2007 - 2022

Freedom & Faith: A Question of Scottish Identity

freedomWhat is our understanding of Scotland’s spiritual identity? This is a time in Scotland’s history when the nation is intensely examining, rediscovering and re-shaping every aspect of its identity. The questions we have begun to ask about ourselves will be examined and acted upon for many years to come but there is one fundamentally crucial element of our identity that has, so far, been largely ignored. Discussions about Scottish identity are most often defined by political, cultural, social, ethical and international questions. But is there a spiritual or religious dimension to our identity that we really need to understand? If so, what is it? Does the religious question belong only to the past or does it also lie squarely in front of us in the future? Why do so few debates ask this question?

So asks Donald Smith, Director of the Storytelling Centre. Alastair McIntosh reviews this important contribution to the national conversation.

I was given a copy of this book the other day by Alastair Hulbert who used to run Scottish Churches House and played a key role in Jacques Delors’ “Soul for Europe” programme. Alastair said he’s been giving out lots of copies, and I can see why. Although I’ve only just finished Chap. 3, and may not have time to write a more full review, I just want to say (given the lack of any other reviews here thus far) that this is a truly important contribution for all who care about the soul of Scotland and its relationship to religion, both in the past, but especially as we approach the referendum on Scottish Independence. Alastair commented that it’s very hard, from the impartial manner in which the book is written, to figure out where the author stands on the indy issue, so this should be food for both sides.

Donald Smith, director of the innovative Scottish Storytelling Centre, is the most creative person in Scotland working at the interface between Church, society and the arts. This informed, mature and inspiring reflection deserves to become essential reading for anyone with an interest in the shaping of a new Scotland at this turbulent and exciting time in the nation’s history.’ – Ron Ferguson

Having just finished chap 3 this morning it has helped me to understand things that had never quite dropped into place about the role of the Church of Scotland in 20th c. Scotland – how, for example, in the absence of a parliament, the General Assembly had such an important role in expressing the mood of the nation, how that role was ecumenically construed in the Articles Declaratory of the 1921 Church of Scotland Act, and why it is that there is such a strong push from some voices in the Kirk to have a separate Scottish coronation of the sovereign in the event of a Yes vote.

Harry Reid (ex Herald editor) in his intro says, “To use an old fashioned but valuable word, this book is all about Scotland’s quiddity,” in other words, its spiritual essence. Here we see Donald Smith as the director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre bringing together the storyteller’s power, and that, as one who trained both in New College (theology) and at the School of Scottish Studies (ethnography/folklore).

‘Scotland’s ‘quiddity’ has always been bound up with its religious practices in relation to culture, landscape, politics and internationalism. Covering the chequered story up to the present day, Smith looks to the possible future if Scotland becomes independent. He asks how we can live in relationship with “the divine sources of life itself”, in a participatory way, affirming human dignity, self-worth and wellbeing. Smith believes that the continuing divinity and generosity of the Holy Spirit will work to bring the change and renewal we are seeking.’ – Tessa Ransford

Other chapters. Chap 1 explores Scottish national identity as the “community of the realm” with sovereignty vested in the people.

Chap 2, about Scottish ID being connected to sense of place, esp the land, and a wonderful sideswipe at those who marginalise this with the line, “In the twentieth century it was fashionable to criticize the attachment of Scots to the natural world as ‘sentimental’.” Aye, indeed, a scholarly fashion, and to what end, to whose interests, I’d ask. Chap 3 I’ve discussed. Chap 4, Statehood and Ethics, looks like its about our values. Chap 5, Statehood and Culture, and how the distinction sometimes made between “high” and “low” culture is questionable when it comes to Scotland – as a sociologist of religion once said to me, “the thing about Scotland is that you have a high low culture.” Chap 6, A Moment in Time, looks like it’s addressing where spirituality stands at a time when organised religion is in disarray, with particular nods to writers who “intertwine identity, spirituality and morality” such as Tessa Ransford, George Mackay Brown, Neil Gunn, Naomi Mitchison and Patrick Geddes.

Chap 7, where would we be without it? – is on Sin and Salvation, with interesting lines like, “…the growth of Puritanism, in both Protestant and Catholic versions….” and nodding to the likes of Iain Crichton Smith (whose all-important essays such as Real People in a Real Place were published by Tessa’s late husband, Calum Macdonald).

Chap 8, Freedom and Love, looks at the Scottish nation through the lens of Christian and a very gospel-based (more than Pauline) spirituality, with extensive gospel quotes of what look like a very pertinent nature. Chap 9 (you can see the author understands the bardic tradition, writing the square of 3 chapters) is Faith in the Future, with quite a bit about Rikki Demarco in it.

So, that seems like a pretty full review of a book I’ve only 1/3 read, but I’m grabbing the chance to give Donald’s boat a push out (I hardly known him, incidentally) while the iron is hot. For all who understand Scotland’s future as a spiritual issue, this is the book to be reading right now.

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  1. Looks like some very good questions indeed, looking forward to it

  2. pinkrose says:

    I believe we need a modern sense of our own spirituality. We are all spiritual beings and by that I mean the part of us which responds emotionally to nature, to music, to art and to other living beings. A modern sense of the spirit for a modern Scotland, this is what is needed. This should go beyond any individual religion and look at the very nature of what makes us human. There are plenty modern thinkers out there with ideas which ring true to people, see authors such as Neale Donald Walsch and our own Dr. David Hamilton. Let’s make their ideas mainstream.

