THE subject of this book, as conveyed in the title, is the sacredness of the earth and the human soul. As suggested by the subtitle, this is presented as a distinctively Celtic theme. It is explored through the writings of nine figures: five Scottish, two Irish, one Welsh, and one French.
The result is a work of two very distinct parts. The first three chapters, on Pelagius, St Brigid, and John Scotus Eurigena, are peppered with historical inaccuracies and erroneous interpretations. Philip Newell is an unashamed and unreconstructed Celtic romantic who remains seemingly oblivious to the revisionist scholarly work done in recent decades on Christianity in Ireland and Britain in the early Middle Ages.
Things improve dramatically when the author gets on to 19th- and 20th-century figures, where his knowledge is much surer and on whom he offers fascinating and valuable insights. I had never heard of Alexander Scott, a Church of Scotland minister who was arraigned for heresy in 1831 for denying the doctrine of human depravity found in the Westminster Confession, and went on to become Principal of Owens College, Manchester. The subject of Newell’s doctoral thesis, he is presented here as an engaging and important figure, an “icon of the imaginal mind”, who influenced George MacDonald and, through him, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
There are similarly illuminating chapters on John Muir, the pioneer ecologist who felt that “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world”; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, with his belief that “at the heart of matter is the heart of God”; and George MacLeod, described as “perhaps the most aggressive pacifist the world has ever known”. The final chapter provides a rich selection from the writings of the contemporary poet Kenneth White.
The book abounds in striking quotations about the sacredness of matter and the weaving together of the spiritual and physical, with some particularly well chosen passages from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica.
Almost all of Newell’s chosen apostles fell foul of the church authorities. Whether they can really all properly be described as Celts is debatable, and it is a pity that he allows his own romantic Celticism to cloud his judgement and scholarship in the early-medieval chapters. Once he moves beyond the misty myths, however, he has much that is valuable and relevant to offer on themes such as panentheism, the conjoining of the human and the divine, and the sacred interrelationship of all things. There is helpful material for reflection and contemplative prayer at the end of each chapter.
The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.
Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic guide to listening to our soul and saving the world
William Collins £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29