Wisdom of the Age

In an effort to see what could be done to increase membership and attendance in the church, I read a book called Celtic Way of Evangelism[1] by George G. Hunter III. The author’s point is that the Celtic Church found footing and grew in Ireland because of the way it sought converts. The Celtic Church, which flourished long before Rome sent its missionaries to the British Isles, converted the pagan Celts of Ireland and England by simply being present rather than preaching doom and gloom.

It is believed that in the third century Christian missionaries, likely the Desert Fathers that traveled all the way from the Sinai Peninsula through Celtic Gaul (France) into Britain and then to Ireland, brought the Gospel to the distant British Isles. Because of their monastic experiences in the deserts of Egypt, the Desert Fathers knew how to invite people into their circle of friendship and sharing. This early style of evangelism became the norm for Celtic Christians.

Among the Celts, the strategy was to first build a sense of community. No effort was made initially to convert people. Instead, the Celtic Christians preached by the example of their lives and the warmth of the community. It is an evangelical style worth emulating.


The Apostle Paul

When the Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom,”[2] he was describing the style of evangelism the Desert Fathers later employed in their work to bring the Good News of Jesus to the world. Paul entered into European communities as a tent maker. He talked of the Crucified Christ but apparently did not argue with philosophers of the time or places.

Paul suggested that the wisdom of the age while outwardly noble and maybe even appealing lacked the compassion and did not emulate the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. One of the philosophical systems that had a wide appeal was Cynicism,[3] a philosophy that taught it was up to the individual to find a way to live in harmony with nature and to eschew owning things, exercising power, and avoiding intimacy. This philosophy grew out of the teachings of Socrates and was widely discussed, if not followed in ancient Greece. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the first century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the Empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century, although some have claimed that early Christianity adopted many of its ascetic and rhetorical ideas.[4] Nevertheless, this was the wisdom of the age Paul said he did not bring to the church in Corinth. He brought a new wisdom of community and love (he would have called it agape—unconditional love). The wisdom of the age turned people into beggars and the word to describe the philosophy—Cynic—becomes a pejorative, a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.[5]

Paul brings a new wisdom, a simple wisdom, of the message of Christ Crucified. The value of the knowledge of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross can only come through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit of God. Philosophers can debate, preachers offer intelligent homilies, but the only way a person can come to Jesus and accept him as savior is through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. This is the simple wisdom Paul teaches. This is the simple gift of the Desert Fathers who brought the message of Christ Crucified to the Celts over a thousand years ago.

This is our heritage and Anglican Christians. We may reflect the Latin Church in our outward appearances—all western Christianity does—but we have beneath all of that the simple gift of Celtic Evangelism. Our failure in the modern era has been to either not recognize that heritage or if we know of it, set the example aside.

American Christians are often guilty of setting up barriers to knowing Christ Crucified and allowing the Holy Spirit to act. For example, current statistics[6] show that more and more people are disavowing any religious affiliation. Statistics show that people often see the Church as condemning and non-affirming.[7]

How do we overcome the trend toward an anti-religious culture? What can Christians do to preach the truth of Christ Crucified?

The Desert Fathers first initiative was to live in the imitation of Christ. Of course, they gave up their wealth, power, and worldly behaviors to live in the harsh deserts of Egypt but they did not become Cynics. Instead they built a new community based in unconditional love and took that ideal to the world apart from the isolation of a harsh desert. Paul provided the model as a missionary who did not demand followership for himself but only wanted the world to know the value of living a life centered on the crucified Lord Jesus.

The model is obvious to us. Does it mean we should give up on our liturgies, our Bible studies, our Anglican theology? I do not think we need to compromise any of that. However, our first priority must always be to address the world in simple terms and to state emphatically that we only preach Christ Crucified and that we only pray that the Holy Spirit of God engulfs our broken world. Our preaching, however, comes only after people see the value of the message in our own lives and in our community of faith.

[1] Abdigon Press, 2010

[2] 1 Corinthians 2:1.

[3] Cynicism (Greek: κυνισμός) is a school of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics (Greek: Κυνικοί, Latin: Cynici). For the Cynics, the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(philosophy).

[5] Ibid.

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