On Poverty, Chastity and Obedience
Poverty, Chastity and Obedience
Published (and slightly expanded here) in A Living Quaker Witness to the Earth, produced by “The Earth: Our
Creative Responsibility Group” of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, Quaker
Books, London, 2003, £5, pp. 18-19.
I grew up in a “green” context - a rural community in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. But as I have shown in my book, Soil and Soul, it was not until we started to lose providential resources like our fisheries that we realised what we’d taken for granted.
It can be like this not just with the environment, but also in our
relationships with one another, and even with God. “Familiarity breeds
contempt”, said Mark Twain, and it is often not until we suffer loss of the
familiar that we appreciate its value, and perhaps too late.
Twain’s is a cynical, depressing and ultimately a Hellish insight, but it is one we don’t have to remain stuck with. There is an alternative, and it’s called “spirituality” - the study and practice of all that gives life; of life that is grounded in love made manifest.
Spirituality means entering into “the sacrament of the present moment”.
It’s about becoming more and more present to what’s all around us, seeing
how everything is interconnected as branches on the Vine of Life.
The vine, we might imagine, has three branches. Each expresses right relationship - with nature,
with society and with God. Such is the fullness of community.
Much of my work in recent years has been expressed through Scotland’s
Centre for Human Ecology. It has included land reform on the Isle of Eigg,
advising Muslims on countering Islamophobia, helping unemployed Glasgow youth to
recover their cultural roots, and annually addressing 400 senior officers at
military staff college on nonviolence.
I think of such work, which is for social, ecological and religious justice, as being
“spiritual activism”. I draw from many religious traditions and integrating
the femininity of God is particularly important to me. I also love looking at
old stories and traditions with eyes to suit our times.
For example, I find a direct parallel between the three temptations of Christ
in Luke 4, and the temptation to violate the three branches of community. To
change stones into bread would have short-circuited nature’s providence, and
gradually destroyed it in much the same way that industrial agriculture is now
doing. To succumb to landed power by accepting kingdoms would have violated
social right relationship. And to put God to the test by jumping from the
pinnacle would have been to abuse spiritual power.
Each of these temptations is about breaking one of the three branches of community – with soil, society and soul. They are powerfully relevant to the witness of Friends (Quakers) today and, indeed, to all whose spiritual traditions are grounded in the transcendental love that renders community a consequence of interconnection.
A related theme I’ve been exploring in order to seek from them fresh meaning, are the so-called
“Evangelical Counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Poverty, as we see from Jesus’ own life, is about living in simplicity but
with “daily bread” sufficiency. It means neither grasping at wealth nor
refusing the wise men’s gifts, or the loving woman’s perfumed attentions or
the wedding feast’s abundant wine when they providentially come our way. True
sufficiency is the paradox of rich poverty.
Obedience (from ob-audire
– to hear or listen) is about discerning the way of God within. It has nothing to do
with obeying parents, church hierarchies, or any other external authority, unless we’re
moved so to do. Rather, it’s about being true to our innermost selves.
Earlier English usage of the term better captures a Taoist sense of its
meaning, as when, for example, Shakespeare spoke of ‘floating …
obedient to the streame.’
Earlier English usage of the term better captures a Taoist sense of its meaning, as when, for example, Shakespeare spoke of ‘floating … obedient to the streame.’
And … chastity! It is a common error to confuse this with celibacy.
Chastity simply means “purity” – as in “chaste friendship”. It should
be equated with celibacy only where sex is inappropriate. To live chastely is to
base our relationships on radical psychological honesty. Without this, a lasting
and richly fulfilling love life is quite impossible.
The Evangelical Counsels thereby sustain the three branches of community.
They protect against abusing natural power, social power and spiritual power. We
have here a lay monastic ethic suitable for our times. What hope, and what fun!
is a Scottish Friend and a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology
where he teaches on the Open University validated MSc degree course. His book, Soil
and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum Press, £12.99) has been
described by George Monbiot as “a world-changing book”. Many of his papers
are available online at www.AlastairMcIntosh.com.
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10 July 2003