  3. ‘What is our understanding of Scotland’s spiritual identity?’ asks the book’s author; does he mean as opposed to Scotland’s identity? I think the Yes campaign is doing fine in understanding and defining a Scottish identity. No doubt religion and the church have played a part in developing Scotland’s identity, but you can say that of all European nations, including here in Wales. For heaven’s sake (!) don’t muddy the waters of the independence argument with considerations of ‘spirituality’ or ‘soul’ and their vague religious connotations. Spirituality can mean anything to anyone and has never been satisfactorily defined.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      It’s a legitimate area of inquiry. Anything is …

  4. Alex Buchan says:

    It’s very heartening to see spirituality being addressed. I found it difficult from the above to get more than a very general sense of the book. I think religious and spirituality are massively important issues. Modern Scotland to me feels if it lacks the spirituality that I remember from my youth. Just one example is the issue of death which is a deeply spiritual thing in all the worlds faiths.

    When I was young the body always came home to the house and in the fisher communities of North East Scotland that time when the body was in the house was a time when the whole community showed solidarity by providing home bakes for the family to give to those who came to the house to paid their respects and in that community the funerals were simple affairs conducted in the house.

    These traditions were deeply spiritual and in the space of one generation they have been lost. I think Scotland needs to reclaim its spiritual; essence. One of the things that most inspired me was the idea raised by Richard Demarco and others of a national project to rebuild St Andrews Cathedral. I see lots of reasons why this one project could do so much.

    If from the outset it was seen as a project that was to celebrate Scotland’s diverse past; both its Catholic and its Protestant past, it could lead to an opening up of a national debate on sectarianism and on the fact the Scotland’s spirituality have taken various forms over the centuries, pagan, Celtic Catholic, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, non conformist and now Jewish, Moslem, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu etc.

    As Saint Andrews Cathedral was a place of pilgrimage and as all these faiths have the concept of pilgrimage then this is a project all faiths could get behind and it could come to be a symbol of an alternative set of values to that of consumer capitalism, as well as providing an inspiration to everyone throughout Scotland, especially if the project was funded by a wide based nation-wide fund raising effort.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Alex, we’ll try and follow this up with a deeper review of this book. I think it’s a really interesting aspect that’s not really been explored as we look within and beyond and wonder ‘how should it be?’ and explore our place in the world.

      1. Just to clarify, this was a very quick, of the cuff review, that I wrote this morning when I saw on Amazon that there were so far no reviews there, and I wanted to amend that. I also bounced it over to Bella in case of interest, and am very pleased to see it posted here – but it should not be taken as a comprehensive or carefully crafted comment. I have, however, had an email back today from a Scottish minister (of the political type) to whom I’d cc’d it saying he’s just ordered a copy. Re Lazellicardiff’s comment that spirituality has never been properly defined – too right, and quite right – just as the fish will never properly define the water in which it moves.

      2. Alex Buchan says:

        That would be great. Nations need symbols but they don’t need religious identities. National religious identity has led to lots of things Scotland should reflect on like the stigmatising of Irish catholic immigrants in the 19th cent, reflection should lead to a transformation in our attitude towards one of openness and against closing ranks around one set of ideas, whether religious or political. I don’t want a Scottish Scotland I want an independent confidant pluralist Scotland. .

        1. bellacaledonia says:

          I doubt very .uch whether the reviewer would disagree with the need for an independent confident pluralist Scotland.

      3. Alex Buchan says:

        I apologise for that. I reread the article and can see that was not what was being suggested. The book does look very interesting.

    2. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

      Demarco’s proposal to rebuild the cathedral at St Andrews is emblematic of rebuilding ourselves as a nation. Under the thrall of British Unionism we have allowed, what the French call the “national patrimony” to decay. Unionism has over the centuries attempted to erase the signs of our unique cultural legacy. It is in the recovering, restoring and promoting of this other spiritual inheritance that we will progress from the darkness into the light.

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        I absolutely agree with that one hundred percent, but it was Scots in an independent Scotland who destroyed Saint Andrews Cathedral and therefore the rebuilding of it would be controversial on lots of grounds (including those who ague from architectural purist grounds) but that’s exactly why I think it is potentially such an important initiative because it gets us into a discussion about ourselves; about all the past divisions, but also symbolises the putting right of things in the past and hope in a new future where we can move on feeling positive about ourselves at last, by throwing of the cultural cringe that unionism fosters.

        1. Dave Coull says:

          ” it was Scots in an independent Scotland who destroyed Saint Andrews Cathedral ”

          And here was me thinking that bombardment by first the English Navy (during Henry VIII’s “rough wooing”) and then the French Navy (when St Andrews was in the hands of Scots protestants) might have had something to do with it!

      2. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        Writing as a Catholic, the cultural contribution of the pre-1560 kirk to our national story is important. It makes up the greater part of our recorded history after all. Opposition to concerted English expansionist imperialism was in the DNA of the Ecclesia Scoticana. Today the Scottish Church is still autonomous and distinct from that of England and Wales. There are riches here to be rediscovered for Catholics, Protestants and non-believers alike. Scotland Reconstructs might be a slogan for the independence movement. Rediscovering ourselves, our whole selves, is part of that fascinating process. Disposing once and for all of the dread “cringe” is another.

      3. Alex Buchan says:

        I believe passionately that Scotland will never opt for independence until it has sorted itself out. I think, as Scots, we have a gut feeling that we are not sorted out. I think this underlies the economic arguments.

