In describing the revival of Celtic spirituality within the modern Church, Tom Cashman uses the metaphor of a child with an absent parent. The child has been raised only by a father, the Catholic Church as originated in Rome, and is now “encountering the Mother we have not known.” His imagery is appropriate: the Celtic spirituality that we’ve been missing is indeed a mother, a female figure, for the Celts valued women both in society and the Church in ways that greatly differ from the mainstream tradition. The treatment of women in the Celtic Church greatly contrasts with that of the Church in America today, a difference that can be traced to the theological conflict between Pelagius and Augustine.
One of the clearest ways in which women are viewed differently in the historic Celtic and contemporary churches is the vastly different views and acceptance of women’s leadership roles. Today, many churches prohibit the ordination of women and even prohibit their leadership in lay positions over males of a certain age. In a 2009 study, 26% of churches exclude women in volunteer leadership positions; 13% do not allow women to teach a class of adult men. Even in churches that profess equal rights and have no rules barring women’s ordination, pastorship it is still a male-dominated field. Some pastors in my home church refer to the common phenomenon as “attractive white male syndrome”. They want to hire women, but even when they do, the women realize what a minority they are and leave, underwhelmed with the space allotted female voices or overwhelmed with the disrespect.
In both the Celtic community and the Celtic Church, on the other hand, women were treated as equals. Women were not restrained in the tasks they could perform, being allowed to follow God’s calling just as a man would. Many women even served as warriors, a privilege denied females in many societies. Cashman notes that they “went on missions, were educated and involved in academic and legal worlds.” Women were granted the same titles as their male counterparts, including the title of abbess of monastic communities and sainthood, such as Hilda and Ita. A woman’s value came not through her ability to act and think as a man does, but inherently as a woman. As Cashman states, the “feminine process of intuition was honored” in the right-brained culture of the Celts. The gifts were acknowledged as different from men’s, and were viewed as a necessary and vital voice within the church and for the world.
Today’s Church would be wise to learn from our Celtic ancestors in the area of women in leadership roles. Women may approach relationships and the world with a lens that is different from that of a man, but no less valuable (whether that lens is socially constructed or biologically inherent is irrelevant; it’s there). We bring a skill set of communication and connection for which men are less trained in today’s society. Arguably, such skills are an essential asset in the church because, as George Hunter notes, “most people experience the faith through relationships.” By keeping them out of leadership, women are getting the message that their skills and voice are worth less than a man’s, that their being is worth less than a man’s. In America, where less than five percent of churchgoers in 2009 attended a congregation led by a woman, where are women being empowered to do God’s work? We must uphold women within the Church so that they may effect the world within and without the Church, and uphold them as women, not merely as females encouraged to function as males. The starting point includes not only the ordination of women and encouragement of women to publicly lead, but also through including women in the church’s memory. We hear much of Peter, Paul, and Patrick, but rarely remember Ita, Ia, and Hilda. It is important for the church to remember the mothers who helped form our identity, and for young women to gain strength from such memory.
Why such a vast discrepancy concerning the treatment of women between these two churches? Much of the theology that placed women as lower beings than men goes back to the theological conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, reflecting the opposition of Roman and Celtic theologies.
Augustine believed that the soul was the most important aspect of a person; the body was secondary, merely something in which the soul is confined for this life, an abhorred prison. Far from helping others experience faith through relationships, faith was set-up primarily as a logic problem to be solved through confession and baptism. The worldview that condemns bodies also condemned women, as they were the ones whose work was devoted to the daily tasks of bodily sustenance: food preparation, household chores, child birthing and rearing. Women’s lives were enmeshed with bodyliness, and therefore, by this theology, women’s souls are trapped in the lower realm of the senses as well.
The doctrine of original sin contributed to misogyny. Augustine believed that original sin was inherited at conception, because, as Newell summarizes, sex is “associated with lustful desire.” When desire is enough to damn an unbaptized soul, certainly the figures who provoke such lustful desire in a theologian are viewed with suspicion at best. In collapsing a simplified view of Augustine’s argument for original sin (a woman’s beauty leads to lustful desire, which leads to sex and conception, which leads to original sin), we could state that women are indirectly responsible for original sin.
