Interview: J Philip Newell on seeing hope in every moment

Billions of people around the world pray every day. The world longs for peace. What does John Philip Newell offer that is unique?

He is an outsider—a Christian pilgrim from Scotland who circles the globe, drawing on his distinctively Celtic branch of the Christian family tree. As a prophetic writer and teacher, he is a visitor in communities.

In 2011, he has launched a Praying for Peace movement, which ReadTheSpirit has been celebrating all week. In Part 1, we introduced Philip and Praying for Peace. In Part 2, we shared five voices from Detroit, men and women who also are trying to open eyes in ministry. Today, you’ll hear from Philip in our weekly interview. Later this week, we will publish prayers that begin “Open my eyes to …” by a host of people touched by this message.

How does an outsider pray? John Philip prays on a broad canvas, like a Renaissance painter sketching the whole of the world around us—yet probing deep into our own hearts at the same time. Here is an example, one the prayers from his new, “Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace.”

For close of day, John Philip Newell has written

In lives where love has been born this day
thanks be to you, O God.
In families where forgiveness has been strong
thanks be to you.
In nations where wrongs have been addressed
where tenderness has been cherished
and where visions for earth’s oneness have been served
thanks be to you.
May those who are weary find rest this night.
May those who carry great burdens for their people find strength.
May the midwives of new beginnings in our world find hope.
And may the least among us find greatness
strength in our souls
worth in our words
love in our living.

You can order the entire book, “Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace,” from Amazon.


JOHN PHILIP NEWELL and his musician friend Fran McKendree in a prayer circle at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.DAVID: I’ve gotten to know you and your work in recent years, and I think I can say this: A good portion of your prophetic power comes from the fact that you’re an outsider. Does that make sense to you?

JOHN PHILIP: Yes, that’s fair to say. I do think some of this comes from my Celtic Christian identification in terms of the sources of treasures and resources on which I have drawn over the years. The Celtic tradition was often pushed to the outer edge of Christianity and sometimes was seen as pagan or pantheistic—as people looked at it from within orthodoxy. So, yes, I suppose that I am speaking from the edge. But it also should be said that a lot of my work is hosted by churches, sometimes cathedrals, seminaries and major retreat centers—so I have a great love of the Christian community and much of the interest in my work today comes from within that Christian household.

DAVID: Yes, that’s true and I see it as a bit of irony. As the outsider, you often are telling people that we need to recover the heart of Christianity.

JOHN PHILIP: When I travel, the question people most often ask me is: How are we going to bring young people back into the church? When I hear that, I say: That’s emphatically the wrong question to ask. The challenge we are facing is not trying to bring young people back. It’s far bigger than that. The status of Western Christianity is in collapse, largely because we’ve taken our eyes off the core of the tradition. We haven’t been giving people the deepest resources we have to help them follow Christ. What we need to do is pay attention to the yearnings of many who are not being invited into the church. We need to learn from their dissatisfaction and their desire.

DAVID: What do you hear when you ask the alienated about their desire?

JOHN PHILIP: Many see very clearly that spirituality must be deeply rooted in love of the earth and a commitment of working for peace in ways that Christianity is largely ignoring.

DAVID: How did we come to this point of disconnection?

JOHN PHILIP: There is a history here and much of it comes from the Age of Reason with its separation of spirit and matter. In the Calvinist tradition, the suspicion of matter and suspicion of the human body led to a sense of salvation as almost being air lifted out of relationship with the earth. Salvation came to be seen in opposition to the deepest energies of our bodies, instead of being deeply connected to those energies. I think that split has continued, both in the religious and the secular world. On both sides of that dualism between spirit and matter—or between humanity and the earth—we have become impoverished. We are no longer connecting with the deep earth energies of our being. We have impoverished our perspectives on the earth and we have robbed it of what we hold most dear in our lives, which is the yearning to be in relationship. As we move back toward a holistic way of seeing in which spirit and matter are re-integrated, then we can move toward spiritual freedom once again.