        There is a legacy of ‘them and us’ that pervades Scottish culture in many forms. As someone who wanted to be an architect but flunked architecture, it always amazes me how much damage we do to our own urban heritage, but I noticed that the areas of Scotland that are never despoiled are the affluent districts of our cities. In other words, there is no sense in Scotland of a collective or of there being something from the past worthy keeping, the poor are expendable and can be shunted off to the sink estates on the edge of the city or housed in ugly tower blocks where you live in little more than a rabbit hutch. One can see this in class terms and, of course, it is, and can be found throughout the world, but that them and us mentality is a basic psychological fall back position for Scots; a complicated legacy of the past, and in particular of the virulent anti-Catholicism which demonised the other. this basic mind set write large. Destroying town centres makes sense when there is no real sense of historical national continuity.

        I’m no historian but Scotland’s Catholic reaction to the stirrings of reformation and then the ensuing reformation itself seemed more destructive, more ideologically dogmatic than any other, no doubt due to the chronically weak central state, and this is something one notices when one travels around Europe. Collectively we want to paper over all this to move on to assume it doesn’t matter, but when the past isn’t addressed then we don’t have any firm foundation on which to build.

  5. Dave Coull says:

    Okay, your advertisement has convinced me. I have to get this book

  6. Spirituality is rooted in love. Christians believe that God is Love, and that humanity is image of God. Most Christians have not followed through with the reasoning. It is that humanity is love. Sin is failure to be what we are; to fail to BE love. We must find ways to nurture ourselves and each other in being love, living love. Organisations which promote hatred and disrespect are in no way Christian. Banging the drum louder when marching past a “chapel” (Roman Catholic church) is far frpm being love and far from living love.

    People in government who vote for legislation that penalises the poor, ill, aged, vulnerable, and legislates to increase the wealth of the rich, can not claim to Christian Governments of 4 Christian countries united (by force) into a United Kingdom. Such legislation is the antipathy of love.

    Spirituality is not just meditating, praying, worshipping. Political and economic actions are also spiritual. They are on a continum of spirituality between love and fear, fear being the dark side of spirituality. What has Westminster legislation done recently? Create fear of deprivation, eviction, hunger. They even call their strategy to keep the UK as it is, Project Fear. Yet all flaunted, pompous “Christian” rites and ceremonies surround it. Was the coronation not a pompous ceremony calculated to wow the plebs and vaunt the grand costumes of the elite? The monarchy is a religiuos as well as a civil office. Even in Scotland, where we refuse to grant the monarch special status in the church, she takes an oath to protect Presbyterian government in the church, and congregations fall over themselves to provide Royal Pews. This in spite of something in the Epistle of James, about not giving special honour to the rich and elite.

    We do need spirituality in our nation. But we are a religious, ethnic and plural nation. All should be valued and respected.

    1. To me spirituality and religion are not an either/or. One grows out of the other. If “our” spirituality is love made manifest, as William seems rightly in my view to be saying, then it is inevitable that it will find social expression because that’s what love does. This is what makes Renan’s communitarian definition of nationhood in his famous essay so interesting (he was a theologian as well as a Celtic scholar). He understood the basis of profound interconnection. In his book Donald Smith rues the fact that when the Church of Scotland had its constitutional position affirmed by the 1921 Church of Scotland Act it used it to hammer the Irish Catholics. Those days are thankfully mostly past, but it highlights the danger of religious legitimisation that some people here are evidently concerned about. The problem as I see it is when religion becomes unhooked from the acid test of love. Then it becomes fascistic – see, for example, “The Holy Reich” (Steigmann-Gall, CUP). Religions are therefore like politics – they can turn sour as well as sweet – but either way, it’s the spiritual soil that matters, and must always be returned to, and in my view can find expression through a wide range of faiths including none at all (see “pinkrose” above) – but it’s the love that counts. Will a future Scotland’s values be predicated on love, or will we only be concerned with what our currency is, and whether we’re richer or poorer than our neighbour? Thanks to Bella for giving space for this dimension to be aired. It is so often missing from more mainstream political analysis, yet I worked with Canon Kenyon Wright at the time of Devolution when, alongside Dewar, he was being seen as a founder of our new constitutional settlement, and for he and his ilk there was no doubt that this was about the articulation of a liberation theology. See Kenyon’s book, “The People Say Yes”. I’m sure he discusses it there.

    2. tartanfever says:

      ‘Spirituality is rooted in love.’

      That’s a sweeping statement. Many examples of spirituality pre-date Christianity by tens of thousand’s of years. Cave depictions of animals are thought to be as much out of such emotions as fear, gratitude and awe. The same goes for ‘natural religions’ that again pre-date Christianity or indeed, the pagan religions. They can all be said to be deeply spiritual, but as much based on fear, awe, respect and so on.

      In the timeline of a spiritual human existence, Christianity is a very recent entrant, and I’m at odds with your expression ‘Christians believe that God is Love’, I would have thought that as many Christians would regard God as the ‘Creator’ which could have a quite different meaning.

      ‘Organisations which promote hatred and disrespect are in no way Christian’

      – sorry, but every single Christian Church since their respective inceptions has been, to some degree, built on hatred and disrespect. Their formations were born out of political necessity and a desire to control populations. These other organisations are merely following the political set up and practice of manipulation demonstrated by Christianity.

      ‘Spirituality is not just meditating, praying, worshipping. Political and economic actions are also spiritual.’

