John Philip Newell, who runs a spiritual community in Iona, Scotland, has become well known for what is called Celtic Christianity. Although the use of this term is not necessarily consistent, it usually conforms to a mystical esoteric type of Christianity. Whatever label may be used, this book reveals a strong conflict between Newell’s spiritualty and the historic, biblical faith of Christianity.
Newell fears that what he calls Western Christianity is collapsing. Therefore, he is calling on Christians to be aware of what is trying to be born and to a radical re-orientation of our vision (from the back of the book, The Rebirthing of God (2015, Third Printing, John Philip Newell). Reading this book was like being in an echo chamber because so much of what Newell expresses mirrors the teachings of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Newell offers several proposals for this re-orientation of vision and devotes a chapter to each area. These ideas often overlap each other and so are not tidily or easily summarized. Quotes from the book are in italics.
The view that initially strikes the reader is Panentheism, a belief that God is in creation as part of creation, and that creation is part of God.
Newell quotes mystic Julian of Norwich’s assertion that we are not just made by God, we are made of God (Introduction, 1X). Newel’s view that we are made of God leads him to assert that there is a radical reemergence of the Divine from deep within us (Introduction, X).
Panentheism is inherent in Perennial Wisdom, as demonstrated in this statement:
The Real Presence is not confined to one particular religious tradition….. [snip]….It is present everywhere and it
is everywhere that we are to bow to the Presence with total attention (113).
The Presence (a Perennial term for God; more on this further down) is to be found in the earth, in our bodies, and in the body of our communities and nations (111). God is
inseparably woven into the fabric of our being into the very matter of the universe (112).
Because of his Panentheism, Newell believes we must re-establish a connection with the earth. He refers to the Divine Feminine and the heartbeat of God in all things (2-7). Everyone needs to be part of the dance of the cosmos (this is reminiscent of Richard Rohr’s discussions of a cosmic dance). Jesus affirmed this dance to his disciples, according to a source Newell gives, The Apocryphal New Testament (7). Newell again brings up this dance later in the book (73).
Citing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) several times, as well as radical ecologist-theologian Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a student of Teilhard de Chardin, Newell claims the oneness of the universe is the marriage of matter and spirit (exactly what Rohr teaches) and calls on Christians to heal the earth (8-13). These ideas are repeated throughout the book.
It is worth noting that Richard Rohr’s concept of the Universal Christ is based on Teilhard de Chardin’s Cosmic Christ, and Rohr does not hide the fact of Teilhard De Chardin’s influence on him.
Another theme of the book is what Newell calls the Light. He never defines it but partly quotes John 1:9, the Light that enlightens every person coming into the world (29). The Gospel of John is speaking of Christ as the Light, but Newell writes of this Light as a mystical force at the heart of all life (29). Referring to who he calls a Celtic prophet, John Scotus Eriugena (33), Newell asserts that God is the Light that flows through all things (Richard Rohr also refers to Eriugena).
In fact, Newell even calls this Light a theophany, which is a visible appearance of God (34). Newell repeats the idea several times and states that everything bears the name of God (49). Similarly, Rohr claims that Christ is another name for everything (there is a podcast with this title, and this phrase can be found in numerous places, including Rohr’s blog at cac.org).
Quoting someone named Mary Oliver, Newell writes that God’s body is everywhere and everything (34). Rohr has stated that the universe is the body of Christ.
George MacLeod, founder of the modern Iona community, believed that within the mundane is the Divine, according to Newell (36). It has been wrong to separate spirit and matter, asserts Newell (40). These views are consistent with Panentheism.
The Light, claims Newell, is untameable and unnameable and this Light will be infinitely unfolding into forms that we know nothing of yet (40-41). This raises the question that if the Light is indeed unnamable, then how do we know anything about its properties? How does Newell know it will take forms we know nothing of?
If this Light will be taking other forms, that means it changes. Therefore, this Light has nothing to do with God because there is no change in God. The true God does not take forms nor is the true God part of creation.
