Tuesday Talk’s: with Dr. John Drane about the Loch Ness Monster, Portals and Thin Places By Lisa Hunt-Wotton
Rev Dr. John Drane
Qualifications and background: John is founder of the religious studies program at the University of Stirling, Scotland. He is also appointed to teach Practical Theology in the Divinity School at the University of Aberdeen. Currently a self-employed consultant working with churches of many different denominations throughout the United Kingdom as well as internationally. An adjunct professor in New Testament and Practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, California, a visiting scholar at Spurgeon’s College in London and a visiting Fellow of St John’s College, Durham. John is also an ordained minister and well known throughout the UK and western world for his academic contributions.
Oh Nessie, where are You?
John, when you and Olive visited Melbourne Australia in March 2014, my husband and I were thrilled to be able to take you and Olive out for dinner. Over a scrumptious meal at ‘Altair’ Restaurant in Warrandyte…….I remember well a lull in the dinner time conversation when I launched out with,
“So ….you live in Scotland, do you believe that the Loch Ness Monster is real”?
After receiving several swift and brutal kicks under the table from my husband you surprised me with your answer. ‘Loch Ness’ is a long narrow lake Southwest of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It is the second largest Loch in Scotland and holds more water than all of the other lakes in Great Britain combined. At places it is 755 feet deep. It is a place full of mystery and like its Celtic history abounds in legend. A perfect place to harbour an unidentified monster.
John, for the sake of our readers I will ask you again. Do you believe that the Loch Ness Monster or something similar is real?
John: I’m tempted to say you’ll have to come and see for yourself – that’s absolutely the only way to be certain about it. But yes, Loch Ness is definitely mysterious – at one point it’s 230 metres deep, and people who are interested in such things reckon it contains more water than all the lakes in England and Wales put together. So plenty of nooks and crannies for any number of monsters to lurk about.
I have to admit that I’ve never seen Nessie myself, but I know quite a few sensible people who reckon they have. And I’ll be spending a weekend there towards the end of March, so I’ll definitely be looking out for her (or is it him – or even them?).
Lisa: Apparently there have been over 3000 recorded sightings of Nessie.
John, you said that you knew a man who lived on the Loch. Did he see Nessie? What were his recollections?
John: Yes, when I was a student I knew a man who was absolutely certain not only that Nessie exists, but also that he’d seen the monster more than once. I don’t recall ever asking him what he saw, how big it was, colour, or anything else that I might ask about his sightings today.
Lisa: There is a story about Saint Columba invoking the power of God against the monster and banishing him. Who was Saint Columba? Are these stories about Saint Columba and the Loch Ness Monster accurate or a myth?
John: Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it – “accurate or a myth”!
St Columba certainly was a real person, born in Ireland in 521 but best known for sailing to Scotland in a fragile coracle and founding a monastery on the island of Iona in 563. His encounter with a monster at Loch Ness occurred a couple of years later. The story doesn’t quite equate to what people think the monster is today, as the Columba story describes it attacking his group of missionaries, whereas more recent sightings suggest that far from being aggressive, it is actually very shy. Our knowledge of Columba’s life is contained in an extensive work written by Adomnan written a hundred years later, and there’s no doubt that the accounts had been polished by expert storytellers in the meantime. There is certainly no shortage of accounts of his heroism, his miracles, prophecies, and encounters with angels – all the things you would expect of someone who was eventually declared to be a saint.
It is easy to dismiss such stories as fanciful, though they must have some basis in fact, otherwise nobody would have believed them even then – and historians value the Via Columbae (‘Life of Columba’) as a firsthand account of many aspects of life in early medieval Scotland.
Lisa: Some people believe that the monster comes and goes through deep underwater tunnels? Others believe that Nessie swims through portals into other times or places which is why sightings are so spasmodic and she is so hard to locate. Do you believe in Portals? If so what is your thinking on portals?
John: Who knows? One thing that fascinates me is that astrophysicists today regularly speak of at least ten dimensions of reality, and acknowledge that there might easily be more than we don’t know than what we do.
Einstein’s theory of relativity has opened the door to mystery being at the heart of the cosmos, and though scientists talk of dark energy, black holes, and the like, these are just names given to something that we know exists and we can track its impact, but nobody can really put their finger on what it actually us.
Lots of things – including portals – that were once thought of as, at best, in the realm of science fiction, are now credibly possible. That doesn’t explain where Nessie is, though it means some of the more far-fetched ideas may not be so mad after all.
Lisa: Celtic Spirituality teaches a lot about ‘thin places’, can you explain what thin places are?
John: The ancient Celts identified thin places as spaces where heaven and earth come together even more closely than in the rest of life.
I need to express this carefully, as the Celtic saints regarded the whole of life – nature as well as humanity – as the theater of God’s operations.
There was no place where God could not be found – which of course is on the first page of the Bible, with its statements that this is God’s world, and the obvious consequence that God is therefore to be found in it. To put it simply, there can be no “no-go areas” for God. That is one of the things that distinguished Celtic Christian spirituality from much that came later, where there was often an assumption that the power of evil had somehow excluded God from some places. But within that conviction that God is to be found everywhere, the Celtic saints also identified some locations as places where the transcendent presence of the holy shone through more brightly than in others.
Typically, these would be wild landscapes, but they could also be places where people met in community – quite often both, as in the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, or the holy island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. And because many people over different generations had similar experiences of the presence of God in these places, they came to be identified as specially holy, or ‘thin’.
If you were looking for something they all had in common, then I think it would be that they are places where you come face to face with your own vulnerability, you are no longer in control and are forced to depend on God in a deeper and more self-conscious way than you might normally do.
As I think of my own encounters with thin places, they would certainly include remote and wild spaces, but also marginalized urban environments as well.
Lisa: Could Jacobs ladder in Genesis 28 be considered a thin place?
Lisa: John, let me throw a hypothetical at you. We have accounts in the bible of teleportation, Ezekiel when was transported to Tel Abib, Ezekial 3:12 and the most common account of Philip which is found in Acts 8:39-40.
“When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities”.
Is Teleportation a completely different kettle of fish, or could it be that they went through a portal?
John: Like I said in relation to portals, I really want to say: who knows? But I would add that I find that all totally believable.
I think we have been through a pretty unspiritual time in western culture over the course of the 20th century, when our inclination was to dismiss the sort of Bible stories you mention as either being made up, or mistaken because something did really happen but it wasn’t quite as described. There’s no doubt that if we met Ezekiel today most of us would run a mile because he’s so weird: the episode you highlight is just the start! And it’s not just oddballs like him: Paul is generally reckoned to have been a pretty stable intellectual type, but his spirituality was derived not only from the Damascus road experience which was dramatic enough in itself, but also from mystical experiences like being “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2). I guess it’s a natural tendency to imagine that people we admire must be like us (rational, balanced, predictable, organized etc), but by doing that we might be missing the most important things about them.
Lisa: Ahh John, one of the many things that I love about you is your ability to be flexible and open minded. Thank you so much for answering my quirky questions. It is refreshing to chat about this type of thing. We humans like to believe that we have everything worked out and I think that we actually have very little idea about the real nature and workings of the cosmos and our world. Any last thoughts?
John: I have a feeling we might have started a conversation here! Let’s see what other people think – about Nessie or portals.
As John had mentioned, we would love to hear your thoughts about this post so drop in a comment. Love Lisa.
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