is an influential Quaker academic, author and activist, whose masterpiece Soil and Soul has been variously described as ‘inspiring’ (Starhawk), ‘world-changing’ (George Monbiot) and ‘truly mental’ (Thom Yorke).
Huw Spanner did some digging in a garden in London on 13 July 2017.
Photography: Andrew Firth
How do you think of yourself, as British or Scottish?
Scottish, but with English and Welsh connections. My father’s roots were in the Borders and the Highlands but I was born in Doncaster of an English mother. Primarily I identify with the community of place that raised me from the age of four, which was the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
Do you think of yourself as a Celt?
Not wholly but largely so. By ‘a Celt’, I mean somebody whose social-ethnic reference group is on the fringes of the British Isles, where the Empire – whether it’s the Roman Empire, the Norman empire or modern imperialist pretensions – never quite fully penetrated.
How do you see your English ‘connections’?
The English need what I call ‘cultural psychotherapy’. They need to understand their own history, and not just what it’s done to others but what it has done to them, the way in which the class system brought in by the Normans has oppressed the English in their own land and given them an identity through joining the oppressors’ identity – so you have Boris [Johnson] boasting in his ‘spirit of envy’ speech1bit.ly/2O6jJfV a few years ago that England has invaded or colonised more countries than any other nation in the world. Boasting about it!
(I hear justification of Trident ‘because we need to be able to punch above our weight’. Why? If we are concerned about peace, if we are concerned about justice, why would we want to punch, and why ‘above our weight’? Let go of that abomination!)
You know, every time I travel through the North of England I feel a profound emptiness, which made sense when I read about the ‘harrying’ of the North by the Normans, who perpetrated genocide against the English resistance [there]. When you read what was done, you have to ask how much of that has knocked on intergenerationally.
There is an urgent task to reclaim an authentic and spiritually grounded English identity. If it was reflected in voting patterns, we wouldn’t need to be talking about Scottish independence
And yet the other side of that is that the North is the part of England to which the radicals retreated under Norman violence, and I suspect that’s part of why the more radical side of England comes out there. [Quakerism] developed mainly in the north and west of England and I suspect that nonconformity comes out of that radical spirit – which needs to be rekindled, not in ways manipulated by the Murdoch press or the Conservative Party or Ukip but much more in the way that William Blake understood, of connecting with the spirit of the land. ‘And did those feet … walk upon … England’s green and pleasant land?’ Of course they did! That is the meaning of an incarnate Christianity.
I think there is an urgent task to reclaim such an authentic and spiritually grounded English identity. I welcome that depth of English identity when I see it – if it was reflected in voting patterns, we wouldn’t need to be talking about Scottish independence, but instead we get the kind of Conservative policies imposed on us that protect the rich and savage the poor.
If you drew a graph of the human population over time, you would get an exponential curve: tens of thousands of years of modest numbers that have suddenly built, over the last two centuries, into billions. It strikes me that some of us live on the Y axis, so to speak – all that matters to us is what is happening now, or nowabouts – but some of us live much more along the X axis, interested in the wisdom that has accrued over hundreds of generations.
Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely.
Would I be right to think that you live much more along the X axis?
That’s a beautifully astute observation. I take that as a compliment. [The Scottish historian] John Lorne Campbell said that Gaelic culture is connected through history, whereas modern culture is connected through space, with a superficial understanding of deep time.2See his introduction to Highland Songs of the Forty-Five (John Grant, 1933).
And for me part of the importance of this is that a violent culture – and I class a consumerist culture as being intrinsically a violent one – operates on the short wave. It appears superficially effective – you hit me, I hit you back – but it doesn’t work on the long wave. And if we’re going to move towards a non-violent understanding of things, if we’re going to do our psychohistory as nations and understand what has made us the way we are and revision what we might be called to become –
(Note my phrasing there! Not what we want to become but what we might be called to become, because I’m presuming a spiritual underpinning to nationhood. I’m presuming, with the French thinker Ernest Renan,3See bit.ly/2LaWwuR. that a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle, because it is the aggregate of people living in that community of place.)
If we’re going to look at what we are called to become, we need to be looking at ourselves, understanding ourselves, intergenerationally – as the Native Americans would say, thinking seven generations ahead. Thinking in terms of the lifespan of oak trees, not just of humans.
