I have known but a few figures who have enjoyed something of a prophetic status, and one of them is Alastair McIntosh, the free-lance Quaker activist, writer, broadcaster, poet, part-time academic – and all-round provocateur. I first met Alastair when I was involved in the organisation of the Conference Nature Religion Today that took place way back in 1996 at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside in the English Lake District. This unknown to us bearded figure arrived and began to deliver a formal academic paper on the environmental aspects of the controversial removal of Mount Roineabhal and the Harris ‘Super-quarry’ Inquiry, at which he had managed to persuade a Native Canadian chief and a prominent professor from the Free Church College in Edinburgh take part in a superbly well-publicised appearance.
Suddenly, some quarter of an hour into his slides the speaker put aside his text, slung a plaid over his shoulder and began to declaim with full bardic intensity his epic poem ‘The Gal-Gael Peoples of Scotland’. This had grown out of his involvement with the M77 road protest movement and had been ‘(w)ritten at the request of and dedicated to Tawny, Colin and Gehan Macleod and other powerful gentle warriors at the Pollok Free State M77 Motorway Protest in Glasgow, whose endeavours for renewal are both ecological and cultural’.
The impact upon those present, an unusual mixture of academic participants and representatives of the diverse wider Pagan community (some being both) was remarkable; I recall one participant rushing out of the lecture theatre tearing at his shirt apparently with the intention of re-connecting sky-clad with Nature. The elevated bardic style (think Dylan Thomas ‘hwyl’ – but as if charged up on whisky and magic mushrooms) is not for everyday use, but on this occasion it worked. I began more fully to understand the geopoetic intensity that lies behind that part of contemporary Scottish nationalism simmering on the rim of Caledonia amongst the dispossessed and damaged post-working class of Glasgow, just prior to the re-establishment in 1997 of the Scottish Parliament laid to one side in 1707 with the Union of the Parliaments. Since then the Scottish National Party has of course advanced in a remarkable way both in Edinburgh and most recently in Westminster.
Alastair and I found we had much in common as regards our experience of and resistance to the managerialisation and commodification of British universities. As Teaching Director of the Centre for Human Ecology then based in the University of Edinburgh, McIntosh’s teaching methods were considered controversial by authority, but in reality the introduction of a deep ecological perspectives and techniques into activism was turning out to be a highly effective critical response to the demands of agro-business and the animal research that formed and remains such a significant factor in university funding. There was sharp controversy in the press that reached the pages of the journal New Scientist and resulted in the eventual exit of the CHE from the University. McIntosh chronicled this conflict and his engagement in land reform and the Isle of Eigg buyout in his book Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power. Now, nearly twenty years later, McIntosh and his collaborator, the Leeds-based fellow activist Matt Carmichael, have published a how-to-do book, Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service (Green Books), which also seeks to assert the intellectual validity of the integration of consciousness-altering techniques drawn from a wide range of sources into socio-political engagement.
Spiritual Activism is an intriguing and challenging book for a reader like me who has seen some of McIntosh’s work at first hand, but who regards himself as bound by limiting protocols as to the legitimacy of moving from an etic to emic posture. Thus what lies behind this lively and eclectic book is not simply the creative tension between participation and observation that underlies much research in ‘Religious Studies’, but the ingestion and integration of techniques and insights that have proven their utility in the field of protest – and not just been rehearsed vicariously in the classroom. In short, this book is ‘critical’ in that its basic drive, its inner hermeneutical principle, is to make as many connections as possible between activism on the part of ‘one who acts to bring change in our relationships are structured, that is change in community, often taking one to a point of discomfort’ (p. 12), and the techniques that enable access to what McIntosh and Carmichael call the ‘inner aspect of reality’ (p. 30).
The problem for those working in British higher education (both sides of the border) is that what industry, commerce and the ever-proliferating apparatus of regulation imposed on body, mind and the social order are deemed to require is a human product manifesting informed passivity: the student outcome needs to know enough to conform in an intelligent way – or the chances are that s/he will over the cliff like Thelma and Louise. In Spiritual Activism the authors take a big risk and stick up two fingers at this now ‘normalised’ understanding of the education process.
Chapters consider the nature of activism, spirituality and its justification, the role of ‘higher consciousness’, the ‘structure of the psyche’, ‘movements and their movers’, ‘cults and charisma’, nonviolence and ‘the Powers that Be’, the psychodynamics of campaigning, discernment and, in conclusion, a chapter entitled ‘Into the Deeper Magic’. Each chapter concludes with a brief case study of a remarkable activist figure. Taken altogether this is a highly ambitious and heady mix. The exposition of Quaker and Jesuit protocols for deciding upon courses of action in chapter nine, ‘Tools for Discernment’ is particularly illuminating. The book cover is graced with an exceptionally beautiful image of the Yggdrasil by Vic Brown of the GalGael Trust, in which the world tree is envisioned as the meeting point of all the themes in Spiritual Activism.
In a higher education world in which it were still possible to engage in experimentation (as was the case in the CHE), I would consider the possibility of using this book as an undergraduate resource. It would allow students to enter a zone into which spiritual texts and techniques are shifted from distant times and places and relocated in the controverted fabric of life today. It would also serve as a provocation as regards such questions as to how might the vision all hold together, are sources used responsibly and, if not then why not, and so on. The reader is confronted by many connections made that are essayed in the interests of a higher purpose and transcend established conventions. The weaving together of many insights drawn from a wide array of sources with a qualified recognition of the proprieties imposed by either academia (get it straight or else!) or outright popularisation (give the reader an easy thrill!) put McIntosh and Carmichael’s book into an uneasy in-between category.
A hostile critic could well argue that this text confirms the predilections of the renowned intellectuals and activists (including Sir Jonathan Porritt, Starhawk, Dr Mary Midgley, the Revd Kathy Galloway, Dr Bashir Maan, Bruce Kent of CND, Professor David W. Orr of Oberlin College and the Australian deep ecologist John Seed) whose compliments and names are on the dustcover and in the opening unnumbered pages of ‘Praise for Spiritual Activism’. Alternatively, there may well be an equally negative stony silence on the part of some readers in the tunnels and caves of academe from which much of this material has been mined.
As a challenged reader I would venture the following positive evaluation. Whilst the authors are negative towards ‘postmodernism’, in reality Spiritual Activism is an exercise in what I would call critical constructive postmodernism. This is because whilst there is the surface level of collage that draws in full upon the capacity of information technology and the world-wide web to access the cultural artefacts of world history, the text is informed by a relentless emancipatory impulse to discern coherence in a world of commodified fragmentation – and to challenge it. In struggling with McIntosh and Carmichael to find these connections, rather than against them in denouncing possible transgressions, the reader is invited to join in the emancipatory task. The authors conclude with these words of encouragement:
Walk on, dear friends, stand in your love and power, go out and bless and be blessed. This is, indeed, a terrible time to be advocating ‘spiritual’ activism. That’s why the time is right (p. 198).
Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service is consistently ‘critical’ as regards an unjust global and local status quo and it is consistently informed by emancipatory principles, but its tone and contents may well repel those who find the ‘discomfort’ of this kind of enhanced and grounded activism – well – just too plain uncomfortable.