QGA Interview with Alastair McIntosh
Kinship with Creation
Two Quakers Share Their Views
This document was published as a pamphlet at Britain Yearly Meeting, May 2002, by Quaker Green Action - ISBN 0 9518766 3 5. What follows is my own set of responses only. The other Friend interviewed with the same question was Susannah Brindle of Australia (who gave the James Backhouse Lecture in 2000). Her wonderful responses (drawing on Aboriginal spiritual insights) are considerably more full than mine. The pamphlet with both our responses is available through Quaker outlets such as the Friends' Bookshop on Euston Road, London.
Quaker Green Action was formed in 1986 to provide a gathering point for members, attenders and others interested in Quaker ways of thought, who are actively concerned with the global ecological crisis. CGA publishes earthQuaker quarterly. CGA has a website at www.quakergreenconcern.org.uk .
My thanks to Anne Adams and Anne Brewer for pushing this project through to completion!
1. How did you
come to your beliefs?
It’s a continuous process, and one that I’ve alluded to quite a bit in Soil and Soul. As a child, from the earliest age, I used to enjoy looking under stones and collecting worms and insects which I’d keep in Marmite jars because they were dark, and so the little critters would like it there. I was also deeply interested in stories about magic, and would sometimes wake up with the feeling that “something magical” in what I’d now see as an alchemical sort of way might happen that day. My mother, who is English, was rather good at cultivating this with her “Witch Witch Wimble” stories!
With growing up on the Isle of Lewis where my Scottish father was a church elder and the local doctor, I was exposed to a strong mixture of both science and religion. I was fascinated by both, but deeply sceptical of the latter, given lack of proof and so much hypocrisy.
However, as well as being a specialist in aviation medicine, Dad also practiced medical hypnosis. He was known, to his colleagues, as “the Hypnotist of the North”! Ministers of religion often came to the house and I’d sit listening to conversations that I only partly understood going late into the evening.
On one occasion Dad was taken up in a fighter plane by the RAF and passed out under the G forces. They made an emergency landing, and later he recounted how he’d watched the whole event as if out-of-his-body. Similarly, when his dog died in a car accident my mother drove back from a journey she was on because she had sensed that something serious had happened. These kind of events challenged the scientific materialist worldview I might otherwise have followed.
When I went to Aberdeen University in 1973 I was supposed to be studying geology, but my real passion was to discover if evidence for the soul and God existed. I established the Aberdeen University Parapsychological Society and pulled in leading speakers like Dr John Beloff and Prof Hans Eysenck. At the age of 19 I was conducting all manner of research on my fellow students. Some of this was subsequently published in my first academic papers which can be found on my website at www.AlastairMcIntosh.com .
By my second year at university I’d flunked chemistry and geology, but discovered it was possible, instead, to study subjects I had not thought were open to me – namely, philosophy and psychology. I also had my mind opened by alternative post-60’s culture. I went on to take both psychology and philosophy as my sub-majors in what ended up as a geography degree. Geography, as it was taught in Aberdeen, introduced me to human geography, and this was a first step towards what I have ended up teaching with the MSc degree that we now run in Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology.
After leaving university I was posted by Voluntary Service Overseas. I had wanted to go to India in the hope that I’d “find a guru”, since I’d become convinced that spirituality is for real, and should be permitted to shape my life. However, to my disappointment, I got posted, instead, to one of the most dismal corners of Papua New Guinea – the Gulf Province, and to a Catholic Mission school! However, when I got there, I found it run by this saintly if otherworldly Australian archbishop, Virgil Patrick Copas, and four Mother Theresa “Missionaries of Charity” nuns. It was quite something to go from the Presbyterian Isle of Lewis to that! I also became close friends with one of my pupils, the grandson of the local sorcerer and cannibal – the outcome of which can be read on the website by way of my paper for the Australian anthropological journal, Oceania.
On returning from Papua New Guinea I was ready to seek a community of spiritual understanding that could hold and further where all this had taken me. There was a little advert in the Observer for the Quakers, and I sent away for the free booklet, and that was it. Later I went back out to Papua New Guinea again, this time with the South Pacific Appropriate Technology Foundation. There was a strong little Quaker meeting in Port Moresby at that time, and it comprised our primary community. This was also when awareness was growing of the need for “sustainable development”. It was becoming clear that environmental conservation and human development had to progress hand-in-hand. Well, that insight would have resonated deeply with early Friends like John Woolman. It is a deeply scriptural insight, now canonised again by the observations of natural and social science.