The poet Kate Tempest told us of her heightened consciousness of past events, including violent events.4‘I have this idea that everything that’s ever happened on the planet remains here. Like, every death, every joy, every kiss – it remains. If you’re walking down the street and you get this kind of feeling of a great violence or something… Or you suddenly hallucinate a kind of a warmth. I have this idea that everything we do just stays behind, repeating.’ See highprofiles.info/interview/kate-tempest. Is it similar for you?
Yeah. I remember the first time I went to Normandy I was very unsettled. I was vexed by the knowledge of the fighting there [in 1944] – I could look around and see the debris of the war.
We’re not just individual egos walking about; we are profoundly interconnected, like the fingers on a hand. We are all ‘members one of another’, all branches on the tree of life
When I first met the theologian Walter Wink, he told me that when he went to Jerusalem he couldn’t sleep for three nights, because he was ‘wrestling with the angel of Jerusalem’. He said: ‘It’s been the most violent city on earth for a very, very long time and I couldn’t help but feel that.’ I think there is such a thing as ‘spirit of place’. Whether it’s objectively embedded in place I wouldn’t want to speculate in just a few words, but it is certainly embedded in our human psyche.
My understanding of that psyche is that we’re not just [individual] egos walking about on legs of meat but are profoundly interconnected, like [the fingers on] a hand. We are all ‘members one of another’,5Romans 12:5 all branches on the tree – or vine6See John 15:1. – of life. Or, in Hinduism, atman is brahman. And here you are outside of space and time. When you move into [what I call] ‘the God space’, you move out of space and time, and that means that you cannot separate a place from what has happened in that space in other times within the fullness of the human psyche.
I’m going to Passchendaele shortly, where my great-uncle was killed 100 years ago in the Great War, and I don’t know what I will feel there – assuming I feel anything at all. No doubt you or Kate Tempest would pick up the vibes.
The scientist in me is always cautious about ‘picking up vibrations’, that kind of stuff. I’m very wary of ‘woo-woo’ spirituality. But I think that, in the fullness of the psyche that extends into the whole of creation, we are interconnected and therefore to me it’s more like a direct perception [from outside] of space and time. Plato called time ‘a moving image of eternity’.7Timaeus 37c [The Russian mathematician and esotericist P D] Ouspensky used the image of [travelling] through the Russian steppes in a railway carriage and seeing only the little bits you can see from the window. What happens in spiritual experience, and especially in mystical experience, is that that small window on reality starts to widen.
You’ve studied physics, geography and psychology. Is there any conflict in you between your scientific training and your mysticism?
No – because my spirituality, my mysticism, is empirical. I think the essence of science is empiricism. Gandhi titled his autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ and I see spiritual life as experiments with God. We are invited to walk the path of faith and find out what happens when we do that. ‘Taste and see that God is good,’ as the psalmist has it.8Psalm 34:8 That’s how I make my way through life, and to me that is a scientific approach – it’s not about blind faith. You take these steps of faith and ‘taste and see’ and then, my experience is, you start to discover that God is good.
I was never an atheist, because I had no grounds for saying absolutely there is not a God, but in my teenage years I was agnostic. I didn’t know, but I had a passion to find out. So, I started studying the literature on mystical experience. I started studying accounts of mystical experience, the parallels within it, the kind of work that people like [the British philosopher] Walter Stace did with his nine criteria common to mystical experience – unconditional love, bliss, ineffability, joyousness, lasting changes in life, those kind of things.
I also started going on journeys that have led me at times to have epiphany-type experiences. In my book Poacher’s Pilgrimage,9Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An island journey (Birlinn, 2016) [I relate how], as I get to the end of a 12-day walk across the Isle of Lewis, in an ancient cemetery where human bones were scattered around beside a ruined temple (as the pre-Reformation chapels were called) I had an experience suggestive of ‘the communion of saints’.
How do you respond to attempts by neuroscientists to analyse mystical or ecstatic experience in terms of brain function?
At the deepest level, reality is poetic. The universe is the poetry of God, played out in the language of science. I don’t see a contradiction in that, provided we don’t confuse categories and get overly literal about it all
I observe what’s going on in neuroscience with very great interest. [It’s true that if you] give electric stimulation to the brain, some people will get flashes of mystical experience. But if you close your eyes and I thump you on the head, you will see a flash of light because it stimulates the optic nerve. Because the brain has got the capacity to perceive light, you can artificially stimulate the brain to simulate the effect of light. In the same way, I would say we have got the capacity to perceive spiritual light and [so] you can artificially stimulate that. Of course you will see neural activity going on when spiritual experience happens, but don’t confuse cause and effect. That’s how I look at that one.
I might be wrong on that, by the way. I might be very wrong.
