In Conversation – with Alastair McIntosh

This is a conversation I had with Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker activist, broadcaster anddownload writer.  He is the author of a superb book – Poachers Pilgrimage.  We discussed many things in front of a good audience in St Peters.   It may not sound the most riveting of evenings – over an hour discussing theology, history, the Highlands,church etc – but the most common reaction afterwards from those who were there was – “that was far too short”!  Alastair wanted to talk about Calvinism, predestination, limited atonement, the character of God, forgiveness, Hitler, salvation and other things..

I very much enjoyed talking with Alastair….to my mind this was a respectful and fun conversation and yet also deeply serious. In my view, Alastair comes so close and yet at times so far. I found it all very stimulating and indeed at times moving. See for yourselves. 

The Tartan Taliban?

Hebrews 13:8 – Yesterday, Today, Forever; A Difficult Sermon on Predestination Romans 9:14-23…St Peters 6th Jan 2019


13 thoughts on “In Conversation – with Alastair McIntosh

  1. A very quick hour and a superb discussion! If I was there I would have wanted to ask you both the following question, which troubles me.
    If Jesus left eternity to suffer and die on the cross, how does He now perceive that experience from His throne of glory? Is the pain and suffering as real to Him now as it was on the day of His Crucifixion? Does the Bible give us any clues to the answer?

    1. The pain and suffering was in time and space and is not for all eternity….but he is the Lamb looking as if he had been slain – in the midst of the throne. We will sing his praises for all eternity because of the Cross. On the Cross he suffered in a moment of time an eternity of pain.

      1. I agree with my friend the Wee Flea that “The pain and suffering was in time and space and is not for all eternity…” I would add that such pain and suffering represents Christ’s identification with all that it means to be both fully human, as well as being fully divine. I use the term “Christ” here to me the, or a, human face of God. Forgive me specifying that, but my position is interfaith albeit with a Christian emphasis.

        If you go to Iona Abbey, just inside the main door on the right, you will see tombstone effigies where the holy folks of long ago are portrayed as giving a two fingered blessing. It represents the dual nature of the Godhead, both immanent (in the here and now) and transcendent (outside of space and time). In short answer to your question, Christ stands both within (immanent) and outwith (transcendent) the suffering of the Cross, a.k.a. the suffering of the world.

        Plato said that time is “an eternal moving image of eternity”, and if you think of your own life, think of it stretched out through all eternity like one long movie, then everything that has ever happened to you is still always there. However, the structure of forgiveness is that it is taken up within the cradle of eternity. I think that’s what it means for our suffering to be held in the hand of God. Job 12:9-10: “Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?”

        To me, and I speak as a Quaker probably with a strong whiff of heresy, the nonviolence of Christ’s teachings and life are central to understanding his mission. The Cross refutes the human logic of violence. The Cross absorbs the violence of the world. For “violence”, you can read “sin”.

        Some might counter, “But He made a whip….”? But that was to drive out the animals which were there for sacrifice. His overturning of the temple tables was an overturning of a blood-soaked system, a very human system, one that missed the mark.

        What are the implications of such love? One implication, is that its greater part exists outside of space and time. Resurrection is therefore intrinsic to it. We don’t need fret whether the empty tomb was literal or not. We can just accept, accept, accept. Of course Christ resurrected, because death to God is but a trick with mirrors. As a homeless friend in Glasgow, a man called John Livingstone whose home is actually a bender in the woods put it: “Hell could not hold such love as this.”

        Equally, as the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov put it (“In the World, of the Church”, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001, p. 191): “It is no longer possible to believe in a heartless God incapable of suffering. The only message which could reach atheism today is that of Christ descending into hell. As deep as the hell in which we find ourselves, it is even more profound to find Christ already there waiting for us…. We can only fall into God and it is God who never despairs.”

        In saying these things, probably very inadequately, I am aware that my views differ from Calvinism. However, in his deep book, “The Person of Christ”, you will find some of these points are explored by Professor Donald Macleod, the former principal of the Free Church College. I would also recommend another Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clement, and his wonderful survey of the patristic sources, “The Roots of Christian Mysticism” (New City Press, 1993).