Today I retain what I think of as a semi-detatched relationship with Quakerism. I can be a turbulent Friend, and I know that this has not always been appreciated by all in my meeting, and I quite understand why. That said, the Quaker movement has deeply supported, resourced, and continually inspired and given a framework for my work. It feeds in very directly to the methodologies I use in much of my work – including, for example, work with the military and with the Scottish Parliament. As a result, I’m told that the Joint Services Command & Staff College have now agreed to bring nonviolence in to the first week’s programme of their Advanced Staff & Command course, which is attended by nearly 400 senior military officers from around the world each year. As one of their staff, a Commander, told me the other day, “If we’re going to teach them about fighting as a last resort, we have to explore other options like nonviolence first.” Well, it’s maybe not putting things in the order that some of us might like, but it’s a start!
For all these insights and support that come substantially from Quakerism, I am profoundly grateful. The wonderful thing is that Friends seem to be able to accommodate the troublers of their peace rather well. For example, somewhere in their guidelines, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust say that they’re well aware that some of their applicants will have had “difficult” relationships with their own meetings! Isn’t that just magic! It allows a Quaker of the Ranter tendency (as I’d call it) like myself to keep the distance we need so as not to feel stifled, and yet, also, to find and to offer support when that is appropriate.
Well, that’s highly variable. I can think, for example, of English people living in Scotland or Ireland who are not native, but who show a profound respect for native people. They have truly come to belong. And I can think of others who trample all over them! As a generalisation, when you look around the world, I think it is fair to say that non-native peoples are often distinguished by being out of attunement with native cultures and ecosystems. We see this most significantly in colonisation, where the invader goes out of his or her way to inferiorise indigenous people so as to morally justify their exploitation. Amongst non-native peoples, I therefore think it wise to distinguish between invasion and what I would call “infusion”. I think it is good to infuse amongst one another, but not to invade.
Yes, there are the classic examples from the New World – the early good relations between Pennsylvanians and the Native Americans. There are also examples that you hear of from time to time in Australia of Quakers giving the land back to Aborigines (and then, sometimes, being invited into an eldership relationship of mutual respect with them). These are wonderful “patterns and examples”, but we must be careful to avoid always glorifying Quaker history. For example, I am rather amused by one of the “Abercairny muniments” (GD24/1/826) in the Scottish Record office which refers to Quaker landowning in America. Here one D. Toshach writes to “The Rycht Honorable the Earle of Perth, Lord Heigh Chanceloure off Scotland” in 1685, complaining of, “… the maltratement I hav gotine in the province of Jersey, by thir coursed Quakers, who mind nothing but there own interest … all the … ground and river side ar takine up allradie by the Quakers, Independents, Presbiterians, Anabaptists, and, in a word by all the offscourings off hell…”
In short, we need to remember that a lot of Quakers got very rich, and we need to examine how they became that way if we are to trumpet right-on Quaker history!
None that I see. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty people who like to make out that there is – either because their secular vision wants to damage Christianity, or because their Christianity is one-sidedly urban and urbane.
The Old Testament is full of nature spirituality – Job 38 and Psalms 104, for example. These passages are not “pantheism” (God as nature) but rather, they reflect what theologians call “panentheism” – the notion that God is present in nature.
The life of Jesus is full of nature. He was always heading out of the city to go down by the lake, or up the mountain. In Matthew’s gospel alone he goes 8 times up the mountains to get a bit of peace and quiet – to find composure of soul. Also, in Matthew 5, he refers to the Earth as being his “footstool”. This expression is very significant. Its Biblical meaning is to be the resting place of God. Jesus, in other words, saw nature as God’s and his own resting place. I don’t think there’s ever been very much theological reflection on this scriptural point which comes, incidentally, where Jesus is doing his bit about not swearing oaths. To me, that whole ethos about oaths ties in with nature because it’s like Jesus is saying not to swear on this, that, or whatever else (including the Earth) because only God can determine outcomes. In other words, to swear an oath is to short-circuit God’s providence, and theologically speaking providence is that which nature, and the Spirit, provide us with to meet our needs. Not swearing oaths therefore ties in very deeply with trusting providentially to life.
