Manitoulin island, in Canada, in the middle of nowhere. No one really knows about the thinkers I like, like Eriugena. Most of the folks in the community don’t have people to talk about these things, too. So, we can form a community of like-minded people that would be impossible in real life. That’s the advantage.
Another advantage is that the group is accessible to people. A lot of people are not able to attend an in-person church for different reasons. So, they can attend this online group instead.
The disadvantage is that we don’t get to hug or share a meal with people. Also, all of us in the group believe we need both action and contemplation. But we don’t have an in-person community because we are dispersed. So, we can’t do the kind of community engagement important to all of us.
S (Shelly): Who are the thinkers that are important to you and what drew you to them?
The big ones are Eriugena, Pelagius, and a book called The Cloud of Unknowing.
I like to read authors in the Celtic tradition. For a long time, I felt a call to discover Celtic Christianity but had problems doing so. I have read some modern authors on the topic , but it’s these ancient thinkers really speak to me.
(Shelly’s note to readers: Pelagius gets a bad rap in some circles, so I asked Justin to write a bit about common misunderstandings about Pelagius. You can read more about this at the end of this post.)
S: I know Celtic expressions of Christianity are very important to you. What speaks to you about that tradition?
J: I think Celtic Christianity has a lot to offer. Even thought it is ancient, it addresses a lot of modern concerns. For one thing, it has a positive view of human nature. This is how the ancient church was—they stressed that we are all made in the image of God.
But now we have ended up with this idea that we are a pile of rubbish. Celtic Christianity was largely isolated from most of the Roman empire. So, it was isolated from this idea, which took root in the church that developed after the fall of Rome.
Photo by Dimitry Anikin, courtesy of Unsplash
The Celtic Church Grows
The Celtic Church grew up in the regions of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, which was not influenced as much by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did reach Britain. But after Rome fell, it withdrew, and Roman influence declined in Britain. And the Roman Empire also never got to Ireland. In Britain, it only made it as far as Hadrian’s Wall.
A Distinct Culture
So, in areas less influenced by the Roman empire, Celtic Christianity developed a distinct culture from the church in the rest of the west. Celtic Christianity had a much more Eastern Christian influence. Augustine, and his particular view of original sin, did not influence Celtic Christianity as much as he did the rest of the church.
Celtic Christianity died out and is being reborn in a certain sense. It is under a process of reconstruction. That’s a lot of the work I do. There are a lot of primary sources from Celtic Christianity, and so we know what they were up to.
S: What is the importance of nature in Celtic Christianity and the work you are doing online?
J: One of the things Celtic Christianity kept from its indigenous roots was a deep love and respect for nature. Often in the Celtic texts we see poetry which describes the melding of the individual with the natural world. Creation was understood as a beautiful expression of God. Eriugena famously named creation as the first manifestation of the Word of God.
He said that if we want to know God we must read the written scriptures alongside the scriptures of the created world. Creation was understood to be the first bible. Here’s another link specifically about that.
S: I know you have a blog and you also do virtual meditation and discussion groups. Tell me a little about that work.
J: We do meditation meetings twice a week. It is open to the public and free of charge. We have a time of silence, and then we discuss selection from mystics selected by a team. Our meetings are on Monday (4:15 pm EST) and Saturdays (12 noon EST).
We also do virtual retreats. The one we have set up right now is Sacred Spaces, and it is a general introduction to Celtic Christianity. We discussion a lot of nature spirituality and talked about Pelagius Eriugena, and the Cloud of Unknowing.
Ancient Authors and Celtic Christianity
We also discuss apophatic theology, which is a theology promoted by mystical philosophers like Dionysius, Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, and the Cloud of Unknowing.
There are two kinds of theology. Cataphatic theology is that which says things about God—like God is love. Apophatic theology is not saying things about God. For instance, someone might say that the truer thing about God is that God is not love.
In saying this, the person isn’t claiming that God is hate. Rather, the apophatic theologians suggest that God is beyond what we can say about him.
Photo by DDP, courtesy of Unsplash
S: Apophatic theology sounds mystical, and I know that mysticism is important in your work. Could you define mysticism?
J: Mysticism more of a modern term. A lot of the sources I read would call it contemplation or the contemplative life. Contemplation quiets our mind and focuses it on God or what is going on in our soul. We need contemplation in the modern world.
A lot of ancient Christians combined their mystical experiences with a lot of superstition. When the enlightenment and scientific and industrial revolution happened, we unfortunately got rid of mysticism along with superstition.
But we need to recover mystical or contemplative experiences. Science gives us knowledge, but mysticism gives us wisdom.
