Island Spirituality

Three months have passed since Alastair McIntosh, by nature a generous spirit, sent me a copy of his most recent book, ‘Island Spirituality’, suggesting I might review it.  I read it, and decided I couldn’t.  Our views are diametrically opposed and had I been honest there would have been blood on the carpet.  This was a New Age critique of Calvinism, repeating all the standard anti-Calvinist clichés while at the same creating the illusion of first-hand research by presenting a handful of selective quotations from one or two of the fifty-eight volumes which have come down to us from the Genevan Reformer.  If future scholars adopt a similar procedure they will have no difficulty showing that I disapprove of Sgiathanchs; and that would be, at best, but a half-truth.

 But the book has been well received by Lewis’s anti-Christian lobby and it may soon come to be quoted as an authority.  Besides, it set me thinking: What is, or was, ‘island spirituality’?

The word itself is a problem.  Previous generations of Christians seldom spoke of ‘spirituality’, but ours has found it a convenient excuse to place under one umbrella the faiths of Presbyterians, Hindus, Muslims, Animists and royal princes who talk to flowers.  Each, judged by the New Age, has its merits; and each, judged by the New Age, has its flaws.

This was not an umbrella under which Christians cared to sit.  Writers such as the modern Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke of discipleship, not of spirituality; and this discipleship focused exclusively on one person, Jesus of Nazareth.  The thought of seeking counsel from other gurus or rabbis or shamans would have horrified the early followers of Jesus.  They had found the Messiah, and he was the Truth, the exclusive enfleshment of God.

It was this faith of the early church that provided the foundation for island religion, and this is the real reason why it is so offensive.  It refuses to see Jesus as just one of many ways to God, but there is nothing particularly ‘island’ about this.  The Christians of Alexandria, Carthage and Wittenberg saw things exactly the same way, as do the modern believers of Seoul and Tokyo.

For island Christians as for all others, being disciples meant that they were enrolled in the school of Christ, and the only place where they could hear his voice was in the Bible.  This is why the Book was at the heart of ‘island spirituality’ and why its worship was so largely a worship of listening.  Believers grew up listening to the magnificent cadences of the Authorised Version and the no less magnificent Gaelic Bible, and to the strophic and musical oratory of the great Gaelic preachers.  The Word lay at the heart of everything, not only in the public meetings of the church, but in the endless discussions of the meaning of this verse and that, which took place after church (and without benefit of clergy) in people’s homes; and whether in the demagoguery of Hitler, the oratory of Martin Luther King or the poetry of James Heaney, word is always power.

For these old islanders, the Word was everywhere, and this may explain why such a small constituency could produce in one generation writers of the calibre of Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, Derick Thomson and Donald MacAulay.  They might reject the Bible’s message, but they imbibed its influence.  It was this book, memorised and quoted even by the illiterate, which shaped island religion: not Calvin’s ‘Institutes’, of which most of the people had never heard, and which many of their ministers had never read.

To people accustomed to Anglican and Roman Catholic liturgy one of the oddest things about island worship is that there are no ‘responses’.  I’ve even heard someone remark on the way out of church that he had engaged in no personal religious act during the entire hour (and a half).  He had listened to the minister, but he had said nothing.

The odd thing about this comment was that the complainant had joined with his fellow worshippers in singing four splendid portions of the Psalter.  He didn’t seem to realise that these were his ‘responses’, and in the high day of ‘island spirituality’ there was no greater music in any church on earth than a congregation singing their Gaelic psalms; and never was it more splendid than at Communion times, when congregations of over a thousand people achieved the remarkable feat of singing in unison while each individual added her own extempore embellishments.

But it wasn’t to sing they had gathered.  They had gathered for a spiritual feast (what they called a ‘feill’), and the climax of that feast was the moment when they sat down together for the Lord’s Supper.  That moment was preceded by a Thanksgiving sermon which invariably focused on one theme, the death of Christ.  They were gathered to remember it, to give thanks for it and to share in its blessings.  The cross was everything to them, and that was the real scandal of ‘island spirituality’, not predestination or limited atonement or some other of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism.  The scandal is this exclusive worship of one guru, made infinitely worse by the fact that what he did to save the world was to die for it.  How could the execution of a Jewish criminal 2,000 years ago save a modern academic?

It would be much nicer if, as Alastair suggests, ‘island spirituality’ could be reduced to a ‘miann’ (a longing or desire).  This would be the little gem hidden in the folds of the abhorrent Calvinism and it would link the islands to the yearnings of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islamic mysticism.

There was certainly a ‘miann’ in island Presbyterianism, but it didn’t mean a vague longing for some unknown god who could never be more than a warming of our own hearts.  They modelled their ‘miann’ on the Psalms, and thirsted for the Living God, enfleshed in his Son, Jesus Christ.

The first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, didn’t find Jesus because they had a ‘miann’ for him and had applied for admission to his school.  But one day he came along and called them to leave their nets and follow him.  They did, and the rest is history.

But he chose them, not they him.  This is what the church later called Unconditional Election.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 13 September, 2013