      – I find this a deeply disturbing comment. It sounds nothing more than a ruse to further promote religion into the political life of a nation.

      An independent Scotland should be actively secular. Religions should be allowed to continue their practices freely and without restriction, but they should play no part in the political life of our nation.

      1. douglas clark says:

        Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree with that. There can be no special place for religion in this discussion. Neither have they a right to think that they inform, or own it.

        For some religiously observant may say it is God’s will that we remain together and others may equally say it is not. Scottish independence is many things but it is only very very marginally a theological dispute.

        Anyway, church attendance is like a meteor over Russia. It is falling out of the sky and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

      2. But why confine spirituality to a Christian presumption? To me, spirituality pours out of the shamanic eloquence of cave art. The trouble with many Christians is they make their Christ too small. And if the currency – money – is allowed to feature centrally in the debate about Scotland’s future, why not other human values? I am not arguing for a theocracy. I am arguing for our sense of community writ large – our nationhood – to be a prism that can refract those many different values, including both spiritually-based and atheistic ones.

      3. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        We already live in an “actively secular” world in the west the results for good or ill are all around you. The democratic prerogative to engage in political action is a universal right. You suggest restricting it according to some arbitrary code of politically correct attitudes. We need free-thought in the new Scotland not thought-police.

      4. Alex Buchan says:

        Nobody here has been arguing for a “special” place for religion and the contributions of those arguing for secularism have shown more intolerance than others in this discussion. Scotland’s history has been blighted by intolerance. It is intolerance in any guise that we should all be agreed the new Scotland should have no truck with.

      5. tartanfever says:

        Frew-Bell says:

        ‘We already live in an “actively secular” world in the west’.

        I’d seriously question that. In that case, why does the First Minister feel it necessary to attend ordinations of new clergy ?

        I’d also cite the rise of the politically right religious classes in the USA, who up until three decades ago would separate church from state and, for many, would not vote. The rise of the neo-cons in Reagan’s 1981 presidential campaign mobilised the forces of various churches to the Republican party against the ‘bleeding heart liberals’. We now have the situation in the USA where an atheist will never be elected as President so powerful are the right-wing religious lobbying groups.

        Another example that is prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic would be the pro-Israeli lobbying groups, whose religious fanatics drive forward an appalling vision as extreme as fundamental Islam. These groups are so active that we’ve even had a C4 ‘Dispatches’ programme dedicated to the influence over politics and the media that they hold. Many in the media are extremely wary of crossing them, hence why the BBC would not broadcast the Palestinian crisis appeals a few years ago.

        And now we have an ex-banker Justin Welby appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. He now wants to set up the Church as a bank. He announced this as a move against payday lenders like Wonga charging extortionate interest rates. Of course, we then found out that a large portion of the Church Of England’s pension fund is invested with Accel Partners, who in turn are one of the major investors in guess who ? Wonga.

        And just to finish it off, we have the unelected clergy that sit in the House of Lords, including Welby. The only reason they are present is to further continue the religious presence in an era that sees rapidly declining congregations.

        Frew-bell continues: ‘You suggest restricting it (political action) according to some arbitrary code of politically correct attitudes. We need free-thought in the new Scotland not thought-police.’

        Laughable comment. The Catholic Church wants free speech, free thought and political action in an Independent Scotland does it ? Of course, that won’t include your own priests and clergy who have actively covered up numerous cases of child sexual abuse being brought to proper account for their crimes.

        Religions already act like political parties, they have no moral upper hand, they have no ethical superiority, they are self-interested for selfish reasons. For centuries they have been afforded an unprecedented hold over society and what have they done with it ? They have encouraged some good things, but a lot of hate, bigotry, social unrest and an abundance of self interest. They are not a wholly cohesive entity to our community.

        ‘The democratic prerogative to engage in political action is a universal right’ – Yes, the right of the individual for the good of the country as a whole, not the self-interest of a religious faction. Religion is still at loggerheads with other communities and actively carrying out missionary work to convert the population and bolster it’s influence. That is a cult, that breeds resentment, victimhood, hate and so on.

        One person, one vote. Politicians have to be elected – they can have a say in how our country is governed. Religions are not elected, they should have no collective voice in political life.

      6. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        tartanfever. what looks suspiciously like intolerance seems to be showing; the very stuff we need to get rid of in this country. You appear to be fighting worn out ideological battles no longer considered worth the bother. Honestly, what next Catholic priests evil kiddy-fiddling monsters, jesuitical liars, sexually frustrated nuns etc. sounds like that tired old style Paisleyite-Protestant, anti-papist propaganda. Suggest you reconsider that right-thinking apartheid attitude and similarly the trend to rather anti-Jewish rhetoric. btw are you intending to exclude humanists, i am a catholic humanist, existentialists, phenomenologists, agnostics and others who might form undesirable “groups”? where would you draw the line? Politics belongs to all, in a truly democratic society you do not have to take an exam to participate. In the new Scotland i hope we will have as many political parties as there are world-views and relish the intellectual challenge.

      7. tartanfever says:

        Frew Bell;

        ‘what looks suspiciously like intolerance seems to be showing; the very stuff we need to get rid of in this country’

        – Whatever.

        ‘You appear to be fighting worn out ideological battles no longer considered worth the bother.’

        – I responded to your belief that western countries are actively secular. I disagreed and named you three or four examples of why. They demonstrate that organised religion still plays a major role in political and social life throughout the Western world. If you want to disagree fine, but please offer up some counterpoint, not this one line.

