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“Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service” by Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael.

Reviewed by Bob Banks

Although only 200 pages long, this is a BIG book.  It explores the meaning and place of spirituality in our modern world, and how this can inspire our activism, our politics, and other ways we act in the world.

The strongest aspect, for me, is the rich picture of spirituality as the basis of a well-lived life.  This is so needed today, when the dominant ideology holds up material growth, competitive success and individual prosperity as the benchmarks of a good life.  This is often not even seen as an ideology, but the natural order of things.  As the book says, “we are offered fulfilment … not in being but in having. … Cosmetics manufacturers make us feel ugly, banks trap us in debt.  … Thus alienated, we use our purchasing power to shore up our damaged egos in a further zero-sum competition for social status. Our basic human need for community is undermined, and the  market provides a never-ending stream of surrogates, always promising that tomorrow, one day, just around the corner, all our problems will be solved by ‘progress’.”

Voices from the well

But, as Robb Jonson sings:  “Something still dances, just out of your sight.  It’s a voice from the well, it’s a trick of the light. It’s something like water you hold in your hand.” The book articulates this “voice from the well” – sparkling, inspiring, nourishing.  In fact it articulates many, many voices.

It makes a vigorous case that spirituality is not only defensible, but essential.  To give a few glimpses:

  • In his poem “Lousy at Maths”, Sufi poet Hafiz tells of “a group of thieves who steal an enormous diamond. They celebrate by getting drunk, and promptly fall out, deciding in the end to divide the gem amongst them, destroying its value in the process.”   Thus, with a materialist, reductionist approach, we lose the essence of what our lives are about.
  • The authors suggest that the “modern utilitarian worldview crushes alternative representations of reality…. If nothing is sacred, nothing is safe from the mechanisers of life and the calculators of profit; and until we find ways to re-sacralize our world appropriately, there can be no end to the carnage.”
  • To counter this, they explore riches from the world’s spiritual traditions. For example, the concept of Eternity as a vital part of our right understanding of our condition: “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end” (Bhagavad Gita): sitting beyond, and providing a grounding for, our mundane experience.
  • They discuss the mystical experience, breathing life into our being and our actions. They cite George Fox: “everything was new. And the whole creation gave off another smell to what I know before, beyond what I could ever express in words. I knew nothing but purity and innocence and rightness.”
  • On building our future, they quote Martin Luther King: “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. …  It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.”
  • This “redemption” can be pre-figured in our activism: as Colin McLeod said of the Pollock Free State, protesting against the M77 road-building programme in Glasgow: “This place is a “fuckin’ redemption centre”
  • And this leads to connection and deeper power together. Desmond Tutu talks of the African principle of Ubuntu:  “This means a person is generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate.  It means my humanity is inextricably bound up in theirs.  It is not ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong.’  I participate, I share.   I … belong to a greater whole, and am diminished when others are tortured or oppressed.”
  • And all this is very practical: “Whilst our opponents may have the resources to buy political influence and newspaper column inches, we … may have psycho-spiritual riches.”

Our spiritual power

The authors explore aspects of this spiritual power – the mystic, the prophet, the shaman, the bard.  They give us courage to be out-and-proud about the validity of our spiritual power.

Along the journey, the book brings in neuroscience, psychoanalysis, social psychology, theology, nonviolence, the wisdom of myths, and much more. It explores spirituality’s dark side and the roots of “cults”, sustaining activism and avoiding burnout, eldership, Alchemy, the Quaker practice of discernment, erotic activism, redemption, and so on.  Inevitably, with such a whistle-stop tour, it can feel superficial at times but actually the book keeps spinning along, with fresh ideas flying out all the time.

This approach sparks thoughts of “hang on – I disagree”, as well as “wow- that’s a real insight”, and triggers a lot of questions and discussion points.  For example, I feel the book is more authoritative on the Christian and Celtic traditions, where the authors’ roots perhaps lie, and more superficial in its understanding of some other traditions.  And much of it is very relevant for people who are working for social change, but might not describe themselves as “spiritual activists”.

In any case, the book provides a fertile mass of ideas to stimulate discussion, to inspire, and to nourish.

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