I also see the principle of reverence for nature expressed in the 3 temptations of Christ with the Devil on the mountain. Ahhh … what would we do without the Devil to illuminate these points for us! Remember? He urges Jesus, 1) to turn the stones into bread, 2) to become a worldly king or landowner, and 3) to jump from a high place and be caught by angels. I find these extremely interesting temptations, because the first is the temptation to violate the laws of nature; it concerns ecological justice. The second concerns violation of the laws of society. It entails taking disproportionate social power, in other words, it is about social justice. And the third reflects the principle of not putting God to the test It is about spiritual power – about spritual justice or right relationship.
I see an interesting parallel between these three motifs, and the so-called “Evangelical Councils” of poverty, chastity and obedience. I do think we need to get back to these Councils in our spiritual lives, but their full power becomes apparent, in my view, only when we realise that chastity actually means “purity”. As such, it is not necessarily the same as celibacy. Chastity only implies celibacy in conditions where sex would be “impure” - that is to say, where it would violate relationship. Since really good sex demands right relationship, there is a case for saying that only in chaste relationship can sexuality be fully expressed!
In other words, what I’m suggesting here is that chastity needs to be understood, as it is understood in many religious orders, as implying right relationship between people: e.g. “May we enjoy chaste friendship”. Now, I do not think we can choose to love another – that is a gift of grace. But we can choose whether or not to be honest with the other, and, to me, chaste relationship fundamentally means having relationships characterised by psychological honesty.
So, this is useful because it opens the doors to considering poverty, chastity and obedience outwith a celibate monastic context. We can rethink them in our Quaker lives. Poverty, we might see as reflecting ecological right relationship – the richness of not taking more than we need, but like Jesus with the precious oil, enjoying fully that which we do take as our due.
Then there’s chastity – right relationship with others - in other words, the honesty that can open the doors to love.
And obedience. That looks like a problem at first, but I think it can mean obedience not to any Pope or parent or external authority figure, but to God whom, as we understand Her in Quaker tradition, is the light within. In other words, true obedience is about following our deep Jungian Self rather than the whims of superficial ego. It is about learning to live from the soul.
I do believe that poverty, chastity and obedience so understood are pre-requisite for finding more sustainable lifeways. As such, I can see Christian tradition as being potentially deeply ecological. Like so much of Christianity, however, this is something that mainstream Christianity has yet to try out. We need to bring St Francis into our daily lives!
Of course. All peoples except, perhaps, some African peoples, would once have been non-native to the place to which they now belong. To me, the factor that determines belonging is a willingness to cherish and be cherished by a place and its peoples. In other words, it is for us to decide if we want to belong, and we do that in relation to the ecosystem of place and the communities already established that respect the place. I think that re-rooting ourselves in this way is one of the great spiritual challenges of our time.
I think we have to start, always, by an acceptance of how damaged we are. We need to balance an attitude of “I’m OK; you’re OK” with one of, if I may put it like this, “I’m fucked up; you’re fucked up”.
Now, I know that the language I have just used is not conventionally Quakerly. I am, indeed, a Quaker of the Ranter tendency, as I’d put it, and too bad, for I feel moved to use such “for-God’s-sake-wake-up” language. I think it’s as if we’re on drugs, or alcohol, or we’re child abusers, or whatever, and until we take the steps of confessing to ourselves, to God and to at least one other human being that we’re deeply lost, we don’t make room for the grace of the Holy Spirit to come in and start healing us.
So, that’s where we start. We start with confession, with admitting the powerlessness we have to make our lives more ecological without spiritual help. We then get drawn into a process that, in my experience, becomes a dialogue with God. John Calvin wrote about how God “accommodates” human weaknesses, and part of that ecological dialogue can entail God accommodating where we’re at – “Yes, it’s OK to have the car given your condition”, or whatever. And the other part of this dialogue is God challenging us to change – maybe to change the job so we no longer need the car, or whatever it might be.
