Roger Scruton’s Faith
The admirer of Christ who never quite became a follower
The passing of Sir Roger Scruton after a short but characteristically courageous battle with cancer leaves a hole at the heart of British intellectual life that will not be filled for years to come. Those transformed by the dizzying array of vistas his writings opened up may never adjust to a world now bereft of his erudition, courage, piety, and humour. That Scruton was never mawkish or morose about mortality even in his final months is testimony to a life lived in unrepentant pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness as facets of a single transcendent reality metaphysically immune to death and decay. To be sure, that reality was for him draped in the curtain Kant drew between the world of appearances and the world as it exists in itself. It was his singular reverence for the Sage of Königsberg and, in particular, Kant’s famous attack on reason’s tendency to traffic in empirically unwarranted claims about God that ensured—to borrow a distinction from Kierkegaard (a thinker he generally disliked)—that if he was always an unwavering admirer of Christ he was, in the end, never quite a follower. Yet it was obvious too that the Kantian buffers he so carefully interposed between what can be known and what must only be believed did not require him to conclude (to borrow a remark from Wittgenstein) that a nothing would do as well as a something about which nothing can be said. No one could read more than a few pages of Scruton’s work without glimpsing his profound conviction that a reality—albeit an unknowable one—did lie behind Kant’s curtain, irradiating everything in front of it with a sanctity and significance that the finest music and art equips us to see.
If he never fully embraced Christianity, Scruton was far more trenchant in his distaste for philosophy’s rejection of religious belief in favour of atheistic materialism
For all that, he threaded his way haphazardly through the borderlands between belief and unbelief, never wholly at ease on either side of that divide. From his secret teenage confirmation as an Anglican and, much later, his formal instruction in Catholic doctrine at the Brompton Oratory, to his encounter with sainthood on the far side of the Iron Curtain and his tentative return to the Anglican fold as organist at his local church, Scruton was gripped by gratitude for the sheer gift of existence, a gratitude he believed to be most fittingly directed towards God. As a result, he saw and described much more lucidly than any of his fellow philosophers that faith in the reality of a post-mortem existence with God did not belong to a set of esoteric positions tacked awkwardly onto more quotidian beliefs, but rather a comprehensive attitude to reality—a state of mind, as he once put it—that reconfigures the religious believer’s engagement with it beyond the point at which it could be elucidated to the satisfaction of an Oxford philosopher. Scruton memorably described himself as a philosopher on Dover Beach for his refusal to share the fashionable indifference for religion and for his insistence that Arnold was prophetic in lamenting Christianity’s long withdrawing roar from this country’s shores. For him, especially in recent years, that loss was a tragedy of civilizational proportions and not, as Nietzsche supposed, the thrilling inauguration of a new humanist dispensation.
If he never fully embraced Christianity, Scruton was far more trenchant in his distaste for philosophy’s rejection of religious belief in favour of atheistic materialism. For him, materialism foreclosed the very possibility that we are not primarily objects animated by blind mechanical forces, but rather subjects who bear the imprint of God at least insofar as we are free and conscious persons who are accountable for our actions, seized with aesthetic wonder, and endowed with the moral awareness to recognise sins against the sacred and our need for redemption from them. To the extent that he insisted throughout his life that as persons we always transcend our materiality and that we are therefore beings for whom biological death could not be the final word, Scruton was on the side of the angels.
Moreover, the moral stances that flowed from this unwavering commitment to the sanctity of the human person set him at odds with the slow drift of the Conservative Party away from its historic commitment to social conservatism, most notably in refusing to abandon his sacramental conception of marriage as an intrinsically heterosexual union, or his view that sex was only ever consecration or desecration, or his insistence that the unlimited expansion of choice trampled underfoot the dignity of the most defenceless in society. And yet, as the Church of England came increasingly to resemble the Labour Party at prayer, the independent philosophical support with which he buttressed its ethical orthodoxies was far too boldly expressed for all but a dwindling minority of its leaders (as he once put it, ‘the Church [of England] is not there to propagate the Christian faith, but to forgive those who reject it’).
Many years ago a slightly awestruck Dutch journalist—for Scruton was a prophet without honour only in his own country—pressed him on the seemingly futile transience of human life. He replied that ‘[w]e have two choices: one is to go towards our end accepting it, the other is to be dragged kicking and screaming towards it, but it’s the same outcome: the only thing we have the freedom to do is achieve the serenity beforehand.’ That Roger Scruton did achieve that serenity was obvious to all who were fortunate enough to know him in the twilight years of his life; and we who continue to see through a glass darkly may be permitted to hope that, at long last, he no longer needs to.
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