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
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.
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
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.