Saint Columbanus was not the only Christian of his time to emphasize the creation as the primary revelation, but in Irish Christianity the idea took hold, and resisted for some time the notion that the only reliable revelation is to be found in scripture or tradition mediated through the Church in Rome. By contrast, the early Irish texts suggest a God who is more fundamentally immanent in every part of the creation — in Sun, Moon, stars, wind and wave — even as the unutterable mystery of the universe confounds our understanding and perception. Saint Columbanus: “Who shall examine the secret depths of God? Who shall dare to treat of the eternal source of the universe? Who shall boast of knowing the infinite God, who fills all and surrounds all, who enters into all and passes beyond all, who occupies all and escapes all?” Those who wish to know God, he says, “must first review the natural world.” In the early Irish Christian understanding, exceptional events do not occur because of the interventions of a supernatural deity who temporarily suspends the ordinary course of things, but rather because of the divine potentialities inherent within nature itself. For the authors of the early Irish texts, a reluctance to believe in “the full extravagant strangeness of existence” was tantamount to blasphemy, says the scholar John Carey. Here was, and is, a defining question for Christianity, and indeed for Western civilization: Is the action of the Creator (however we might understand the agency by which the universe came to be and is sustained) manifested in miraculous intrusions of the transcendent — a wolf that talks with a priest, seed cursed by a bishop that does not grow — or in the extraordinary quality of ordinary events — the rising and setting of the Sun, the call of the cuckoo, the rainbow, the aurora, the dew on the grass?
The early Irish Christian writer Augustinus Hibernicus, the “Irish Augustine,” author of On the Miracles of Holy Scriptures, a book which attempts to show that all of God’s works in the world must act in accordance with nature, not in opposition to it: “ ... We barely understand even in part all of the things which we possess. The surface of the earth on which we toil, by which we are nourished, kept alive and supported, appears plainly before our eyes; yet even so we do not know what holds it up. The sun is assigned to minister to us by day, but the course which it follows in the night is hidden from our knowledge. Who has the wit to understand the changes of the moon, waxing in fifteen days and waning in the same interval? We are allowed to behold the surges of the flowing sea, but are denied knowledge of the place to which it ebbs. We know and are mindful of the day of our own birth; but the day of our death, although it is certain that it will come, is unknown to us ... we know only in part, for as long as we are in this world.”
It is an extraordinary passage, because what it says has been so rarely affirmed — by theologians or by scientists — and almost never before our own time. Throughout most of the Christian era, truth has been sought in Holy Scriptures — presumed to be divinely inspired — and these, being finite, can, in principle at least, be entirely known. Thus evolved a false sense of conviction, an arrogance of certainty. Of such assurance were derived the burning of heretics, holy wars, pogroms, religious imperialism, and all the other wretched excesses that have betrayed the Sermon on the Mount. But if, as Saint Columbanus confidently asserted, the primary rev-elation of the Creator is the creation, then it is inevitable that we shall see only through a glass darkly, and prophesy only in part. He wrote: “If then a man wishes to know the deepest ocean of divine understanding, let him first if he is able scan that visible sea, and the less he finds himself to understand of those creatures which lurk below the waves, the more let him realize that he can know less of the depths of the Creator.”
There is an old Irish story of the hero Fionn Mac Cumhail. Fionn asks his followers, “What is the finest music in the world?” They suggest answers: the cuckoo calling from the hedge, the ring of a spear on a shield, the baying of a pack of hounds, the laughter of a gleeful girl. “All good music,” agrees Fionn. “But what is best?” they ask. Fionn answers: “The music of what happens.”
