I will be speaking next Monday (23rd Feb) in Birmingham at an event called “Can Christianity Help Science Improve the World”, alongside Peter Atkins. The event is organised jointly by Christians in Science Birmingham and the University of Birmingham’s Atheist Secular and Humanist society. Arts lecture theatre, 7pm-9pm.

The following are some reflections on Soil and Soil.

Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul (Aurum Press 2001) defies the normal categories of writing. It is political and spiritual at the same time. How do you do that? McIntosh shows the way. He is driven by concern for social justice, and also by the feeling that yes, for goodness’ sake, we are spiritual creatures and are allowed to sing. We are allowed to do dumb things like take our boots off in order to enact physically our recognition of the holiness of place. This does not negate, but rather empowers the crucial exercise of getting facts straight and getting objectivity in view. Also it does not negate but rather empowers the otherwise dull drudgery of writing to an M.P. or organising a petition or getting permission to address a public enquiry.

Soil and Soul focuses on two specific projects in which McIntosh was a driving force. The first was enabling the people of Eigg, the island in the Inner Hebrides, to gain communal ownership of the land (the whole island) on which they lived. This is the first case in which Scottish tenants cleared a laird from his own estate, thus overturning one example of the power of the landed few to constrain the lives of common people. The second project was to galvanise understanding of, and objections to, a proposal from a multinational quarrying company to turn large parts of another Hebridean island (a whole mountain, no less) into a giant superquarry. These two projects are discussed in the wider context of ecological concern, such as the issue I presented in the quotation which formed last week’s post. But what is interesting about McIntosh’s book is that he finds ways to connect with people’s deeper concerns and values, to find the strong current running under the surface, where spirituality, theology, religion and, yes, atheist philosophy and scepticism too, get to work. He does this without descending into a mush of sentimentality, but also without demanding a shared dogma.

The book is also brave. There is some heart there; some throwing of caution to the winds.

When I mentioned the “holiness of place” above I immediately heard two voices ringing in my ears. One is the sceptical voice which has a gut-reaction to the word “holiness”, incensed as it is with layers of religion as social control, or with the syrup of popular superstition. The other is the carefully religious voice, which insists “it isn’t about holy places, about this mountain or that mountain, this shrine or that monastery. There are no holy wells, or else, all wells are holy.” To these voices, McIntosh has respectful and thoughtful replies. He describes frankly the abuse of religious power which is part of the legacy of the church in Scotland (as it is in other places), but he also sees that that same tradition also gave much to the community, and the abuse of power is being admitted to and addressed within it. McIntosh also would be the first to admit that all places are holy, but he knows that the right and only way to make that real is to pick a particular place from time to time, or to let some places stand as reminders for all places.

The book makes a remarkable case for pausing to think before the headlong rush for what looks like convenience. For example, supermarkets and refrigerators have replaced the need to send your teenager out onto the loch in a rowing-boat to bring in a few fish. How convenient. But now said teenager has ended up stuck in the back streets of Glasgow with nothing worthwhile to do. The book does not try to recommend any simple luddite refusal of technology, but it does insist that we can do better, and that there is no need to regard such grinding social processes as unavoidable.

Also, the book shows, there is something deeply liberating, connecting, and refreshing about not having the landlord or the town council be in charge of all the work around your home. Rather than wait for some anonymous labourer to come and straighten out the street sign, why not do it yourself, or, better, do it with your neighbour and your children? Rather than wish that someone would tidy up that muddy ditch, why not get to grips with the stone and the earth and the water yourself, and rebuild the ancient well? Then, when you come back and get your baby baptised or otherwise celebrated using the water of that very well, you will receive something that the complete works of Nietzsche cannot give you.

If you read this book, and I hope you will, you may find yourself most moved, as I was, by parts that, at the outset, you might have dismissed. Because of this, I will not reveal here what those parts were, for me. So I will finish on another note. I ask myself, what is the take-home message for me here? And I find it hard to put into words. I feel a bit of “long live the revolution” and a bit of “do this in remembrance of me” and it is probably partly owing to this book that I finally got my finger out and went on the Amnesty International website and joined a petition. But the message that lingers for me is one expressed in another context by the line from Rilke:

“for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”