        ‘Suggest you reconsider that right-thinking apartheid attitude and similarly the trend to rather anti-Jewish rhetoric.’

        – Anti-Jewish ? Right- thinking apartheid ? Really, for this:

        Another example that is prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic would be the pro-Israeli lobbying groups, whose religious fanatics drive forward an appalling vision as extreme as fundamental Islam. These groups are so active that we’ve even had a C4 ‘Dispatches’ programme dedicated to the influence over politics and the media that they hold. Many in the media are extremely wary of crossing them, hence why the BBC would not broadcast the Palestinian crisis appeals a few years ago.

        ‘btw are you intending to exclude humanists, i am a catholic humanist, existentialists, phenomenologists, agnostics and others who might form undesirable “groups”?’

        – No, each individual can do as they please, follow whatever philosophical/religious path they choose and should not be persecuted for any belief. I said as much in my original post:

        An independent Scotland should be actively secular. Religions should be allowed to continue their practices freely and without restriction, but they should play no part in the political life of our nation.

        If you want any organised religious group, say Catholic or Protestant congregations to have any political influence in a democratic country,why not encourage them to stand for election ?

        Here’s a question that may help me understand your viewpoint:

        Illustrate to me what is so unique about a Christian Church or congregation that only it can offer the people of Scotland ?

  7. Abulhaq says:

    Not directly connected with the above but an exemplar of a particularly pernicious type of “faith” is the pronouncement from an American ex-official in NATO that preserving the territorial integrity of Ukrain is worth a war echoing the hawkish statements of the current Danish(note!) secretary-general. This US led congregation of the self-righteous is one our government would have us join after independence. NATO jihadis are on the march with Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sarajevo tatooed on their arms.

  8. When I saw Alastair’s original post and mention of the ‘spiritual or religious dimension’, I thought ‘oh, oh, this is going to run and run and won’t get anywhere’. Contributions so far include “spirituality is love made manifest; “spirituality pours out of the shamanic eloquence of cave art; the articulation of a liberation theology; we are all spiritual beings (meaning) the part of us which responds emotionally to nature, to music, to art and to other living beings…” and so on. I’m not objecting to people discussing the idea of spirituality; good luck to them I say, because it’s a slippery eel you’ll never get hold of. But I shrugged off ideas of ‘spirituality’ and religiosity a long while ago and prefer to go with Richard Dawkins’ view that “there’s real poetry in the real world” and that religion or the spiritual only teach you to be satisfied with non-answers. I wish you well but would only observe that the motto at the top of Bella Caledonia’s page is ‘Independence – Autonomy – Self-determination’; so best not let yourself get tied down by talk of Scotland’s quiddity. Pob lwc, hwyl fawr!

    1. Ahh – Lazellicardiff – tell us about that which is “real” in “real poetry”. Tell us about the meaning that gives meaning to the meaning of meaning.

  9. I personally don’t see our spiritual identity as being much of a question when it comes to Independence – spirituality, in my mind, in such a pluralist nation, cannot be a real force for the rebuilding of our nation, as it will be built on the secular notion – something that, whilst inclusive of all belief systems, naturally leads toa more humanist approach. I like to concentrate on the more simple and direct reasons We get to work out the rest later.

    1. Great discussion going on here. In response to “The Politicoid”, two things. First, points already amply made above about spirituality as a part of life and therefore, religion as a collective expression having a place amongst other issues. But secondly, and this is important to grasp, the existing British constitution is not religiously neutral. The Acts of Union make the basis of the current UK explicitly religious in a Protestant (English), specified as Presbyterian (Scottish) sense. In other words, whether we like it or not we live in a sectarian state.

      Some people may not like this at all, and want to see all reference to religion in politics abandoned. Others, like myself, think that spirituality, and the plethora of religions that may flow from it, needs to be acknowledged as part of what a person is and therefore what a nation becomes. But still others, and here’s the rub, are adamant about holding on to the Union because of its explicitly Protestant, and in Scotland, Westminster Confession Presbyterian underpinning. Smith’s book does not enter into such constitutional theology in depth, but he does a useful service in reminding us of it. In Glasgow if you walk past an Orange pub you’ll see posters up about conserving the Union on a religious basis. But it’s not just the Orange Order. There is a wider concern about how Scotland’s deeply intertwined religious-political history might look in the future. Whatever one might think of such concerns, it is important to be aware of where this comes from in our history, and that is part of what makes Smith’s book important in these times. Remember, the Declaration of Arbroath was addressed to the Pope – the UN of the times. Interesting.

      1. Points well made. I have to say, though, that I wholly support a complete separation of Church and State. I don’t think it is easy to make the case that Scotland is a protestant/Catholic/Calvinist/whatever nation – as with the rest of Europe, we are perhaps culturally and historically defined by those things in part, but politically speaking, religion is no way to run a state.

        As a spiritual person myself, I must recognize that my spiritual conceptions are at odds with 99% of everyone else’s, as are theirs. It is thus only right that one’s spiritual life should be lived by ones self, and the idea of letting it influence legislation is a recipe for division

      2. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

        To what extent did the Protestant ascendancy in Scotland facilitate the cultural anglicization and eventual political union with England? Discuss giving examples of the erosion, weakening and parochializing of Scottish identity and the merits and benefits of politico-cultural integration. Enjoy!

      3. Dave Coull says:

        ” Remember, the Declaration of Arbroath was addressed to the Pope – the UN of the times.”

