On a pleasant afternoon over tea and cake, Sir Roger Scruton led a seminar of about a dozen students, tutors, and academics in the charming library of The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology. The seminar was organized by Dr Férdia Stone-Davis, one of the theology tutors at the institute, who introduced Professor Scruton, and gently set the quiet and contemplative mood of the seminar.
Although a philosopher by training, Scruton began the seminar by saying that he has come to understand that there are important theological implications to his philosophical writing. From his first encounter with philosophy in his teenage years, Scruton told us that he came to understand that philosophy was deeply bound up with writing. Although he now despises the message of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, Scruton admits to an abiding debt to the Frenchman whose works showed him that the right use of words is the first step in the direction of the philosophical life. Sartre’s genius, for Scruton, is to be found in power of his writing which brought his philosophical ideas to life. The other side of this coin, of course, is that philosophy is something to which one is introduced by reading. Scruton told us he found the experience of reading philosophy at Cambridge disappointing, because the philosophy tripos at the time didn’t require that one read what actual historical philosophers wrote. One paper on Kant, however, taught by Jonathan Bennett, arrested Scruton’s attention, because of the way Bennet seemed to be wrestling with Kant himself in his lectures. For Bennet, as for Scruton, philosophy, although mostly written by dead people, lives on in the books they wrote, and it is the task of the aspiring philosopher to reanimate their arguments and vision critically.
Scruton told us that delivering the Gifford Lectures in 2010 - eventually published as The Face of God - were a kind turning point for him in terms of his own understanding of the underlying trajectory of his work; they helped him to understand the theological orientation of his philosophical outlook. Those lectures, he explained, were an attempt to find the right words to describe the human condition as it ‘would be’ if God was reflected in it. Scruton positions himself in phenomenological tradition of 20th century thinkers like Max Scheler, who attempts to translate Kant’s transcendental idealism into phenomenological and ultimately into theological language. The fundamental question that Scruton, with those philosophers, poses is: how are we to bring ourselves into conformity with the fundamental law of our being? Kant provided only an abstract answer to this question, Scruton concedes and he finds arguments that attempt to show that there is a divine spark in all of us much more convincing than, say, the categorical imperative, especially if such arguments are set to music, as they are in Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, a setting of Dostoevsky’s prison memoirs. In music and literature of this kind, the divine image is not represented in legalistic or fideistic terms, but, rather, they show that, however degraded we are in this world, the divine spark persists in all of us, even and perhaps especially when we seem beyond even God’s reach, which is how the world might seem to a prisoner in a Siberian workcamp. Scruton’s own position, as he understands it, is neither the God-directed intentionality of pre-critical theology, nor the modern Feuerbachian reduction of God and religion to a human invention. Scruton adopts what he takes to be the middle-position he finds in Scheler, that of the Gottwerdung, which holds that our vocation is to become like God, whose image we reflect.
After Scruton’s fascinating introduction to his work, the conversation took a number of interesting turns, with most attendees affirming the substance of Scruton’s vision in their own reading of the Bible. An interesting contrast between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament was noted; in the books of Moses there are many more injunctions than there are in the Gospels to ‘love the stranger’, an interesting contrast with the emphasis placed on ‘loving thy neighbour’ in the New Testament. In fact, there may not be a contrast at all, one of our members argued; the imperative to love the stranger is almost certainly the message lying behind Christ’s parable of the ‘good Samaritan’. There is something deeply counter-intuitive to understanding Christ’s the injunction to love thy neighbour in this way, since we usually think of our neighbour as someone we know. This reading takes the opposite view: that it may be even more essential that we love people we don’t know. This ‘irrational way of Christ’ made Scruton think of Parsifal, where the idea of universal love is revealed in the ‘special case’. Scruton thinks that Wagner’s opera powerfully conveys some of the deepest truths of the Christian tradition and, more to the point, of our modern existential predicament, in which there is faith and love, but no hope. As Scruton sees it, Wagner captures the deep anxiety that has beset our modern culture, which cries out for a Redeemer (Wagner never explicitly mentions Christ, but a ‘Redeemer’) who cannot save us. As bleak as this may sound, this insight is what is attractive about Wagner, for Scruton, because it so clearly illustrates that it is a fundamental part of the human condition to desire to be rescued. This much is clear, Scruton thinks, whenever we reflect on our own lives as a whole: shame and humiliation come to mind much more quickly than life’s triumphs, taking the form of what Scruton calls ‘gentle regrets’. The way out of this existential quagmire Scruton commends is to fall in love. Christian marriage, he suggests, is one such path, because it offers its participants a sense of redemption, in large part because it is a call to deep friendship.
This space cannot possibly do justice to all of the wonderful insights Scruton and the members of the seminar offered, which included very interesting meditations on religious art; some mystical utterances of Julian of Norwich; thoughts about what the afterlife might be like (Sir Roger suggested that it must be like waking up from or into a dream); and our speaker even remembered for us that former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was the first student he taught at Cambridge. Scruton said he predicted a promising for the future Lord Rabbi Sacks at the time, and he seemed very pleased, as any teacher would be, that his optimistic prophesies were confirmed!
One concluding thought springs to mind, which is how appropriate it was to have a philosopher like Professor Scruton visit a centre dedicated to theological training and ministry. Sir Roger’s talk and the discussion it inspired drew on and responded to his deep convictions about the importance of formation, confession, and the need all human beings have for gratitude. We are all grateful to our hosts at The Margaret Beaufort Institute for organizing such a stimulating and quietly humbling occasion for philosophical and theological contemplation with one of the greatest minds of our time.
Written by Dr James Bryson, a Research Associate in The Cambridge Platonists at the Origins of Enlightenment Project, based in the Cambridge Divinity Faculty. Sir Roger Scruton gave a public lecture on Human Nature for the Margaret Beaufort Institute on 18 May 2018; a video of it can be found on our YouTube channel.