What we have then is a God that both accommodates and challenges. This, of course, is very Biblical – including its inevitably associated “Fuck off God” theology, such as we see expressed in an exemplary way in, for example, in Jeremiah 20 (which has been called “the most blasphemous part of the Bible”).
This process of understanding, testing and managing the contradictions and hypocrisies of our lives is pure discernment. And what makes it possible is that God, or at least, the Calvinist God as I’m exploring it here, has a very Buddhist nature. This God doesn’t seek the impossible for us, but only the heartfelt intention. In Buddhism this is called seeking the middle-way. When it’s too much to cross the road, Buddhism says to try going only to the middle of the road. If that’s too much, go to the middle of that middle, and so on. But if it’s easy to stand in the middle, move on over to the middle between where you’re at and where you’d like to be. That way you keep responding to challenge creatively.
In answer to this question I’ve referred to Buddhism, to John Calvin and to language at the extreme end of the spectrum! I think this demonstrates that Quaker understanding and discernment does not have to be a sanitised silence, but can encompass outrageous apparent contradictions, and that, damn it, is what makes us quake and why we merit being called Quakers!
Absolutely, otherwise we overlook the nature of God’s Providence that is in every cup of tea, in every thread of the carpet over which we walk, in every breath of air we take. This is where fair trade and ecologically sound production are so important. Such are the practical day-to-day ways we respect life on earth and, ultimately, move into a relationship of reverence with the Creation.
No. Mostly there’s not enough emphasis. Indeed, it has become “cool”, especially in academia and corporate life, to emphasise the failings of tribal societies in a movement that conveniently over-reacts to romanticisation. What I think we have to do is to relate to native people in a real way, that is, with psychological honesty and a psychohistorical perspective that fully accommodates where they’re coming from. You see, most native people in the world today have been terribly wounded by the colonial trauma. Their societies are in shock, and this shows in high levels of substance abuse, family violence and suicide. We need to understand the roots of these problems from within rather than just as investigators from the outside. We need to feel what it’s been like for them; to hear their stories. Then we’ll see the wisdom still shining through, but in bodies, minds and spirits blighted by the shadow of the colonial psyche which is to say, by our own mainstream Western psyche.
Doing this is not easy. I myself have had the experience of working with a native elder who was subsequently convicted of child sexual abuse. I felt like I’d been hit by a missile from Hell when I found out, and so did most of his community. However, we need to look on these things in context of the deeper struggle between what Walter Wink calls the “Powers and Principalities” of our times. We need to see with compassion – a resolute compassion that’s not afraid to say, “Halt! That’s not on!”, and yet can sympathise with the wounded human condition that’s finding expression in these destructive ways. That’s what I mean in “Soil and Soul” where I write about the need to develop “cultural psychotherapies” to address the sicknesses of our times. These problems present themselves as if “caused” by a “bad” individual, and partly that’s perhaps the case. But they are also cultural. They get handed down through families as intergenerational cultural trauma, knocking on from parent to child. Accordingly, we need to take both individual and collective responsibility for healing our wounds.
I think the wise native seers know all this. It’s from them that I get a lot of my own ideas. When you see that kind of wisdom in action you see the humble power of the wounded healer, and understand that we, in mainstream western society, actually need native help to help us to become whole and stop destroying the Earth in the way that we do.
Yes, and it’s about symbiosis – living together in ways that help one another. For example, in the absence of the wolf as a predator, I consider that the deer hunting we used to do on Lewis was beneficial to the deer. Without being hunted they’d starve. Our hunting was symbiosis.
At the end of the day if we don’t work with nature we cause death, and after a time too much death makes life-support systems collapse. That is why we need to rethink how we live in accordance with the Evangelical Councils of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are the key ways in which we make love, make life, and make music.
Certainly, I think that obsessive urbanisation and technocracy is an attempt to overcome death, in other words, to short-circuit natural reality.
More than that, I think that by facing death, we can enter into a much more complete cycle with nature. Take meat, for instance. I eat meat. I’ve had periods of going vegetarian on ethical grounds, but I’ve not been able to hold to it. I’m too addicted to eating meat. That is, in part, my weakness. I confess! I try to minimise it and although our income is low, we mainly eat organic – the middle road – but still eat meat quite often.