When you look at a tree, let’s say, what is it you are looking at? Is it a creature? An organic machine? A dryad? I suppose Francis of Assisi might have called it ‘Sister Tree’…
Jung has a lovely line on that: he came to see crystals and flowers and so on as being the thoughts of God.10For example: ‘Plants were bound for good or ill to their places. They expressed not only beauty but also the thoughts of God’s world, with an intent of their own and without deviation. Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason, the woods were the places where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings’ (Memories, Dreams, Reflections [Vintage Books, 1963]) The scholastic theologians understood that. It’s we in our materialism that have taken God out of the equation, because we think ‘he’ is unnecessary. Well, I would say that God only appears to become unnecessary when violence, either inflicted on you or caused by you – and the two are closely intertwined – causes you to cut off from the deeper ground of being.
But I’m perfectly comfortable with all of science, including evolutionary science. I have no problem whatsoever thinking that I am an advanced monkey.
How do you respond to animism? I took part in a sweat lodge some years ago and we began by greeting the rocks as our ancestors and I thought –
‘It’s a bit ridiculous’?
‘I don’t know whether I can do this.’
I respond to that kind of thing at a poetic level. And I can reconcile that with a scientific perspective because I think that at the deepest level reality is poetic. The universe is the poetry of God, played out in the language of science. I don’t see a contradiction in that, provided we don’t confuse categories and get overly literal about it all.
Where I perhaps share your uneasiness is that sometimes there’s a kind of artificial preciousness cooked up around such things. Sometimes it is something that is constructed in the head and imposed on reality, rather than experienced as a gift of grace from reality; and then it comes over as phoney-spiritual, in the same way that a lot of what goes on in mainstream religion might be seen as phoney-spiritual. It’s going through the motions; it’s not, you know, ‘Be still and know that I am God,’11Psalm 46:10 a receptiveness to the numinous.
The Nobel-Prize-winning biologist Maurice Wilkins reportedly remarked that strands of DNA ‘intertwine in a loving embrace’ and insisted that he didn’t mean that metaphorically.12As recalled by Keith Ward in his interview of Lewis Wolpert for High Profiles – see bit.ly/2IsLzQn.
That is so interesting. I remember the day in the chemistry class at school – I would have been 15 or 16 – when the teacher taught us about weak and strong atomic forces and, I don’t know, something just went through me. I thought: This is like love, these forces that hold atoms together!
I talk a lot about ‘metaphor’ in my work. I’m coming from a culture where deep reality is metaphoric, where story is more than just make-believe, it is about how we are made. My four years in Papua New Guinea [with Voluntary Service Overseas in 1977–80, and subsequently in 1984–86] woke me up to the depths of understanding that we have in Celtic cultures but which are largely invisible, including to many scholars.
Interestingly, you can have that conversation now with some scientists, in a way that even some poets would still struggle with. Some scientists are realising that they are having to use metaphor all the time to describe what they are discovering. Even the language of mathematics may be metaphorical. I love that.
In her article ‘Being Prey’,13Downloadable from bit.ly/2IuoPzC the ‘ecofeminist’ philosopher Val Plumwood suggests that we construct an image of the world as something we master and manipulate and then perhaps, in the moment when (as happened to her) a crocodile is trying to kill and eat you, you realise that actually you are as much a piece of meat as any other animal and nature is, as she puts it, ‘shockingly indifferent’ to you.
Is that not true? Because reality is not metaphor, is it? It’s just brute fact.
Well, you know, I eat animals. I should be vegetarian, but I’m not. (I twice tried it, but my spiritual powers are very limited!) I grew up in a rural community where we farmed animals and hunted animals – and I still do. I mean, I was out in the canoe fishing for mackerel just last weekend. And so I’m very aware of the relationship with prey, and I’m aware of the Native American position, which you can also find in Celtic tradition, that the prey gives itself. At the end of the day, I think that’s a poetic way of saying that we’re all predators and all prey.
That’s a very cosy thought, isn’t it – that the prey gives itself? What if the hunter asks the deer if he can shoot her and the deer says: ‘No, I’m not having that’?
Let’s be real about it: when I was slaughtering mackerel, they were fighting for their lives in blind panic to get away. If I had been fishing for bottom-feeding fish, their swimming bladders would have been bursting as I hauled them up, because that’s what happens to fish when you rapidly decompress them. I’m a relatively humane fisherman and when I get the fish up I put my thumb in and break its neck so it dies quickly; but normally a fish that you buy in the shop has suffocated in the net or died from the bends. It’s a cruel way to go.