      2. Alastair, did you come to know God through the Bible, was that what convinced you?
        NB.: I asked David the same question.

    1. My reply to Plainerrata.

      No, it was not primarily through the Bible that I came to my ever-fledgling sense of God. It was through what we Quakers call “convincement”. It was primarily when I read the Hindu scriptures – especially the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita in Juan Mascaro’s Penguin Classic translations with their wonderful introductory commentaries by him – that I found a light to be shed on the scriptural context in which we were all raised on the Isle of Lewis (my primary school years in Leurbost were 1960-67 then the Nicholson 1967-73).

      I think I’ve always been drawn to the mystical, to spiritual experience. The Vedic texts mentioned directly address that. They spoke to my mind. However, when I came to read the gospels after them – especially the mysticism of John’s gospel, then it all fell into place. These days, my interfaith perspective remains very strong – I am reading Mahatma Gandhi’s translation and commentary with the commentary of his Secretary, Mahadev Desai, as my meditative reading at the moment. However, I also think that what Christianity brings to the table of world faiths is very distinctive. Especially so, for me, in its mystical understanding such as I find expressed most clearly in the writings of the Eastern (or Orthodox) Christian tradition, and in early Quaker writings.

      I study the Bible frequently, especially the gospels. To me, they have supremacy, though I love the later Hebrew prophets when in full poetic flow, and I’m particularly partial to the Canongate edition of the Epistle of St James in the KJV with its introduction by the Dalai Lama, who says that it reads like a Buddhist sutra.

      You might ask where I stand on Christ in all that. I see Christ as revealing God’s human face. That’s part of what I explore in Poacher’s Pilgrimage – going back to the Isle of Lewis. Reconnecting with deeply spiritual and mostly FC or C of S people (plus one famous atheist), and finding as I walked for 12 days through the Island that there was a sense in which it started to feel like walking deeper and deeper into the Godspace, into the heart of the holy Cross. What was the role of the Bible in that? A very light touch, and yet in some ways, I suppose central. It famed the narrative of reality into which I had the experience of walking.

      1. Alastair,
        Thank you for your warm hearted reply.
        Since “convincement” really is the crux of the matter, can you please point me towards original Quaker writings on “convincement”; preferably to writing that is accessible via the Internet?
        “I think I’ve always been drawn to the mystical, to spiritual experience.”
        That is a significant statement as it seems to me that unless he has a profound, not to say ‘a life-changing’, spiritual experience, a Christian has really got nothing to write home about, meaning; his Bible talk, if any, generally is mere empty talk.
        Forgive me if that sounds horribly judgemental, but because Jesus Christ himself spoke of the necessity to have a spiritual experience in order to be convinced, it is reasonable to think that swatting evil out of man, as in: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” [Jer. 13:23] does not, in effect, get done by the Bible alone.
        “I’m particularly partial to the Canongate edition of the Epistle of St James in the KJV.”
        I too find the Epistle of St James in the KJV stimulating as it too speaks of receiving from the Spirit with the caveat that religion pure and undefiled before God and the Father is impossible without receiving the Spirit.
        “You might ask where I stand on Christ in all that”.
        Not at all; on the contrary Alastair, you seem to be much nearer to the truth than most: I am very grateful that your walks into Godspace, as you say, are productive of thoughts (mediations) on Christ that you are prepared to express for the benefit of other seekers seeking after what the Bible manifests in a Mystery.


      2. Reply to Plainerrata of 8 Feb.

        You ask for sources on Quaker “convincement”. A classic text from early Quakerism would be Rober Barclay A more recent exposition would be Geoffrey Hubbard’s book “Quaker by Convincement”.

        But look – I am in danger here of overstaying my welcome on the Wee Flea’s site! Because we Quakers believe that there are many ways up the same mountain, it is best if I point you most towards the equivalent of “convincement” in your own FC (or perhaps similar Presbyterian) tradition.

        That equivalent, if I understand Calvinism somewhat rightly, would be “effectual calling”. See, for example, Acts 16:14 – “… the Lord opened her beart…” There we see convincement based on direct spiritual experience.