        Even more important, remember that it was addressed to the Pope in AVIGNON. This was at a time when there were rival Papacies. The church in England recognised the Pope in Rome, the Scottish church didn’t. As it turned out, the Scottish church was on the winning side. When the schism in the Catholic Church ended, it was with the Avignon papacy being recognised as the “true” popes. The headquarters of the Catholic Church then re-located from Avignon to Rome. But you know how it is when you have to move. Unfortunately, in the flitting, some things got lost. Including an mportant letter to the Pope from Scotland. It’s just as well the Abbot of Aberbrothock kept a copy of the letter, or we wouldn’t have a Declaration of Arbroath

  10. Alex Buchan says:

    I think this discussion is getting really interesting. I can’t see how Scotland will ever gain independence without some sense of national identity. In Ireland, British intransigence helped Irish nationalism coalesce around a celtic and catholic identity. In Slovakia it was language, in South Sudan and East Timor it was Christianity in otherwise predominantly Moslem countries. Identity is not black and white it can be strong or weak, Scottish identity has waxed and waned.

    No national liberation movement to my knowledge has ever succeeded solely on the basis of universal principles of freedom or democracy. Therefore it is legitimate to discuss and explore identity it all it’s guises and to also explore divisions within Scottish identity, religion obviously is part of that.. It doesn’t mean that one identity has to dominate, whether that is white protestant, or any other, including secular, but identity has to be included in our discussions because how one feels about one’s national identity affects how one feels about independence.

    The British State has been fostering British identity in Scotland with varying intensity for the past 300 years. broadcasting, for instance, will never be willingly devolved because it is one of the main ways that British identity is promoted.

  11. setondene says:

    Alex Buchan, ‘in Slovakia it was language.’

    In Slovakia I think it was language and a deep attachment to Roman Catholicism as you’ll find if you compare the very churchgoing Slovaks with the very atheist Czechs – a strong point of difference between the two cultures.

    1. Alex Buchan says:

      Thanks for the clarification.

    2. Alex Buchan says:

      That fact helps to show how each nation’s national identity is complex and multifaceted. I don’t know much about Czech history, but I do know that Jan Huss, who is one of the Czech’s greatest national heroes, was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Church and that Prague was the seat of the most developed liberal democracy before the war of any Eastern European State and the Czech communist party was the largest indigenous communist party in Eastern Europe at the end of the war. So all this would tie in with the difference in attachment to religion between the two nations.

    3. Dave Coull says:

      Not all Czechs are “very atheist”. When I visited Prague, one of the things I saw was the statue of the protestant Jan Hus, on the spot where he was martyred by the Catholic Church.

      1. setondene says:

        The Czechs are famously atheistic and the existence of a statue of Jan Hus in Prague doesn’t alter that fact. However it would be an interesting exercise to work out why there is such a contrast between the two former partners in Czechoslovakia. My vague feeling, for what it’s worth, is that the Counter Reformation went to town on the population of Bohemia in order to eliminate Hussites, while they had no great difficulty with the Slovaks. No doubt Diarmid MacCulloch would have a take on this,

  12. The American theologian Paul Tillich famously defined faith as “ultimate concern”. It’s therefore not surprising that on all sides – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, atheist – things get heated when we touch upon our ultimate concerns, and in the worst situations, it turns to violence, and that violence is deeply bound in with identity, with collective ego. As such, the question becomes not one of whether we have ultimate concerns, but rather, how these are held. In particular, how we allow our concerns to play out with regard to those who have different concerns. Can we, for example, adequately articulate the other’s point of view? I intend to vote “yes,” but do I understand the “no” position sufficiently well to articulate their case in a manner of which they could be proud? The answer to that hinges on empathy, and empathy hinges on a certain humility that, in my experience, is rooted in a deeper place than ourselves in the small sense; a place of discernment. A place from which it’s not about the me, not even about the we, but about a deeper spirit of life that’s living through us all. To me, that’s the point at which we have to ask what we think a human being is. Are we just egos on legs of meat, or are we as Terilhard de Chardin reputedly said, “spiritual beings having a material experience”? It matters, because it’s the question of where our system boundaries lie.

    I’m not a Catholic, but I’ve been following some of what Pope Francis has been saying, and it’s a trip. My goodness, he sounds like some of the best Church of Scotland moderators of recent years. He has a very good grasp of the idolatry of consumerism, for example, in Evangelii Gaudium p. 33-4, “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in … the idolatry of money … lacking a truly human purpose … man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption….. Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defencelss before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule. ”

    Now, I’d guess quite a lot of people in this debate would vibe with that. The question Francis is posing is what lies behind the exterior, the physical – the question of the existence (or otherwise) of the metaphysical – the beyond or behind the physical. Sartre in Being and Nothingness shows in the terrible nihilism towards the end that if you have nothing at the heart of reality (which he believed to be the case), you end up in an empty hall of mirrors. In contrast, a spiritual wordview puts something at the heart of reality, and the study of mystical experience suggests that the something in question is love, but a free love, not an patrenalistic interventionist love (for the mostpart). William James is good on this, as is the chapter on mystical experience (literature review) in The Varieties of Anomalous Experience from the American Psychological Assoc.

    In conclusion, if money, or nation, for their own sakes, are at the heart of our ultimate concerns, we end up with new idols that become the only rule. That’s why, to me, the question of community and therefore of nation is a spiritual question. It boils down to asking is love our ultimate concern, or is it something else? Either way, to follow through one’s answer to its logical conclusion is hugely challenging. The spiritual path is not for those who seek to not be troubled in their peace; but then, neither is the secular path.