Because of the background I have had, I’m able to reconcile that with also seeing and feeling the beauty of the shoal of fish. Or having a lamb as a pet and then, at the end of the day, cutting its throat – or putting a bullet through its head, as we used to do – and accepting that as part of the cycle of life.
We are all prey, we are all preyed upon, and that’s just the way it works. If nothing died, the planet would get more and more overpopulated and war, famine or pestilence would kick in. So, I see a kind of beauty in the predator-prey relationship. [That said,] the moment I feel threadworms in my arse I’m the first one to bomb down to the chemist to get something that’s going to kill them! So, it’s not like I’m being self-sacrificial about these things. Like any organism, I struggle for my own survival and wellbeing. But if, you know, I was out swimming and the sharks were circling, there might be a certain spiritual discipline in saying: What a blessed way to go!
That brings one to the question: Can we really die, or is death just a trick with mirrors? Does the fullness of our lives take us outside of space and time?
Woody Allen said, ‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’
Yes. You know, I do a lot of speaking to the military in staff colleges across Europe and so I’m very aware of what goes on in military dynamics, that all the time as we are speaking here right now there are people undergoing torture. If we are serious about prayer, one of the things we might consider doing is just attuning ourselves to those people who are suffering in this very moment and sitting with that. I’ve often felt [that] if I was being tortured, probably the only thing that could give me solace would be the thought that there are people out there who devote their lives to prayer and solidarity with those who are suffering in that way.
I remember one hellfire sermon and a sense of indignation that became so strong I had to almost hold myself to the chair. I wanted to stand up and denounce the minister for such anti-Christian teaching
I met one the other day, a hermit nun up in the Highlands who had been a physician by profession before she retired. She spends her whole time now studying the academic literature on torture and praying for those being tortured in the moment. She told me: ‘I just hold them in God.’
I live and work in Govan in Glasgow, where there’s a lot of severe intergenerational poverty, and what strikes me about so many such people is that they are what religious institutions would call ‘unchurched’ but they’ve actually got a very deep faith. There are very few of them who do not have a sense of the Divine. There was one guy, who died of a heroin overdose a couple of years ago, who said to me: ‘Alastair, I can only make sense of my life in terms of God and the devil.’ I baulked a bit when he mentioned the devil, but I felt I had no right to query his experience.
Have you seen Broken? Do you watch television?
No, we don’t have TV. What is it?
It’s a drama [written by Jimmy McGovern and broadcast on BBC1 in 2017] about a Catholic priest and his community in the north of England. It’s a very powerful representation of the Christian gospel, and part of its power lies in the fact that the priest himself is broken. Watching it, I understood why Christians emphasise that Jesus was ‘acquainted with grief’,14See Isaiah 53:3. because only if you know grief yourself can you relate to other people who are grieving.
You know, that’s such an interesting point. My wife Vérène and I managed to conceive a child through IVF, but we lost him at 30 weeks through stillbirth. That experience affected me far more deeply than I ever thought that such a thing would, and yet it affected me in a strangely beautiful way. The child had to be delivered by Caesarian section and it was a kind of mystical experience for me. I had a kind of vision of the arms of the ancestors coming down to receive him, and a sense of this child having come from God and, for reasons that were beyond our ken, going back into God.
While we were waiting to have the Caesarian, Vérène and I both had the same thought: Here we are, people from relatively privileged, middle-class [backgrounds], and we’re living by choice in a hard-pressed part of town. We have not suffered the way that most of our neighbours have, and this will actually be a blessing in the work we are doing, because people will know that now we have experienced something like what they’ve experienced.
Which is how it’s worked out. It has been a great leveller.
Can you talk a bit about your journey from Calvinism to Quakerism?
I was never a Calvinist. I was raised in that creed but from the earliest age that I was able to understand [it] I felt a revulsion at the doctrine that you’re predestined either for heaven or hell, either one of the elect or one of the damned (‘from before the foundations of the world were laid’, as the  Westminster Confession of Faith puts it). When I was 15 or so, I remember one hellfire sermon and a rising sense of indignation that became so strong I had to almost hold myself to the chair, because I wanted to stand up and denounce the minister for such anti-Christian teaching.