DAVID: That may be a difficult and challenging vision for readers to follow. I’ve heard you talk about this and I’ve read your books, so I think I understand enough to say: This explains why your approach to prayer is far from the kind of pleading that we see all too often in American prayers. In contrast, your prayers are about opening up our eyes—about vision of ourselves in the entire sweep of the community and God’s creation. Is that fair to say?

JOHN PHILIP: I can say that one of my experiences in writing prayer books like this new one is that, when I go back and use prayers I have published, I find that I do not particularly recognize myself in the texts. That’s in contrast with my experience when I re-read my prose work about spirituality, like the new book coming this summer. When I re-read my prose work, I recognize myself clearly in those texts. My sense is that, when I write prayers, I am primarily setting out to speak from within the community rather than from within myself as an individual. I want to voice concerns that issue up from within the human soul, not just my own life.

I see the practice of prayer as allowing the deepest part of us to come up into awareness and expression. Prayer is not about beseeching a distant one to alter the mystery of reality, but rather prayer is about coming into tune with the deepest energies within us—the energies that I believe are of the One. The practice of prayer is bringing us back into relationship with that which is already among us and within us.


DAVID: This is a great point in our conversation to ask you to summarize the book coming this summer. Tell readers what to expect. We’ll publish a link at the end of our interview so they can pre-order the book.

JOHN PHILIP: This forthcoming book, “A New Harmony,” really pays attention to what I discern as the movement of the spirit at the heart of this point in time—and to describe this growing awareness I see emerging of life’s essential interconnectedness. I see this awareness breaking through in the consciousness of nearly every major discipline and form of study at the moment. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, I regard this as a new Pentecost—a fresh movement of the spirit with many manifestations. What I’m trying to do in that book, “A New Harmony,” is pay attention to what I believe the spirit is doing—and to ask those of us in the Christian household how we can better serve his moment. The danger is that we wind up opposing it and, if we do, then we risk winding up irrelevant to this movement of spirit.

DAVID: That sounds dire. Yet, I find myself often speaking in similar terms. In the realm of media—which is simply the way people connect with each other—the whole dynamic is changing as well. Through most of the 20th Century, people working in professional media competed with one another. We rarely shared, rarely collaborated. Now, we must cooperatively share. We must collaborate. The real danger today is not some competitor—it’s irrelevance. But, ultimately, John Philip, you’re not a pessimist about all of this. The most appealing quality in your books and teaching is that you foster hope.

JOHN PHILIP: I am continually asking people: Will we meet this moment? Will we be filled with the spirit of this moment? Will we see life’s essential oneness and embody this in new ways of living that can lead to transformation? Will we take up this enormous challenge?

I am immensely hopeful about this moment of grace. Our eyes are opening about the dangers that we face—and about the way forward as well. I remember that when the Dalai Lama was asked whether he had hope about the future, the Dalai Lama laughed! He answered: Of course! The future is not yet decided. This is an important part of hope.

I agree with the Dalai Lama. I believe that, at the heart of every moment, at the heart of every relationship, is the way of peace. And this way of peace is not going to lead to some sort of fixed, static realm of perfection, but I believe it is a choice at the heart of every moment and every relationship. Whether we are considering our relation with creation or our relations within the world’s religious traditions—in every moment, we can choose to honor the sacredness in the other and follow the way of peace with hope.

YOU CAN ORDER JOHN PHILIP NEWELL’S NEW PRAYER BOOK, which contains a full cycle of daily prayers to be used in the Praying for Peace initiative, “Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace.” The book is not yet available for delivery, but you can click on the title link and pre-order it from Amazon.

In the summer of 2011, Jossey-Bass will publish a more in-depth book about spirituality by John Philip Newell, “A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul,” which you also can pre-order from Amazon now by clicking on the title. At ReadTheSpirit, we already have previewed a manuscript of this book and can tell you now: It’s great for small group discussion and describes in detail Newell’s vision of where our faith is leading us around the world.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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