    1. Alex Buchan says:

      In particular, how we allow our concerns to play out with regard to those who have different concerns. Can we, for example, adequately articulate the other’s point of view?

      I think this is a massive issue, but begs so many questions. One is that, for civility to exist, let alone empathy, there has to be a basic assumption of the validity of the other’s position. This is one of the tragedies of Scottish politics that the union makes this difficult because when people speak of the national good they can be referring to two completely different things, But though it’s difficult I think it’s nevertheless important to practice this as far as possible. Tribalism, whether unionist versus nationalist or Labour versus the SNP denigrates public life and undermines our ability to take ourselves seriously as a modern nation.

      1. Good point, Alex Buchan. Let me show what I mean. The basis of my argument in this and a number of other posts on Bella is that Scotland needs indy so that we can live out values such as social justice and ceasing neo-imperial warmongering, and that those values are very deeply rooted in the “spirituality” of our culture. Let me, very briefly, show how that same argument can be made from a Unionist perspective.

        “But Alastair,” my critic might say: The Union is itself a spiritual entity. Religion lies at the heart of the two Acts of Union (the English and the Scottish one), indeed, religion is guaranteed. Yes, it is Protestant religion, but you are from a Protestant background and, in your Quaker faith, benefit from the wider Protestant settlement that brought democracy to this country – a reflection of the view that Calvin’s “Institutes”, the basis of Presbyterianism, is “the seedbed of democracy”, represented, for example, by congregations in the C of S “calling” their ministers rather than having them imposed by prelacy. All that may be ancient history, but it is the history that shapes the democracy we take for granted today, and which you’d probably not have ended up with in the same way had the Jacobites won in 1746. True, it is bloody history, and you rue that, but both sides were at it, and we can’t judge the present by the past. The main thing is we’ve evolved, and we’ve done so by being better together. You cite with approval Donald Smith’s book and Harry Reid’s comment on Scottish “quiddity”, but you omitted to cite with equal approval a 2008 book by the theologian whose “Celtic” and “green” writings you so admire, Ian Bradley of St Andrew’s Uni, “Believing in Britain: The Spiritual Identity of Britishness,” the cover blurb of which says: “In an age when Great Britain is often seen as one of the most secular of nations, he argues that ‘Britishness’ is best understood in spiritual terms as an expression of inclusiveness and as a positive alternative to fundamentalism, narrow nationalism or jingoism.” Indeed, you can only quote the cover blurb because you’ve not read the book, notwithstanding citing Bradley’s ideas when they sit more conveniently with your own values…..

        Now, Alex, at the risk of beating myself up if I carry on further, that’s what I mean about asking ourselves if we can put the other side’s argument. I may or may not have done it effectively there. There are both truths and half truths in what I’ve said there, and it’s the half truths where lies the rub. An acid test for me with that particular set of arguments was when I used it in the Orange Lodge in Portadown with a group of my students in the presence of Dennis Watson, the Grand Master of N. Ireland at the time. Most of my students couldn’t fathom the Unionist case. It was a taut meeting. I said something like the above and concluded, “this is how these gentlemen see their history.” The effect was that they (the Orangemen) relaxed, because they felt understood, and the effect of that was that we were then able to have a rich and engaged debate that had previously been lacking – though for the record, I personally see the British presence in Ireland as having been a colonising one, though one that for humanity’s sake now somehow has to be lived with.

        We see in some of the posts to this item here how quickly the spiritual or more specifically, the religious dimension becomes highly charged and polarised. It gets personal because spirituality is personal. This causes many people to shy away – one respondent above talked of things where the cracks have been papered over. I agree. Papered cracks don’t work, because the psyche seeks a working through of unfinished business. How best can we do that with the love that is spirituality? We can wrestle with trying to understand the other’s point of view, though even as I write this, I am aware of the danger of that seeming patronising. Thus why it’s always a wrestling, and the real coal face of spiritual development is not with the bells and smells, and the pretty words, but where the conflict lies. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” You know, sometimes I think the only argument in favour of Twitter is that Christ could have tweated the beattitudes.

      2. Alex Buchan says:

        This has to be quick so its not a full response. I can see the power of demonstrating that you understand the other’s position and that this can be a necessary condition for opening up an exchange when positions are polarised. I found myself empathising with your students as there is so much in your outline of Bradley’s position that wide open to question.

        Apart from the fact that democracy has evolved in some cases in a healthier form than we have elsewhere without these conditions, the main argument I have with it is that he starts with a set of (religious) ideas and see the benefits that he believes has arisen from their entrenchment, rather than starting with the condition on the ground in the lives of people; in the emigration because of lack of opportunity, or in the sense of lack of control or agency over our destiny. In the alcoholism and drug addiction due to the lack of belief in a positive future.

        I’ve lived in England a lot, My mother was a staunch United Free Church member all her life, in many she ways an advertisement for the best of Calvinism. But, while in England, I could see the benefits of a more lenient attitude to human waywardness. The English know how to be convivial without it leading to being drunk necessarily. Instead of entrenching Calvinism what poor Scotland needed more than anything was the freedom to work Calvinism through its system in order to continually mitigate its effects so that we had a healthier attitude to human frailty and a more humane attitude towards our fellow men and woman regardless of their personal lives.