This is coming in me partly from a cultural context of growing up where we hunted, fished and kept animals. My attitude when I kill an animal is that it feeds me, thank you, and one day I too shall feed the worms, and may I have the dignity to yield my flesh with a spirit of ungrudged generosity when that time comes. In other words, I can only kill an animal with integrity if I also accept my own death as part of nature’s cycle in the fullness of time. We can only live in this way by a presumption of continual forgiveness – as Blake put it, “The cut worm forgives the plough.” I’ve discussed this in Soil and Soul, because the question of the right time is important. Where I came from we felt that there was something wrong if an animal was killed too young, or out of season. I think this goes for many native peoples. I suspect that whilst we might presume the worm’s forgiveness for the plough, or even the fishing hook, to presume it when we stamp a worm underfoot to squash it just because we don’t like worms, or to want to watch it wriggle, does not attract forgiveness, and without forgiveness life stops – death takes its grip in ways seen and unseen.
Eating meat becomes a problem when we eat more than the balance of nature and high welfare standards can healthily sustain. I know that I cross over that boundary sometimes, which is why I referred to it as “an addiction”.
I think it’s one of those passages that are very open to interpretation and therefore is used by exploiters and oppressors to justify their actions. It says to “subdue” or “dominate” the Earth, and the Hebrew word used is “Radah”. This usually means “to oppress”, but it can also mean “to take” as in “to take honey from the hive”, and the Talmud uses the word for the taking of bread out of an oven. That seems to me to be not a bad way to describe one aspect of our relationship with the Earth.
The same verse also speaks of the duty to “replenish” the Earth. This, maybe, sets the context we should be thinking about. The Hebrew word in question is “Male”, meaning “to complete that which was unfinished”. It can also be translated as “to consecrate”.
Genesis 1:28 can be further contextualised by keeping in mind Genesis 2:15, which says of Adam that God “put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”
To “dress” in Hebrew is “Avad”, the main meaning of which is “to serve”. Various theologians have commented that “to serve” would be a much more helpful translation here than the vineyard-related term, “to dress” that the King James Bible used.
The word, to “keep” in Hebrew, is “Shamar”. This means “keep” in the sense of “to protect” or “to guard”, and even, “to revere”. It is the same sense as when God is titled “Keeper of Israel”. As such, it is a very different meaning from the English language sense of possession.
Incidentally, I’m getting these meanings from a resource called the “Key Study Bible” (AMG Publishers, USA, 1991). Given that most of us Quakes don’t study Biblical languages, I think it’s worth knowing that there’s resources out there (and on the Internet) that can help us.
Power over another can happen inside or outside a bounded context of community. Where it happens from inside, the question is whether that power is “legitimate”. I think there are times when it is legitimate to assume power over another. We do it when we stop our children from injuring themselves, or in situations where, for example, a person may have to be arrested, or sectioned under the mental health legislation. To me, that is legitimate because I would want it to be applied to myself. For example, I would like to think that if I ever became mentally ill so that I was a danger to others, I would be forcibly taken into care.
The parallel with land ownership would be where some members of a community do not want to take the responsibility of individual or collective ownership, and actually want to live in a paternal system. This actually happens – I see it in some Scottish communities where people really like their laird! Where that is people’s choice, it is not for me to say, “Thou shalt have a revolution like on Eigg”!
A different dynamic of “power over” is when the power comes from outwith the community, as with an absentee landowner who people don’t want, or some other colonising power. In this situation I’d be very hard pushed to think of authentic exceptions where you can say it’s possible to have both power-over and respect running hand in hand together. I think respect can’t really come about until those with disproportionate power relinquish it. That’s what the English Levellers were on about – many of whom, like Winstanley, became Quakers in due course. The principle is that except that our power is a form of service, and is legitimised by the community, it is corrupt.
Oh, I think so. Certainly, that is my experience. Although I do not live on the Isle of Lewis these days, I feel deeply and spiritually connected with that place. It is as if a spiritual power actually comes out from the island, passing under the sea, and feeds literally into the emotional pit of my stomach to give me nourishment and insight. I can be thousands of miles away, and yet there is no question that the Hebrides are the ground upon which I spiritually stand.