God is Creator of the universe and therefore cannot be part of it. Moreover, the Bible is clear that creation was corrupted by sin (Genesis 3. Romans 8), so how could a righteous God be part of fallen creation?
Biblical passages used by others (Newell does not argue for Panentheism nor does he use the term) to support Panentheism are taken out of context or the language is misunderstood. Responses to these passages are addressed in other CANA articles (see articles on Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts and on Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ).
Newell quotes Hindu and Islamic sources, refers to Druidic ideas as pre-Christian wisdom and to the wisdom tradition, and states that the world’s religions are not to compete with each other but to complete each other (43), all of which indicate that Newell, like Rohr, is a Perennialist.
The Perennial philosophy, or Perennial Wisdom, is the belief that all religions are true and share the same source and God. Each religion offers different but equal truths to its followers. The realization of the unity of all faiths is discovered via a personal inner journey using mystical contemplative techniques.
Newell bemoans the fact that Christianity has not sought wisdom from other religions and has become hard and has ossified its dogmas (47, 48). In another chapter, Newell approvingly refers to non-Christian Perennial Wisdom proponent Ken Wilber (98), who has also influenced Richard Rohr.
Newell’s use of the word dogmas indicates a misunderstanding of both that word and of Christianity. “Dogma” simply refers to a doctrine based on divine revelation, but the word is used as a pejorative to paint Christianity as rigid and judgmental.
Is Christianity Ossified?
As for the charges of being ossified, this idea ignores or rejects the fact that God is unchanging. To someone like Newell, the orthodox historic beliefs of Christianity appear inflexible because truth is absolute and truth is based on God; God is truth. But for Newell and those who follow a mystical Source or Presence as God, an absolute God with absolute truths is denied or not acknowledged.
In contrast to Newell’s views, God is presented metaphorically as a Rock in the Old Testament (see the Psalms; Isaiah 26:4, 30:29) and God refers to himself as a Rock in Isaiah 44:8. A rock is enduring and solid and does not move, an image fit for an unmovable God.
Jesus is referred to as the stone which the builders rejected but has become the chief cornerstone (Psalm 118:22); this is cited in Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10, 11; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; and 1 Peter 2:7. In First Corinthians 10:4, we are told that the rock Moses and the Hebrews drank water from in the wilderness (Numbers 20:11; Psalms 78:15, 105:41; Nehemiah 9:15) was figuratively Christ. Truth is absolute and unyielding; Jesus is a Rock who cannot be moved and in whom we can rest.
Truth is unchanging. If truth changes and it is all about flowing, yielding, and taking forms, then where is the truth on which anything is based? If it is all subjective, then we are at sea in an ever-swirling panorama of ideas and experiences with no firm ground on which to stand. This is the spirituality that Newell offers.
When Newell quotes Scripture, he takes it out of context. Since he holds to inner experiences over God’s revelation, he cannot use the Bible as his authority because it goes against what he teaches. By quoting the Bible, however, he gives the appearance of being Christian, thus confusing those in and outside the church about what Christianity is.
Jesus Not a Christian
Newell writes that Jesus was not a Christian, nor did he start a religion (52). This is a straw man fallacy. To be a Christian is to have faith in Christ and be forgiven of sins. Jesus could not have faith in himself nor did he have any sins to be forgiven. So, the issue is not whether Jesus was a Christian, but what a Christian is according to the Bible and the historic faith.
Did Jesus found a religion? Technically, yes. He started the church (Matthew 16: 18) and he is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22, 5:23; Colossians 1:18). There is nothing wrong with Christianity being a religion (see James 1:27), but it is the only religion started by God, and not by men. Israel was created and sustained by God, just as the church was and is.
The Diamond Essence
Followers of Perennial Wisdom like Newell strongly advocate contemplative practices based on Eastern spiritual methods that teach suspending thought (not using the mind), repetition of word or words, and Lectio Divina, an esoteric way of reading Scripture.