        It’s the union’s entrenchment of Calvinism that I see as its greatest disservice. All nations need to be free to evolve. To discuss, debate and dissent, but one can’t do any of these things when the seat of power and the seat of discussion is abroad in another country which is only dimly aware of one’s culture let alone of the vital issues that have been left unresolved.

    2. Hope this is going to post beneath your latest, Alex. It’s becoming a tangled web. I completely agree with you. My point is just to suggest the need to try and understand the other’s position as a basis from which dialogue can then ensue. One effect is to shift the argument form the level of facts, because different perceptions of the facts can be honestly laid out, to the values that determine their selection. On British religious history and how it plays out in Scotland this has been the subject of my recent book Island Spirituality – I suppose I can say that now without too much self promotion as we’re probably the only people left following this thread. I delight to see these deeper areas of what it means to be a peoples (plural) being opened up, though I’m aware that the mainstream of the debate treads warily around such ground, and why that is.

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        I need to read more and am glad you did reference your book which I’ll check out. Your point about shifting the argument from the level of facts to values is really interesting. It may seem ridiculous but I can almost see how that would be more possible in Northern Ireland with the Orange Order than it would be in Scotland. The Irish question seems to be settled in a compromise for the time being while the situation in Scotland feels too charged to even begin that process. Perhaps I am wrong. Also one feels that it is very difficult for Scots to have that kind of process of building dialogue while still in the union, because of the sense that it is not just about us but others also have a vested interest in the process and many may not even want such a process to take place, which is why I referred to it as one of the tragedies of Scottish politics. Thanks for the exchanges I’m interested now to see what’s in your book.

  13. douglas clark says:

    Could we just agree that there should be no reserved places for ministers, or bishops or imans or rabbi’s?

    I for one think they are an irrelevance to our future, but, yeah, let them stand on their own politics. Then we’ll see who’s right and who is wrong.

    1. Dave Coull says:

      Douglas Clark, you appear to be revealing your ignorance of the present situation.

      There are ZERO reserved places for ministers at present.

      Bishops of the Church of England have seats in the House of Lords.

      Ministers of the Church of Scotland do not.

      Now of course I welcome the fact that independence will mean we are rid of the House of Lords.

      But at least let’s be clear of what it is we will be rid : a House in which there are no representatives of the SNP, because, unlike all of the other political parties at Westminster, the SNP refuses to go along with the corruption that is the Lords. And a House in which there are no representatives of the Church of Scotland, for the same reason.

  14. douglas clark says:

    Dave Coull,


    I am perfectly aware of the House of Lords, if that is what you mean?

    My claim of right, as it were,is that there should be no-one whatsoever unelected to a position of power or influence over our future independent nation. It is clearly a joke,played perhaps by the Church of England that they have the power and the Church of Scotland dioes not,

    And that, clearly means that not one church,in fact none of them, should be offerred anything more than a right to stand for election. What is so important about the Church of England?

    I thought I was pretty clear on that?.

    1. Dave Coull says:

      No, you were NOT clear. I believe in giving credit where credit is due. The Green Party participates in the House of Lords. I condemn the Green Party for participating in the House of Lords. Plaid Cymru participates in the House of Lords. I condemn Plaid Cymru for participating in the House of Lords. The SNP does NOT participate in the House of Lords. Now, I am neither a member nor a supporter of the SNP, but I recognise that they have taken a principled stand over this. No doubt there are senior figures in the SNP, “elder statesmen” or whatever, who think they deserve to have a seat in Parliament without having to stand for election. But the SNP as such refuses to go along with the inherently corrupt process of nominating Members of the House of Lords, They deserve credit for that principled stand. Similarly with the Church oif Scotland, of which I am not a member. They refuse to nominate Members of the Lords. You obviously didn’t know that, and it was worth pointing out.

  15. douglas clark says:

    Dave Coull,

    You are right, I was unaware that the Church of Scotland refuses to nominate to the House of Lords, so well done them!

    So, we are agreed?

    A modern democracy in Scotland will be unicameral and elected.

    I’d have thought most people would see the sense of that?

    Because no-one should have influence simply because of their religion. If a religious ground swell emerges, – and it won’t, see my comment about the trajectory of religion in modern society – then their only mechanism to gain influence would be through standing candidates for the aforesaid parliament. Never say never, but my recollection of the success of such candidates across the UK is that they get a dismal level of support, absent the special case of Northern Ireland.

  16. Douglas says:

    Faith and/or spirituality are personal questions, no business of the State at all.

    As for this vague, foggy and far too prevalent notion of “Scottish identity” it is misleading, stultifying and probably a hostile idea if you were not born here. It leads you down the path of the “true” Scotsman or Scotswoman, though more likely the former than the latter, and consequently into dangerous territory.

    Instead of this nebulous “Scottish identity” thing, we would be better talking about Scottish culture, which is something tangible and inclusive, draws on international sources and references as well as Scottish ones, and is a lot more interesting, at least for me.

  17. Douglas says:

    “National identities” are a wee bit like the horoscope in your average tabloid. If you want to find something in there that fits with your life, you will do.

    But it’s only when you read all the other horoscopes beside yours that you see they all say more or less the same thing in a different way, which is to say, not very much at all, even if they can be fun if you’re at a loose end on a Saturday morning.

    Culture, in the widest sense, and traditions within that culture, that is a different question. You have something tangible you can react against, or endorse, or seek to shape or remould or just reject. National culture does inform your world view, at least it can do and it is never static, it is always open to change, unlike the “Scottish national identity”….

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