Perhaps as a result of his suspicion of the female form’s power, Augustine believed teaching women to be entirely unacceptable. However, the way to salvation is entirely rooted in orthodoxy, the emphasis of importance on right beliefs. Women become trapped in their condemnation: their lives revolve around the nurturing and sustenance of bodies, and the education that could free their souls from consumption of the senses is denied them on the basis of their sex.
Augustine believed in predestination as the only correct doctrine. Cashman summarizes: “God, arbitrarily, through His grace has selected the elect (and therefore the condemned).” Augustine’s theology not only excludes, but ultimately condemns women. We still see this doctrine played out today in some of the largest churches in America. For example, Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, states that his target demographic is young men: “I want to see young guys meet Jesus.” Women in such a church are discouraged from working outside their home, as they exist largely to manage household and child-rearing to help support their men. Denied the education and roles that could free them of the physical aspects of the world, they are confined to it, and thus condemned to eternal hell. Meanwhile, the men are both allowed to learn and have time to do so (since the home efforts are taken care of by their supportive women), and have a chance at salvation.
On the other hand there is Pelagius, who believed that the body is an important part of being human. His emphasis was on orthopraxy, the choosing of right actions as the most important aspect of Christian living. This understanding brings God into the senses, the tasks of daily living that nurture bodies, including the otherwise mundane aspects of life. The Celts saw “God in the ordinary and everyday instead of exclusively in the Church.” Women were not only included by such a theology, but became a central player within it. As managers of the home and those who raise children, it was women who introduced spirituality into the home and thus into many aspects of a child’s formation. Because they were “listening within all things for the life of God,” they found such life in all things. One example is the nightly prayer for the smooring of the fire. The fire was central to the home: it provided heat and was used in the preparation of food. This is the quintessential place of tending to the needs of the body, the perfect symbol of sensual, embodied living. It was here that the woman of the house would recite the evening prayer as she smoored the fire. It is the woman who recognizes God’s presence and invokes Her protection in this place of embodiment.
It is little surprise, then, that Pelagius did not object to teaching women, and in fact regularly taught them himself. Newell quotes Pelagius as stating, “there is no creature on earth in whom God is absent,” and he clearly meant all creatures, not merely the male forms. Through Pelagius we see the Celtic faith’s support and encouragement of women: they are supported in the work of attending to nurturing the body, and are encouraged beyond such work into the realm of the mind, of understanding and education. Whereas Augustine doubly condemned women, Pelagius doubly desires their involvement with the God of All. Pelagius began to receive explicit criticism for this practice of teaching women, and also for his denial of original sin as sound doctrine.
The doctrine of original sin appalled Pelagius, who had a positive view of sex and sexuality. He was convinced that the newborn child carried the image of God, and that “creation is essentially good and that the sexual dimension of life is God-given.” Again, the Celtic theology within Pelagius leaves no room for misogyny. If women are viewed differently at all, it is with more respect, as they are the carriers, deliverers, and nurturers of the imago Dei within their children.
Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was also upsetting to Pelagius, who believed “the work of the Holy Spirit supports all who seek righteousness.” Although God, in Her omniscience, may know ahead of time what an individual will choose to do with his life and where he will end up in the afterlife, Pelagius did not hold that God would determine such fate for us in advance, as predestinarianism argues. Here again we see the open and inviting God of Pelagius, not only welcoming but actively working and supporting those who seek a life of righteousness.
“Pelagius understood that God loved mankind and acknowledged God’s continuing work of grace in every holy life.”
Rather than Augustine’s God who lords over humanity in judgment, Pelagius’ God is working for us and with us. Pelagius worked to set free or release the imago Dei that humans carry within, and “was concerned that Augustine’s emphasis on human depravity leads to a loss of confidence in what we most essentially are.” His fears were well founded, for that is what we see in the Church today. Many congregations are driven by guilt, condemnation, and concerns over who’s in and who’s out. We often worship doctrine more than we worship the living God.
It is hard to say whether each theologian’s pre-existing cultural view of women influenced his theology, or if his theology influenced his view and treatment of women. What is clear is the heavy influence of Augustine on today’s Church and culture. Women are often treated with the same suspicion and exclusion as was originally set up by his theology. In many communities, the theology not only excludes but actively damages women, telling them they are inferior and sinful for the lust they provoke. The Church would be wise to turn toward our forgotten Mother, found in Celtic spirituality, and listen to her love and wisdom.
This piece was originally written as an assignment for Celtic Spirituality with Tom Cashman, writing on what today’s church could learn from the Celtic church.