It left something very deep in me. You know, we need to get to grips with this colonisation of the Christian faith by the spirit of violence. John Calvin in his Institutes15Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in Latin in 1536 says that God is ‘armed for vengeance’ against human sin and sends Christ to take the punishment on our behalf.16See Institutes 2:16:1 and 2:16:10. (Of course, that’s not unique to Calvinism – I mean, all Calvin was doing was ratcheting up what Anselm had said in gentler tones…)
A good religion should be like a trellis that leads a vine of life towards the sun of spirituality and ripens the grapes to make strong wine that spiritually intoxicates us
Listening to some of your lectures sent me back to the Book of Jeremiah. I was shocked by the way that God, in Jeremiah’s vision, castigates the Jews for not being kind to widows and orphans, not being fair and so on – all very ‘right on’ – and yet constantly threatens them with extreme violence. It reminded me of those parents who shout at their children, ‘How dare you hit someone smaller than you?’ and then slap them.
I know, I know. Well, I don’t accept the evangelical view that the Bible is the word of God. I take the view that it contains the word of God. Jesus never promised us the letters of Paul; he didn’t even promise us the Gospels. What he did promise us, if we can go by John’s Gospel,17John 14:26, 16:7–13 was the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit; and this is where the Quaker in me would say that it is incumbent on us to read the scriptures with the eye of discernment that the Holy Spirit moves within us. You know, if we’re going to play the game of trumping one another with scripture, I’ll call as my ace in the pack the supreme [proof text] that ‘God is love.’181 John 4:8 & 16 All other ‘proofs’ must stand the test of that.
What you’ve got in those Old Testament passages is the prophets [speaking] at the level of understanding that the people they were addressing had. As I see it, it’s not that God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s not that God forces the Jews into exile in Babylon; it’s more that those societies implode through their own hubris and then these things happen. People bring it on themselves. If you don’t care for the widows and the orphans and [the foreigners among you], your society will implode. That’s what I see unfolding now with the racism so often apparent in Brexit, or with [Donald] Trump in America. It’s what I see with climate change.
And so the prophets were articulating something that, you know, we have to translate. The problem is that theologians like Calvin [whose] God is ‘armed for vengeance’ are reinforcing a way of speech that might have been deemed appropriate 2,500 years ago but which more and more fails to speak to the spirituality of many of us today.
You raise so many questions – talking to you is like starting a hare and that then starts three more!
I love your metaphor. It’s both the advantage and the disadvantage of a poetic mode of thinking. When I’m writing or speaking, I have to try to really discipline myself.
How do you define spirituality? Some would say that being ‘spiritual’ is basically a soft option for people who find religion too challenging.
I define the spiritual as the raw experience of the Divine which, because it is all about love, necessarily needs to find social expression. And as soon as we do things socially, as soon as we do things together, we have to agree upon the ground rules – and that’s when you get religion. A good religion should be like a trellis that leads a vine of life towards the sun of spirituality and ripens the grapes to make strong wine that spiritually intoxicates us; but in reality, because a religion is a social and even political entity, because it is substantially – not wholly – human-made, it will always degrade, always corrupt. And therefore we must be engaged in a continual reformation of our religious structures so that they can serve the spiritual life of the community.
If you had been born in another part of the world, could you just as easily have been a Hindu or a Muslim?
I am as easily a Hindu or a Muslim. My approach is fundamentally Christian but I see no contradiction between my Christian faith and the nourishment I find from the Hindu scriptures, or any other faith that is rooted in love.
[However,] I think Christ shines through it all. Christ to me is the human face of God. We are made, we exist, in God’s image and there is something profoundly human at the heart of the universe. But let’s remember that that is [according to] our human understanding. There is also something profoundly tree, something profoundly cat, something profoundly fly. God is in that wasp as much as in us – and remember that the scriptures speak to our human condition, they’re not trying to speak to the wasp’s condition (although the panentheism of the last few chapters of the Book of Job,19bit.ly/2LRcQgX and Psalm 104,20bit.ly/2JTr3Il do a pretty good job of it!).
As I see it, Christ is both human and divine, both a man who lived and died 2,000 years ago and the beating cosmic heart whose archetypal reality was present, as John’s Gospel has it, ‘in the beginning’. And we are called, as [the apostle] Peter so eloquently put it, to become ‘participants’ or ‘partakers’ in the divine nature.21See 2 Peter 1:4. We are called to a position where ‘I live, yet not I but Christ lives within me.’22Galatians 2:20 I live yet not I but Krishna lives within me, the Buddha nature lives within me. To me, it’s all much the same if it is all about the cosmic love. There is only one love – that’s the nature of love.