Strangely enough, I also feel the same, but to a lesser extent, about Papua New Guinea, where I lived for 4 years a quarter century ago. That’s interesting, because my sense of belonging somewhat to PNG is not a residue of childhood, but a function of, as I put it earlier, choosing to cherish and be cherished by that place and its peoples. In other words, this is something that is potentially open to us all, no matter how rooted or deracinated we might be.
Yes, if we remember to include ourselves, including our mother’s belly and breasts, in what we mean by “nature”.
Once again, we’re talking divine Providence here. Since I’m a Hebridean Quaker, let me, just for a laugh, throw in a bit more Highland Calvinism here … by way of the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647. Some of it’s really good stuff. Take Question 8: “How doth God execute his decrees?” Answer: “God executeth His decrees in the works of CREATION and PROVIDENCE.” Then Question 11: “What are God’s works of providence? Answer: “God’s works of providence are, His most holy, wise and powerful PRESERVING AND GOVERNING all His creatures and all their actions.”
Now, all that says to me that we come to know God in relation to the Creation and Providence. I quote it because, whilst I would quibble with such language as calling God “He”, I think that what’s being said here is very true, and it is pretty much exactly the way early Quakers would have seen things. Modern Quakers too often forget these fundamentalist insights from the fundamentals of what comprises reality.
To know God, yes, we need to understand nature’s fundamentals.
The notion of the Fall seems to be a predominantly Judaeo-Christian one rather than a prevalent principle amongst native peoples. Fox is right to point also to the principle of Original Blessing, which in Quakerism we understand as “that of God in everyone”. I think both these principles are powerful, and that at a mystical level, both are true. I think Fox is saying that. He’s not saying that the Fall is a Fallen concept; only that it needs to be balanced, also, with Original Blessing.
I do think that the evidence of ourselves shows that we’re all, as I put it earlier, both OK and deeply incapacitated. That’s Original Blessing and Fall for you.
Related to this, I do think that Original Sin (the consequence of the metaphorical Fall) is a profoundly liberating doctrine. It’s like Gandhi said – “All life entails violence.” We can’t walk over the grass without hurting things. Life entails causing suffering. That’s your Original Sin, so to speak, and we need to face it – we need to face that which we otherwise relegate to the Jungian “shadow” in our psyches. However, Gandhi also said that our duty is to minimise the harm we cause. That’s important because it helps us to live with ourselves whilst not denying the realities of our woundedness. We can go somewhere from that position. Grace can act.
Well, many people are capable of enjoying the cruelty. But some animals are the same. A cat with a mouse or bird is one example, and I’ve seen mink, polecat and dogs enter a henhouse and just kill everything there seemingly for the hell of it. I’ve also watched my dog thoroughly enjoy killing hoards of mice, which she had no intent to eat. There is something here about the “ecstasy of destruction” – necrophilia – and it’s something we need to try and get our heads around, because it lies at the root of sadism and what harms the Earth and all that it contains. Again, I’ve looked at this in depth in “Soil and Soul” because I used to work on a sporting estate.
At the heart of the problem of cruelty, and all ethics, is the question of empathy. We hurt others because we lack empathy to feel for the other. Acquiring empathy means opening the heart, and that’s a dual process of wanting the heart to open, and being filled with Grace.
I remember in Darjeeling in 1980 meeting an old man with a prayer wheel – “Om Mani Padme Hum,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked, knowing that whole books have been written about it, but wanting to hear what he said.
“It means,” he answered, “God come to my heart.”
Well, I think that’s the prayer we need to soften our hearts where we know they’re still as tough as an old ewe that’s been out on the moor all winter and not been hung for long enough!
Well, I think it’s only our planet if we respect it – to re-spect – to take a second or a deeper look – to make the first step towards engendering a relationship of reverence.
And what’s so good about reverence? Because only that way can we see the beauty that underlies life and death. Only through reverence will the inner gates of the heart open enough so that we can sing our song and become consciously part of, as they say of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, “the hymn of Creation.”
That’s why right relationship with one another, God and nature matters. That’s what makes full community a tripartite relationship. Without it, there can be no poetry, no music, and no promised life abundant.
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9 July 2002