As Christianity took hold in northern Europe, a pervading question was what to do with the old gods, the deities of the druids, the fairy faiths. Two strategies were employed, according to John Carey: euhemerism and demonization. In the first, the gods of the pagans were held to be humans who lived long ago, and who came to be worshiped after their deaths because of some extraordinary quality of their lives; in other words, the gods were not divine at all, but confabulated mortals. In the second case, the gods of the pagans were held to be demons: supernatural beings, yes, but wholly negative in character. Neither device was employed in Ireland between the time of Patrick and the coming of the Vikings. The Irish, by contrast with the continent, held the old gods to be supernatural but not evil. To this end they imagined them as half-fallen angels, spiritual beings who did not join the rebellion of Lucifer, but who were nevertheless expelled from Paradise to earth, where they live in close harmony with nature. Another approach on the part of the Irish was to imagine the pagan gods as descendants of Adam who somehow escaped the corruption of the Fall. Either way, these immortal fairy folk were thought to exist in a state of grace, free from Original Sin. Both Irish strategies for saving the old gods were unorthodox, indeed heretical by continental standards, and were of course eventually submerged in conventional theology, but the fairy folk survived into modern times pretty much as the early Irish imagined them.
All of this may seem embarrassingly artificial: a matter of the early Irish Christians trying to have their pagan cake and eat it too. By any modern standard of scientific thinking it all seems rather silly. But we are not required to judge an earlier age by modern standards. The essential point here is that for early Irish Christians, all of nature was enchanted — the music of what happens.
The fairy people of druidic tradition no longer satisfy our rational needs. The pantheon of Greco-Roman gods have been sent packing too. The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson [’97 hon.] says of the pagan gods: “The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative.” And he is right. The human mind cannot live without mystery. Reason alone will not satisfy. Science without awe is sterile. A life lived without praise and thanksgiving is a shabby sort of life indeed.
So far, scientists have resisted any attempt to infuse their empirical enterprise with spiritual values. They are fearful, and rightly so, of diluting a successful truth-generating methodology with archaic “mysticism.” With creationists and New Agers storming the barricades of science, intent on bringing down the walls, who can blame scientists for jealously maintaining their aloof detachment from spirituality? Meanwhile, the majority of people recoil from the scientific story of the world, which they see as cold and forbidding, and instead seek comfort in an older, more human-centered cosmology — a cosmology of miracles and redemption by a loving (or just) personal God lodged outside of the creation who listens and responds to our prayers.
What is the alternative? A New Story, as the Passionist priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry calls it — a spirituality in which God is revealed in and through the creation, as law and chaos, light and darkness, creator and destroyer, animating every aspect of the everyday world with mystery and meaning. A New Story in which we are close in spirit to the early Christian Irish of the Atlantic fringe.
All cultures, everywhere on Earth, have stories, passed down in sacred writings or tribal myths that answer the questions: Where did the world come from? What is our place in it? What is the source of order and dis-order? What will be the fate of the world and of ourselves? The human mind demands, requires, answers to these questions. The story cycles of the pre-Christian Irish, and of the pre-Celtic peoples of Ireland, supplied answers. The Bible and the Church Fathers supplied answers. And the scientific tradition has answers too.
The scientific story is the product of thousands of years of human curiosity, observation, experimentation and creativity. It is an evolving story, not yet finished. Perhaps it will never be finished. It is a story that begins with an explosion from a seed of infinite energy. The seed expands and cools. Particles form, then atoms of hydrogen and helium. Stars and galaxies coalesce from swirling gas. Stars burn and explode, forging heavy elements — carbon, nitrogen, oxygen — and hurling them into space. New stars are born, with planets made of heavy elements. On one planet near a typical star in a typical galaxy life appears in the form of microscopic self-replicating ensembles of atoms. Life evolves, over billions of years, resulting in ever more complex organisms. Continents move. Seas rise and fall. The ice advances and retreats. The atmosphere changes. Millions of species of life appear and become extinct. Others adapt, survive, and spill out progeny. At last, consciousness appears. One of the millions of species on the planet looks into the night sky or the limitless sea and wonders what it means, feels the spark of love, tenderness and responsibility, makes up stories.