        Lastly, don’t be misled into thinking that the average modern Quaker would answer you in this way. I only half joke when I say that my Quakerism is influenced by my Presbyterian upbringing on Lewis. A Quesbyterian 😉

      3. Alastair,
        Thank you and please don’t fret yourself in the least about me; for many shall be utterly amazed by God’s verdict. If you don’t believe it, consider: “And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian.”
        Bottom line: God’s verdict is determined by Christ alone; that is not in “assistance” with, say, Calvin or anyone else, and that for today and until Christ returns is extremely reassuring.

  2. Hello Pastor David

    The other day, I said I would take a break from commenting on here for a while but you keep posting items that are of great interest and relevance to me, so here we go again. 🙂 I promise this will be my last comment for a while before I have a little rest.

    The truth is that, although I am a Calvinist-leaning Anglican, I have spent some time with the Quakers here in Australia. I have occasionally attended their meetings and worked with them on some joint Christian pacifist activities between our two denominations.

    I respect the Quakers a great deal but I did feel something was missing when I attended the meetings, as lovely as all the Quakers were. I do think sola scriptura is doctrinally-correct and that there is an overemphasis on the verse in John that talks about the inner light. Ultimately, I have felt the Holy Spirit’s presence in Calvinist and Lutheran churches but it did not come to me in the Quaker Meeting House.

    That said, many Quakers I met were disillusioned Anglicans who had left because of church corruption or the cold, uncaring attitude of many bishops and clergy, both in Anglo-Catholic and Anglo-Calvinist dioceses. In many ways, Quakerism seemed like a protest movement that was allowing dissident Anglicans to live their spirituality and connect with God in a way that the Anglican hierarchy was stifling.

    Whilst I think that Calvinism is “more right” than Quakerism, there are aspects of Quakerism that Calvinism needs to adopt. I was extremely heartened to hear your confession towards the end, Pastor David, that Mr McIntosh’s book has almost made you become a pacifist. I pray fervently that one day, as your faith continues to mature and grow, that you will take the final step and fully embrace this position.

    God bless you and Mr McIntosh.

    1. Jean – your observations about the Quakers, or Friends as we call ourselves, would also apply to meetings in many parts of the UK and USA. We have become, as you imply, a place of refuge for many folks who have been seeking to explore faith, but have felt burned or left empty handed in other churches.

      Why is that? Because we do not have clergy, doctrines, creeds etc.. The emphasis is all on the movement of the Holy Spirit. You can walk in off the street to a Quaker meeting and stand up and minister if so moved. As such, Quakerism can seem to be whatever you want to make it, until such time as you start to realise that it’s about settling into stillness, and becoming open to the Spirit, and that such an experience starts to lift you beyond ego or intellect.

      The upside of this, is the richness that new people bring. The downside is … well, if you want to go there, see the reflection linked near the top of my website home page as the article about Thomas Merton and the Quakers, called “A Perilous Neglect”. When you get a lot of people who feel burned by the use elsewhere of God/Christ against their beliefs, sexuality, etc., then sometimes the wounded can be wounding. It’s a very human thing.

      Presently, I think it would be fair to say that some of us feel that we have been getting too far estranged from our Christian roots. This is especially so as we have had many atheist seekers coming to Quaker meetings, linked to a movement called “nontheism”. That can be a very honest position from which to search spiritually. But it can also be a downer on, for example, the Biblical basis of Quakerism such as John 1:9 (sometimes called “the Quaker text”) and John 15:15, from which we take our name as The Religious Society of Friends.

      For me and some others, the challenges that all of this brings has led, ironically, to a deepening exploration of the radical Biblical tradition. That is why – irony upon ironies – I find myself these days often talking with Free Church folks when I’m back on Lewis and other evangelicals. I mean, who better to go to, to be put right (and kept right!) about aspects of scripture? That said, it’s important to add that the kind of evangelicals you get in Scotland, especially those of what is broadly called the Highland church, are not like your right wing prosperity gospel sorts that are found in some other parts of the world. Rather, it is about a gospel that has a very social focus. As such, I do not agree with key parts of, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith or Calvin’s Institutes, but I feel enriched and sometimes peculiarly at home amongst the people of those traditions. They were, after all, in my own case the people who raised me on Lewis. I hope that makes sense and answers your question.

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