261 Britain’s Best-Known Dissident: Roger Scruton

         Considered by some “Britain’s best-known intellectual dissident” for his staunch defense of such English traditions as fox-hunting, Roger Scruton is a philosopher who has flourished as a writer who routinely lectures at universities without making a career as a tenured member of the professoriate.  Thus his writings, while addressing the timeless concerns of a philosopher, are much more accessible and wide-ranging than those of his peers.  Nevertheless, he was invited to give The Gifford Lectures (without question the most prestigious award for philosophers concerned with religion) in 2010 and published them under the title of The Face of God (London:  Continuum International Publishing Group, c. 2012).

         Distressed by the “consequences of the atheist culture that is growing around us”—rejecting both God’s Reality and any morality rooted in His Being, thereby escaping “the eye of judgment by wiping away” His face—Scruton endeavors to address questions awakened by those experiences that provoke us to deal with our own “consciousness, judgment, the knowledge of right and wrong, and all the things that make the human condition so singular” (p. 8). While acknowledging the legitimacy and importance of cosmological evidences regarding God’s existence, he prefers to focus on psychological clues pointing to His Presence.  He is the One to Whom we pray.  “He is in and around us, and our prayers shape our personal relation with him” (p. 13).

         To better understand this, Scruton invites us to consider “the meaning of three critical words:  ‘I,’ ‘you’ and ‘why.’  And in exploring those words I shall be constructing a general theory of the face:  the face of the person, the face of the world, and the face of God” (p 23).  If God is a Person, we might best engage Him through dialogue, intentionally interacting with Him in ways that defy purely naturalistic explanations.   As we reflect on our mysterious ability to communicate in languages, both verbal and mathematical, we enter into a realm of reality unobservable to empirical science, a subjective world full of distinctively personal thoughts and judgments and decisions.  Inwardly we know we arc free to think and love and act; we know we are more than biological automata following a pre-determined scheme.  “So maybe God is a person like us, whose identity and will are bound up with his nature as a subject” (p. 45). As a person He can say “I” and interact with other persons such as I.   

         When I say “I” something important is manifest.  I identify myself as a unique being within a world of beings. I think about yesterday’s weather and today’s schedule and tomorrow’s uncertainties, all freely associated within my mind.  I’m also aware of certain moral judgments and responsibilities accompanying my thoughts. I am, in short, self-conscious in ways unknown in the purely animal world.  And I recognize, as a self-conscious person, other persons with whom I discourse, to whom I am accountable, and who should be accountable to me.  Such persons are known to me almost exclusively through their faces, “the outward form and image of the soul, the lamp lit in our world by the subject behind it is through understanding the face that we begin to see how it is that subjects make themselves known in the world of objects” (p. 72).  Indeed; “the face is the subject, revealing itself in the world of objects” (p. 80).  In their spontaneous smiles and laughs and tears and blushes and deeply expressive eyes we intuitively know truths about persons we encounter. In loving relationships we enjoy communion with other persons.  (On the other hand “Fashion models and pop stars tend to display faces that are withdrawn, scowling and closed.  Little or nothing is given through their faces, which offer no invitation to love or companionship.  The function of the fashion-model’s face is to put the body on display; the face is simply one of the body’s attractions, with no special role to play as a focus of another’s interest” (p. 107).  

         So how might we sec the face of God?  As human beings we are deeply troubled by the guilt, disgrace, sorrow and death that result from decisions freely made in the past.   We long for forgiveness and restoration within the community of persons.  We also crave immortality.  Thus a multitude of religious rites and practices have developed within human history, and some of us now and then discern, in “sacred moments,” a supernatural reality beyond the natural world.  “All sacred moments are moments of gift—of gift revealed as the way things are.  The distinctiveness of the Christian Eucharist is that it makes this wholly specific.  The Eucharist commemorates God’s supreme gift, which is the gift of himself—his own descent into the world of suffering and guilt, in order to show through his example that there is a way out of conflict and resentment—a way to restore through grace the givenness of the world” (p. 172)

          For Scruton,  the Christian message of God-in-Christ revealing Himself as agape love “gives the greatest insight into our situation,”’ and “the I that gives itself opens a window in the scheme of things through which we glimpse the light beyond—the I AM that spoke to Moses’” (p. 172).  He IS—and in Christ He is really present.  He Is Really with us (Immanuel, God with us). 

