During a late summer evening in a convent in Dubrovnik a year or so ago, we had the chance to ask Sir Roger Scruton a question that had been on the mind of several of our editors for quite a while.
In his autobiographical work, Gentle Regrets (2006), ‘why’, we asked him, ‘do you write that you have no problem with the precepts of the Catholic Church — except the premise of God’s existence, while all your latest books seem to be about God?’
His reply seemed to suggest that either he is not the same person he once was, perhaps increasingly unconvinced by his own arguments, or that, despite the difficulty of accepting the premise of God, he has. His prodigious output certainly seems to reflect one or the other, and at times both, of these responses.
It’s worth recalling that Sir Roger’s prestigious Gifford Lectures were gathered and published in the form of the book, The Face of God (2012), while the equally prestigious Stanton Lectures appeared as The Soul of the World (2014). Over the years, he has also written about the Anglican Church, the environment, aesthetics, and the history of philosophy, as well as several novels and two operas. Scruton is clearly a modern ‘Man of Letters’. But he has never quite been seen as a religious writer, certainly not a theologian, though he seems to be on some kind of meandering path to Rome.
Last year, the anthology The Religious Philosophy of Roger Scruton (2016) was published. The book, which brings together essays by many leading philosophers of religion, comments on Scruton’s religious thought and his writings on matters relating to the Christian Church. The writers include Mark Dooley, John Cottingham, and Chantal Delsol. But the book also includes a conversation between Charles Taylor and Sir Roger — which was held at the McGill University in 2014 — on the sacred and the secular.
Central to Sir Roger’s thinking is that the transcendent is still important. We often speak of things as ‘sacred’ and ‘pure’ but also as ‘profane.’ For Scruton, there is a sort of ‘cognitive dualism’, which is not meant in an ontological sense but as two ways to look at the world. That is, we can see the world as it is described by the natural sciences; but we can also search for meaning, which can only be done by help of transcendental concepts. This points to a world beyond the reach of our senses.
Scruton, whose thinking is deeply influenced by Immanuel Kant, claims that we can never quite reach outside of this world. It is as if we were standing by a window on our way up a staircase, looking out on the beautiful landscape just beyond. Alas, Scruton reminds us, “we are prisoners of time and our steps trudge always onwards and up”.
Irrespective of Sir Roger’s own journey, his eloquent writings about religion, Christianity, and the divine are superb resources for modern man, as he gropes his way towards his final destiny. We are better off having Scruton’s writings accompany us along the way.