But, note, I say ‘much the same’, not ‘just the same’. The Buddha was a prince of privileged upbringing, Krishna was a god incarnate who spent his spare time chasing after the gopi girls; but Jesus was born out of wedlock, in the most humble circumstances, and immediately became a refugee. He lived the life of a full-on activist for justice and the healing of the wounds of violence. Jesus reveals God standing with us, understanding us. He counteracts the authoritarian image of God made (I would suggest) in our own image. That’s why, to me, he represents the urgent, activist imperative to grow – to grow towards the light of love. That’s what trips me out, what blows my mind.
And what is your definition of love?
Ha! It’s the ground of being. Love is the fountain of all wonderfulness. And we learn about it as much by walking away from it and experiencing what life is like without it as we do from experiencing it. And hence this interplay, all the time, of shadow and light, of good and evil. That’s part of the spiritual pilgrimage of life that we are on.
[ + ]
|2.||⇑||See his introduction to Highland Songs of the Forty-Five (John Grant, 1933).|
|4.||⇑||‘I have this idea that everything that’s ever happened on the planet remains here. Like, every death, every joy, every kiss – it remains. If you’re walking down the street and you get this kind of feeling of a great violence or something… Or you suddenly hallucinate a kind of a warmth. I have this idea that everything we do just stays behind, repeating.’ See highprofiles.info/interview/kate-tempest.|
|6.||⇑||See John 15:1.|
|9.||⇑||Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An island journey (Birlinn, 2016)|
|10.||⇑||For example: ‘Plants were bound for good or ill to their places. They expressed not only beauty but also the thoughts of God’s world, with an intent of their own and without deviation. Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason, the woods were the places where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings’ (Memories, Dreams, Reflections [Vintage Books, 1963])|
|12.||⇑||As recalled by Keith Ward in his interview of Lewis Wolpert for High Profiles – see bit.ly/2IsLzQn.|
|13.||⇑||Downloadable from bit.ly/2IuoPzC|
|14.||⇑||See Isaiah 53:3.|
|15.||⇑||Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in Latin in 1536|
|16.||⇑||See Institutes 2:16:1 and 2:16:10.|
|17.||⇑||John 14:26, 16:7–13|
|18.||⇑||1 John 4:8 & 16|
|21.||⇑||See 2 Peter 1:4.|
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Alastair McIntosh was born in Doncaster in 1955 but grew up in the village of Leurbost on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He was educated at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway.
He studied geography (‘submajoring’ in psychology and moral philosophy) at Aberdeen University, graduating in 1977. After serving with VSO in Papua New Guinea, he did an MBA at Edinburgh University in 1981. In 2008, he gained a doctorate in liberation theology and land reform (by published works) from the Academy of Irish Cultural Heritages at Ulster University.
He has been involved with Scottish land reform since 1990, especially on Eigg (which the community bought in 1997), and from 1991 to 2004 was a leader in the successful campaign against the proposed superquarry on Harris. He has worked freelance since 1996 as a campaigning academic, speaker, writer, poet and consultant on climate change, poverty, community empowerment, peace studies and contemporary spirituality. In 1997 he was a founding trustee of the GalGael Trust in Govan, of which he remains a non-executive director, and he served on Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission from 2009 to 2012.
In 2006, he was appointed visiting professor of human ecology at Strathclyde University, the first such post in Scotland. He is also a fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology, an honorary fellow of both the Schumacher Society and the School of Divinity at Edinburgh, and a senior honorary research fellow at the College of Social Sciences, Glasgow University.
As an academic, he is best known for his work on land reform, war and non-violence, climate change, and the spirituality of community, identity, belonging and place.
He is the author of Healing Nationhood: Essays on spirituality, place and community (2000), Soil and Soul: People versus corporate power (2001), the poetry collection Love and Revolution (2006), Hell and High Water: Climate change, hope and the human condition and Rekindling Community: Connecting people, environment and spirituality (both 2008), Island Spirituality: Spiritual values of Lewis and Harris (2013), Parables of Northern Seed, a collection of his ‘thoughts for the day’ for BBC Radio (2014), Spiritual Activism: Leadership as service (2015) with Matt Carmichael, and Poacher’s Pilgrimage (2016). With Lewis Williams and Rose Roberts, he edited Radical Human Ecology (2012).
His writing has appeared in periodicals including the Herald, the Scotsman, the Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, Edinburgh Review, the Ecologist, Resurgence, Interculture, the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, the Journal of Law & Religion, the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Fishing Monthly and Accounting, Business & Financial History.
He has two adult children by his first wife. He married again in 2002 and now lives in Glasgow.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2018