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          In The Soul of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, c 2014), Roger Scruton returns to (and reinforces) themes earlier treated in The Face of God:  Discerning the Real Presence of God, the mystery basic to mystical experience and divine revelation and liturgical worship.  To this the celebrated mathematician and philosopher Blaise PascaJ gave witness following his nuit de feu, “the night of 23 November 1654 when, for two hours, he experienced the total certainty that he was m the presence of God—‘the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, not the God of the philosophers and the wise men.’ other words a personal God, intimately revealed, not conjured by abstract argument.  Pere juste, le monde ne t’a point connu, mais moi, je t’ai connu, [GR translation:  righteous Father, the world has not know you, but I myself, I have known you] he wrote then, on the scrap of paper on which he recorded the experience:  astonishing words, which only total conviction could have engendered” (p. 12).  

          To share Pascal’s conviction in the 21st century requires us to first deal with the highly influential and strident claim of evolutionary psychology (e.g. Patricia Churchland’s Neurophilosophy) that reduces  religious reflection and affection to simple chemical processes within the brain.  Scruton endorses Mary Midgley’s dismissal of the “nothing buttery” that reduces “emergent realities to be ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them.”  To the nothing buttery coterie, “the human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal, law is ‘nothing but’ relations of social power; sexual love is ‘nothing but’ the urge to procreation; altruism is ‘nothing but’ the dominant genetic strategy described by Maynard Smith; the Mona Lisa is ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a Canvas, the Ninth Symphony is ‘nothing but’ a sequence of pitched sounds of varying timbre.  And so on.  Getting rid of this habit is, to my mind, the true goal of philosophy” (p.39).  

          Skillfully rejecting such reductionism, Scruton insists “that functional explanations of the evolutionary kind have no bearing on the content of our religious beliefs and emotions” (p. 3).  Much more than matter-in-motion distinguishes us human beings.  We may very well function as animals in many ways (eating, sleeping, copulating), but in our minds we wonder about things true, good, and beautiful, we ponder what philosophers call “qualia” and do math not merely because we want to measure distances but because of the sheer beauty of intricately balanced equations.  We think morally, “reaching beyond” the evolutionary struggle to survive, discerning ethical norms and reasons for proper behavior.  And we also speak coherently in highly complex ways, far beyond the capacity of other animals.  Importantly, “Language enables us to distinguish truth and falsehood; past, present, and future; possible, actual, and necessary, and so on.  It is fair to say that we live in another world from nonlinguistic creatures. They live immersed in nature; we stand forever at its edge” (p, 5).

          Standing forever at nature’s edge, we sense another world, a transcendental realm of realities (theological and ethical as well as mathematical and musical) more vital than the material things we touch and taste.  We experience what Scruton repeatedly refers to as a “cognitive dualism,” somewhat akin to Aristotle’s “hylomorphism,” understanding one Reality in two equally valid ways.  Situated at this horizon—immersed in sacred places, repeating sacred chants, celebrating sacred rites—we open our inner being to the timeless realm of God, hungering for a face-to-face encounter with Him.  Religious aspirations are truly perennial deeply embedded in human nature.  Thus Scruton says:  “The real question for religion in our time is not how to excise the sacred, but how to rediscover it, so that the moment of pure intersubjectivity, in which nothing concrete appears, but in which everything hangs on the hear and now, can exist in pure and God-directed form Only when we are sure that this moment of the real presence exists in the human being who experiences it, can we then ask the question whether it is or is not a true revelation—a moment not just of faith but of knowledge, and a gift of Grace” (p. 23}.

         To Scruton, evidence for God’s existence may be found primarily in the psychological, rather than the cosmological, realm.  Probing the depths of human conscious and personal relationships, rather the limits of outer space, brings us in touch with the One He Who Is.  I primarily identify myself as a person—“an individual substance of a rational nature,” according to Boethius, “I know that I am a single and unified subject of experience” (p. 72). Interacting with other persons, I use terms such as good and beautiful, tragic and comedic, necessary for the I-You relationships requisite for us.  In these relationships “ideas of the self and freedom cannot disappear from the minds of the human subjects themselves.  Their behavior toward each other is mediated by the belief in freedom, in selfhood, in the knowledge that I am I and you are you and that each of us is a center of free and responsible thought and action” (p, 64).  “Each human object is also a subject, addressing us in looks, gestures, and words, from the transcendental horizon of the I.  Our responses to others aim toward that horizon, passing on beyond the body to other being that it incarnates.  It is this feature of our interpersonal responses that gives such compelling force to the myth of the soul, of the true but  hidden self that is veiled by the flesh” (p, 74).  So too we may interact with God as a Person.