Referring to Thomas Merton, Newell claims that contemplation is about seeking the experience of Presence (61, 62). The word Presence is often used of God by Perennial followers. Newell advocates finding our diamond essence (64). This idea was the basis for Richard Rohr’s book, Immortal Diamond.
This diamond self or essence is our truest identity, according to Newell (65). It is a Center which we reach through Contemplative Prayer by which we experience Presence and can then arrive at the Truth and our diamond essence (67). Contemplative Prayer is often not using words or thoughts, according to Merton, Newell writes. Newell asserts that the essence is not the small self but is the Great Self, into whose depths we can let go to find the strength that will bear all things (116).
To know God is to know our essence. And to know our essence is to know God. (67)
These are also the teachings of David G. Benner and Richard Rohr who call this essence the True Self. Newell states that Merton got this from Augustine who wrote May I know You, may I know myself. But Merton and Newell are taking Augustine out of context. In the next sentence of this prayer, Augustine writes:
And desire nothing save only Thee. Let me hate myself and love Thee. Let me do everything for the sake of Thee.
Let me humble myself and exalt Thee. Let me think of nothing except Thee. Let me die to myself and live
in Thee. (From https://aleteia.org/2018/09/16/let-me-know-myself-a-beautiful-prayer-written-by-st-augustine/)
The context for Augustine is that knowing oneself in the light of God leads to the realization that one is a sinner, in contrast to God who is righteous and good.
Newell writes about Merton’s view that if we could see that everyone has this diamond essence, our problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other (69, 70). Newell is on board with this view.
Carl Jung and the Many as One
The rebirthing process requires a reconnection with the unconscious, avers Newell. Alluding to legends about an Irish saint, St. Brigid, Newell writes that she combined the pre-Christian wisdom of her Druid priest father with Christianity. Newell approves of this and claims that that Celtic Christianity was nurtured on the nature mysticism of pre-Christian beliefs (90).
People seek Brigid’s blessings at twilight, because that is a liminal realm between worlds when there could be an encounter with messengers from the invisible realms from the universe that are linked inextricably to our realm (90, 91). Newell does not specify who these messengers might be.
Newell applies these thoughts to Carl Jung’s belief that we need to access the depths of the unconscious through dreams, intuition and imagination (91). Everything for Jung was a manifestation of the One, according to Newell, but we neglect the view of polarity, that opposites are complements of each other. (As a former professional astrologer, this writer is familiar with this view of polarity which is a part of contemporary astrology due to the influence of Jung).
Christianity takes masculine over feminine, day overnight, the mind over intuition, bemoans Newell. This claim is a straw man, but it is typical criticism from mystics like Newell and Rohr. Rohr, himself a fan and follower of Carl Jung’s ideas, repeatedly talks about Western Christianity being too rational, intellectual, and neglectful of the Divine Feminine.
However, the Bible supports the use of reason and the rational mind: Psalm 16:7; Proverbs 1:2-5, 18:15, 22:17; Isaiah 1:18; Matthew 22:37; Acts 17:17, 18:4, 19; Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 14:15, 16; and Philippians 4:8. The Bible is in words, and language is based on logic and reason, all of which are rooted in God’s character. God is not a God of chaos or confusion but of order and peace (1 Corinthians 14:33).
Moreover, to criticize reason or logic, one must use reason and logic to do so.
Newell completely massacres the meanings of Isaiah 11:6 and Matthew 8:11 by using these verses to support the idea that we need to embrace opposites as part of the one. Newell does not use the term polarity but this is what he is promoting. He writes that to be born of the Spirit
is to remember our oneness with each other, with the earth, and with those who seem most different from us (94).
Newell misuses the longing for redemption in Romans 8:22 as a supposed affirmation of a cosmic yearning to live in oneness (109).
Although Newell is not New Age, his Perennial beliefs have given him a New Age outlook on this topic. Perennial beliefs, which are rooted in mysticism, are compatible with some New Age beliefs. However, a strong distinction between the two remains and should be recognized.
