A Highland River of Life

If I had to pick just one day out of my life to relive, I might choose the first time I walked the Dunbeath strath with the man who was, the following summer, to become my husband. It was May holiday, 2002: warm, sunny, just one of those perfect days that stands out in my memory for reasons too insubstantial to put into words: you had to be there; and of the two who were, I am the only one left.

Part of the magic was that this was Neil Gunn’s strath. He has been my favourite writer for many years now and I can still recall the delight I felt as I recognised places mentioned in his novels – the meal mill, the House of Peace, the Prisoner’s Leap. Most of all, it brought to mind his 1937 novel, winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize – ‘Highland River’. Ever since reading that unique book, I found it impossible to walk beside any river without thinking of Kenn, the central character, making his journey towards the source: the source of the river, the source of his own identity.

Gunn believed that the Gaels were united by more than a mere language, that they were bound together by common experience, and by landscape. He was a great believer in the collective unconscious: Jung’s idea that people may share a second-level consciousness which cannot be related to their own direct experience. It describes what we might otherwise call ‘instinct’.

Calvin was a proponent of instinct in a way too. He argued that the light of nature – natural man’s awareness of God’s existence – is in each one of us, however distorted by sin. This was, and is, not to be confused with the light of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. In no way was Calvin suggesting that the sensus divinitatis, this awareness of God, was sufficient in itself; without the Spirit’s illumination, we cannot know God savingly. As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it:

‘Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.

As Kenn nears his final destination, the source of the river, he feels a strong sense of his own abiding solitude:

‘That was his destiny. He saw its meaning in his people, even in their religion, for what was the Calvinist but one who would have no mediating figure between himself and the ultimate, no one to take responsibility from him, to suffer for him.’

Well, true in part: Calvinists do not place their trust in priests, or bishops, in confessionals or man-made absolution. Calvinists, however, do believe in the great and only mediating figure. He has already suffered and taken responsibility for our sins. If, knowing this, we choose solitude and suffering for ourselves, we are not Calvinists, but fools.

Far be it from me to disagree with Calvin – that’s not how I was brought up. There is, I believe, an instinctive awareness of God in us, which the Creation further demonstrates. That, however, is surely as far as one can go with that. You can be aware of the existence of the Creator by witnessing the work of His hand, yes – but you cannot know Him apart from the Son and the Spirit. To truly know Him, you must know how He has dealt with mankind, how He has dealt with you. You must know the sacrifice He has made.

When I go back now, in my mind, to that strath, and to that day, I see Him there. Yes, in the beauty of the river, in the brightness of the sun and in the fragrance of nature. All of that, but this too: He planned that day, we two, and all that would become of us. Not just planned, but ordained, brought into being: authored and finished.

The mere, dim light of nature is not enough. It will leave us like those poor Greeks at the Areopagus, with an altar ‘to the unknown god’. If He is unknown to us, that is not because He is unknowable, but because we have not yet traced the river of our life back to its source.

‘For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.’

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