          Thus we find the Hebrew Scriptures celebrating God’s covenant relationship with his people.  Almighty God established “a binding agreement, in which God Commands obedience only by putting himself under obligations toward those whom he commands. The idea that God can be bound by obligations toward his creation has had a profound impact on our civilization, since it implies that God’s relation to us is of the same kind as the relations that we create through our promises and contracts.  Our relation to God is a relation between free beings who take responsibility for their actions.  And the simplest form that such a relation can take is that of an exchange of promises—a form that has been recognized by the law since ancient times” (p. 78). Consequently, Scruton says, if we think through the implications of this divinely-designed covenant “we will arrive at the ancient concept of natural law: the concept of a law inscribed in human reason itself, and which issues precisely from our disposition to bind ourselves in free agreements and to live with our neighbors on terms.  There is, as I prefer to put it, a ‘calculus of rights, responsibilities, and duties’ that is inherent in our search for agreement, and this calculus lays down the constraints that must be obeyed, if we are to arrive at a consensual political order” (p. 81).

          This “natural law” is not the law of physics or biology, for it transcends them.  It reveals to us a deeper—or higher—realm of reality and truth regarding who we are and what we should do as persons, it prompts us to enjoy people as persons rather than use them as things.  It aligns us with a deeply religious realm wherein we find permanent things—the things that matter most.  We are thus capable of discerning sacred spaces (e.g. the “music of the spheres”) and designating sacred things (e.g. temples and cathedrals).  This “experience of the sacred is interpersonal.  Only creatures with ‘I’ thoughts can see the world in this way, and their doing so depends upon a kind of interpersonal readiness, a willingness to find meanings and reasons, even in things that have no eyes to look at them and no mouth to speak” (p. 134).  Rightly experienced, “The ‘order of the Covenant’ emerges from the ‘order of nature’ in something like the way the face emerges from the flesh or the movement of tones from the sequence of sounds in music.  It is not an illusion or a fabrication, but a ‘well-founded phenomenon’ to use the idiom of Leibniz.  It is out there and objectively perceivable, as real as any feature of the natural world” (p. 175).  And it comes to us from God, who is the “soul of the world”— the “all-knowing subject who welcomes us as we pass into that other domain, beyond the veil of nature” (p. 198).

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         In Gentle Regrets:  Thoughts from a Life (New York: Continuum, c. 2005), Roger Scruton reflects on those “uncomfortable truths” that have in fact given him tasting “comfort.”  Many of them were early found in classic books such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.  He discovered that “Shakespeare’s plays are ‘works of philosophy—philosophy not argued but shown” (p. 9).  He found T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets an effective antidote to Oswald Spengler’s pessimism. Though these and many other books were read while young Scruton was in school, many of the most important of them were not part of the prescribed curriculum,

         Brn in 1944, he “grew to immaturity in the sixties, when disorder was the order of the day.  Like most of my generation, I was a rebel—but a meta-rebel, so to speak, in rebellion against rebellion, who devoted to shoring up the ruins the same passionate conviction that my contemporaries employed in creating them.  How this happened is a mystery.  I have gained nothing whatsoever from my anti-antinomian stance, and discarded my socialist conscience only to discover that a socialist conscience was the one thing required for success in the only spheres where I could aspire to it” (p. 19). He had become, in his mid-20s, following his days at Cambridge, a conservative!  Early granted a lectureship at Birkbeck College, London, he found himself surrounded by leftist luminaries such as Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian whose “vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools” (p. 36).  