Newell also discusses the Jungian shadow, usually called the shadow self or shadow side (another topic of Rohr’s) (95-98).
The Divine Feminine
The Divine Feminine, a figure in New Age and progressive spiritualities, is often called the feminine aspect of God. However, God does not have an aspect; God is one and is not divided into parts or aspects. He has (or rather is) many attributes, but these are present equally all the time in God. Some use the term Sophia for God, a Greek word for wisdom found in Proverbs. But Sophia is a personification of wisdom, and in the New Testament, we are told that Jesus is the wisdom (Sophia) of God (1 Corinthians 1:24).
The Greek word Sophia is feminine but many languages, such as the Romance languages, German, Greek, and others have masculine and feminine grammatical gender, and some even have neuter. These classifications have nothing to do with men or women. These grammatical genders have no relevance to whether something has masculine or feminine traits.
Passages in scripture about God portraying what are seen as female traits merely demonstrate that God is the ideal in anything viewed as masculine or feminine. God having what are called maternal traits, for example, only shows that what is considered to be maternal is based on God’s character. One cannot say God is feminine because one thinks of maternal as feminine. Rather, it is that what are seen as maternal traits are based on something in God’s character, and God is spirit and without gender (although he is clear we are to think of him in male terms).
The Divine Feminine easily turns into the concept of a goddess. This has been the case in the New Age, in Neo-paganism, and in some areas of Progressive Christianity. There is no scriptural support for the concept of a divine feminine aspect of or female counterpart of God.
Two Major Errors
If one is seeking to know what true Christianity is, or who God is as revealed in his word, it will not be found in this book. Indeed, what one finds are teachings opposed to the faith. Two of the most egregious are these.
The first one is that Newell asserts that Christians who believe what is deepest in us is opposed to God (the sinful nature) are wrong, and that in reality what is deepest in us is of God (100). This is contrary to one of the chief messages of the Bible, that man is separated from God by sin and needs reconciliation with God. There are so many passages on this that it would be impossible to list them. But since Newell as a Perennialist does not see the Bible as authoritative, he has dismissed this major theme of the scriptures.
Secondly, Newell agrees with a rabbi in the book that Judaism does not have doctrine; it has a story (100). Ironically, that statement is a doctrine! While the Old Testament has a narrative, it also offers doctrine in the laws given to Israel by God through Moses, judgments exercised by God, and warnings from the prophets against the worship of false gods. Judgments and warnings are maybe not technically doctrine, but they are based on laws and commandments from God.
The last chapter ends on a theme about love. We are to believe with Jesus in the way of love (116).
But Jesus did not believe in the way of love because Jesus does not believe in anything. He has no need for beliefs because he knows everything. To believe or have faith in something or someone requires placing trust in that thing, idea, or person. There is no one for Jesus to trust since he is the God-man. Jesus would be putting an idea above himself in order to trust it, and there cannot be anything above Jesus (or God the Father or the Holy Spirit).
Newell’s words about love are empty because he does not believe in the true God but in the Perennial Presence. The true God is the standard for love (1 John 3:1, 23; 4:10), and this love is known because God manifested His love for humanity through Christ (1 John 4:9).
This love is not what Newell discusses because Newell believes in a false god who is in every person as the Great Self. To understand that God is love requires one to know who this God of love is.
God sent Christ as the Savior (Matthew 1:21; John 6:29; 7:33; 8:18, 26, 42; 9:4). God is known through Christ (John 8:19; 10:15; 2 Corinthians 4:6). This God is the God who reveals himself in his word. Jesus spoke God’s words which give life; those who reject Christ and his words do not know God (Luke 10:16; John 6:63, 12:48, 14:10).
Newell rejects this God and the words of God in Scripture, so he is not writing of the love God speaks of, which is the only true, enduring love.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation
for our sins (I John 4:10, 11).
As Jesus himself said, He who is of God hears the words of God (John 8:47).