*** DEBUG END ***

Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic guide to listening to our soul and saving the world by Philip Newell

05 November 2021

Ian Bradley welcomes a sense of the sacred, not the romanticism

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
Philip Newell
William Collins £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM: 

Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Church Times/Canterbury Press:

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

Early bird tickets available



The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)