          Fortuitously, Scruton discovered Edmund Burke, the great 18th century philosopher-statesman, with whom he shared a deep interest in aesthetics.  “Like Burke, therefore, I made the passage from aesthetics to conservative politics with no sense of intellectual incongruity, believing that, in each case, I was in search of a lost experience of home” (p. 39).  Through Burke’s critical analysis of the French Revolution, Scruton realized “that the Utopian promises of socialism go hand in hand with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind—a geometrical version of our mental processes that has only the vaguest relation to the thoughts and feelings by which real human lives are conducted” (p. 40).  Burke stood for such old- fashioned things as individual freedom and sexual standards and religious traditions—things which Scruton celebrated in his 1997 publication, The Meaning of Conservatism, a book that “blighted what remained of my academic career” (p. 41).

          Indelibly branded as a “conservative,” he was effectively ostracized by the English intelligentsia., especially when he linked up with a vigorous minority of like-minded thinkers; seeking to publish their views in the “belligerently anti-communist” Salisbury Review.  His articles and books elicited general disdain from powerful professors such as A.J. Ayer.  “However hard I tried, however much scholarship, thought and open-minded argument I put into what I wrote, it was routinely condemned as ignorant, sloppy, pernicious, or just plain ‘silly’” (p. 55).  The doors to a university career quickly closed to him, so he determined to make his own way as an independent thinker.  

          In the process he slowly shed his youthful atheism and opened himself to the claims of traditional religion.  He found Christianity’s sexual ethos and artistic masterworks persuasive.  And he discovered when interacting with “true believers”—many of them Jiving under oppression in Poland and Czechoslovakia—how “faith transfigures everything it touches, and raises the world to God” (p. 63).  He took to heart some of the words of a devout, and quite conservative, Catholic priest, Monsignor Gilbey, who had been Catholic chaplain in Cambridge when Scruton studied there:   “‘We are not asked to undo the work of creation.   Or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place.  His duty is to leave this world a better man’” (p. 68).

          The second person who influenced Scruton was a young Polish university student (Barbara) living in Gdansk, Poland.  Asked to teach at the Catholic University of Lublin, he discovered that in “an occupied country with a censored press, there was, comparatively speaking, complete freedom of speech . . . the only university I knew where a right-winger could speak openly in defense of his views” (p. 72).  In discussions with Barbara, he discovered a woman possessed with “the crazy idea . . . that she could help me to salvation” (p. 75).  Her witness—and the series of letters and meetings that followed—introduced Scruton to a person who “observed her world with the eye of religion, seeing in everything the sign of God’s creative power and the call to free obedience.  Hers was a simple, humble, priest-haunted life, and yet it was lived more intensely and more completely than mine” (p. 76). She “spoke easily and quietly of communism, which she saw as the Devil’s work—a swindle, born of the father of lies, but no different in essence from all other attempts, both great and small, both public and private, to live a lie” (p. 78).   She, like Monsignor Gilbey, insisted that the really important things “was not to improve the world, but to improve yourself” (p. 79).

          Added to his growing interest m religion was his experience in being a father.  After his first marriage ended in divorce, plunging him into “an unhappiness that lasted two decades,” and after sampling some of his generation’s sexual revolution, Scruton remarried and sired a son named Sam.  Then 54 years of age, witnessing his son’s birth, after “decades of arrested development, I grew up” (p. 109).  “To watch a child grow up is to become detached from yourself and attached to another, whose total dependence compels independence in you” (p. 115).   As a father he deeply understood the difference between a family and the State, with which it as war in modern society.  He and his wife thus “belong to a growing class of dissidents, at war with the official culture and prepared to challenge it” (p. 117).

         Gradually, bit by bit, Scruton was “regaining my religion.”  Along with most of his contemporaries, he had little concern for religion in his early years. But some of his early longings, awakened by reading Rilke and Eliot, prepared him to consider religious truth-claims.  His own analysis of his own self-consciousness persuaded him of the “truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgment in our own eyes and m the eyes of others” (p. 226).  He learned to appreciate the importance of sacrifice—particularly self-sacrifice—in living well.  Moving to the country, he began attending a small church where he began listening to readings from the Book of Common Prayer and volunteered to play the organ.  Though unable to affirm traditional, orthodox Christian belief, he did find himself inwardly persuaded that the religious life was more true to life experiences than the secular scientism of modernity.  And so he became perhaps England’s finest conservative philosopher with a somewhat heterodox Christian perspective. 

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