(Shelly note to readers: You can read more about contemplation and contemplative practices here.)
S: You do a lot with online spiritual spaces. Could you say a little more about the importance of these online spaces in the contemporary world?
J: Well, the internet is here. People often compare it to the Protestant Reformation, which happened (for good or ill) because of the printing press.
The internet is our printing press. The Protestant Reformation, which embraced the printing press, took off and was magnificently successful. We need to see the internet and social media as a catalyst for massive social change. We need to bless that space and make it sacred.
S: How has the work you do helped you personally?
J: The virtual chapel has become a community. It’s amazing. I didn’t 100% know what I was doing when I started it and sort of fumbled by way through it.
It was amazing to give people a space to share and then to see how much we had in common. We are all hungry for this type of discussion and community.
Photo by Svetalana Sinitz, courtesy of Unsplash
S: What are some books on Celtic Christianity, the spiritual life, or any related topic you would recommend to people?
J: Here are some of the books I recommend:
B.R. Rees—Pelagius, Life and Letters
Oliver Davies—Celtic Spirituality
Thomas Merton—Spiritual Direction and Meditation
John Phillip Newell—The Book of Creation
John O’Donohue—Anam Cara
Catherine Thom—Early Irish Monasticism
Julian of Norwich—The Revelation of Divine Love
Theresa of Avila—The Interior Castle
Kayleen Asbo’s website.
Photo by Dennis Kummer, courtesy of Unsplash
For further study:
One: You can read more about Justin and his work here.
Two: You can read here for more information about the online meetings Justin runs:
Three: You can read more here about Justin virtual retreats.
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 Justin’s essay about Pelagius: Pelagius’ name has been tarnished for a long time. At first it was the Roman Catholics, at the time of Augustine, who condemned him. Today it is some Protestant circles that condemn Pelagius.
His declaration as a heretic was not theologically sound and, in my own personal opinion, had more to do with the attempt to fully wed the church and the state – a process to which Pelagius was a serious threat. Augustine’s version of Christianity was Christendom. It was involved in the world and part of the empire.
One of Augustine’s lasting contributions to Christendom, for instance, is the just war doctrine. This doctrine is essential to wedding church and state and is contrary to the ways of the early Christians.
Pelagius taught a way of life that was semi-monastic (almost like Franciscan friars living in the world). It was very different from life within the Roman empire, especially in any kind of political or economic office.
The Pelagians taught that women were equal. They advocated for a socialist society where there are no rich and no poor. And they emphasized the goodness of human nature, the image of God, in all people including those who aren’t Christian. This was not acceptable teaching in Rome at the time.
Pelagius the Biblical Literalist
Many Christians today take up Pelagian views and simply don’t realize it. That’s because Pelagius’ teachings have been very poorly understood and misrepresented throughout the centuries. People often say no writings of his survive but they certainly do. They are beautiful and compelling biblical interpretations. He was actually a biblical literalist in many ways.
He is not heretical at all if read in light of the eastern church fathers, and he lived in a time before the split between east and west anyway. The things that he and Augustine argued about were new theological ideas Augustine himself had innovated. Pelagius was talking about a way of life and how to live up to our full potential. Augustine was talking about the nature of time and predestination. They were on different pages.
Three Important Doctrines
The main points of contention between them were original sin, free will, and the role of grace in salvation. These three ideas are inseparable from one another even though they talk about different things. Pelagius believed in original goodness and that the image of God in which we are created is indestructible.
This means that every person has an infinite well of goodness inside them upon which they can draw at any time by use of their free will and the development of their inner senses. Augustine took this to mean that we can be saved by our own effort without the help of God, which wasn’t Pelagius’ view. Augustine’s view was that our salvation is a matter of predestination and that a version of grace which is outside of us is the only thing that can save us. For Pelagius, God’s grace is within and it is who we are.
Grace is God’s Image We Bear
Pelagius never said that we don’t need God. What he said is that the gift of God’s grace is the image which we bear. Our free will itself is a gift from God and we are equipped with everything we need to live holy lives and change the world – all we have to do is overcome the negative pressures of society and our own bad habits and we will be good holy people by default.
As Pelagius wisely points out: if Jesus didn’t think we could live like this then why would he preach the sermon on the mount? Pelagius said we have the gifts of free will and reason and we have the divine teaching of Christ. What we need to do now is use our God given talents to implement the sermon on the mount and live in a radical new way.
Here are a few articles for further reading:
A general introduction (includes a video and is an ad for my virtual retreat)
The role of social conditioning in individual sin
His mysticism of the inner light (and Eriugena’s metaphysics)