Launch of A Passion for Justice Social Ethics in the Celtic Tradition
By Dr Johnston McMaster Belfast December 4th 2008
Bishop Donal McKeown
It is an honour for me to be asked to make some remarks at the launch of this book. Firstly, the author is a distinguished theologian with a wide range of experience in Celtic theology. And secondly, my comments will pale into insignificance beside the introduction from Mrs Mary McAleese. So I feel a bit like the man who fell into a vat of Guinness and whose last prayer was, “Lord, give me a mouth worthy of this occasion!”
This is a landmark publication – and not just because it is being offered at no cost! In a wide-ranging literature analysis Johnston attempts - very successfully in my opinion – to reclaim the Celtic heritage for all the traditions on this island, and in other so called Celtic parts of these islands. He does this, not to justify some current political or ecclesial standpoint, but to seek wellsprings of nourishment for all those on this island who claim to be disciples of Jesus. As he says himself, “In every generation, we need to recover anew the God vision”. (p.197). It is clear that, on an island characterised by pluralism, secularisation, economic boom and gloom, and our post-conflict situation, old theological models and assumptions are creaking at the seams. On the Catholic side, we have a model of church and piety that was established in the early and mid 19th century, following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and based very much on a French/Italian model. That is clear not just from the theological emphases but even from what was considered to be correct Church architecture. But, as Dr Vincent Twomey suggested out a few years ago in his book The End of Irish Catholicism? , this meant that, when the imported model has begun to show the signs of age and strain, we simply do not have the links back to our earlier theological traditions on which to draw. Similarly, in what is broadly classified as the Reformed Tradition, there seems not to be much of an explicit connection with the history of Christianity on this island until perhaps the 16th century. So this book has much to offer to both our impoverished traditions if we are to regain the creativity and prophetic voice which was such a characteristic of both the OT and NT – and which can be discovered in so many parts of the first centuries of Christianity in Ireland. And helpfully, this not just a free-floating reflection on some vague perceived aspects of the Celtic world – whatever that might actually be – but rather a search that seeks to bring out the biblical nature of much of what first millennium Irish Christians believed, developed and carried abroad. This is not a mushy, vague recreation of a non existent world but a serious attempt – perhaps the first real one – to see the failings but also the richness of that tradition to which all Christians on this island are heirs. Its message is that the Celtic tradition is a threat to no-one and part of our tradition for all of us in these islands.
Secondly, this is a local book. This it does not seek just to give high flown theological ideas that might be applied anywhere – though that might be the theme for another book. Johnston seeks to mine the Celtic mindset so that we develop a prophetic and biblical voice in regard to pressing local issues such as hospitality to the stranger, forgiveness after conflict, restorative – rather than attributive, retributive, distributive, redemptive – justice (p.167), ecological issues, equality and a new wave of creativity. These were living issues then and remain so. So often – as he points out – the Celtic past has been mined to provide figures that will support the ancient and enduring myth of redemptive violence (p.185).
This is not the first book to revise how we look at our past. Publications such as Revising the Rising sought to examine, from the point of view of historians, how the past has constantly been caricatured to support some current political reality of process. However Johnston very helpfully focuses on the theological traditions here and in that prophetic way he complements another recent local publication by David Stevens by underlining how the best of the Celtic monastic tradition sought to be true to the radical biblical teaching of the both the OT prophets and Jesus. David has underlined how the NT moved beyond the typical religious assumption that a scapegoat was needed to restore the balance in societies. Johnston has similarly also made it clear how radically different the Jewish idea of Shalom was, and how Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom differed from the Pharisees’ assumption that the world was divided into the pure and the outcasts (p.173). This is local 21st theological reflection that seeks to grapple with local situations in the light of the Gospel and to direct all of us to the wellsprings where we might find not just the theory but genuine if imperfect attempts to live that vision and to walk that pilgrim way with the God who is both transcendent mystery and incarnate in our midst. (p.197)
- Published 2003 by Veritas, Dublin
- Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha and Theo Dorgan, Revising the Rising, 1991, Derry Field Day
- David Stevens, The Place called reconciliation. Texts to explore, 2008, Belfast, The Corrymeela Press