This is a lovely book—learned, sophisticated, and elegant. It is also a frustrating one. Roger Scruton wants us to see that the world is more rich and complex than a scientific perspective might allow. To which this reader wants to say: of course. How could it not be so? How can the swirling chaos of everyday life not escape the net of clean, careful comparison? Whoever thought it would not?
Yet Scruton also wants us to think that this subtle complexity explains why people should and do believe in God. “I regard my argument as making room, in some measure, for the religious worldview, while stopping well short of vindicating the doctrine or practice of any particular faith.”
He makes this room in two ways. The first is by philosophical argument. “The world as we live it is not the world as science explains it, any more than the smile of Mona Lisa is a smear of pigments on a canvas. But this lived world is as real as the Mona Lisa’s smile.” He asserts that we have this sense that the smile is not a smear of pigments by virtue of the fact that we are humans: that this “more than just” is the way we experience music, literature, nature, architecture and each other. And this ‘more than just’ becomes the sacred. In this argument, he sees his task as parsing out the structure of these commitments.
The actual structure of the argument hinges on two specific claims: that we experience “cognitive dualism” and “overreaching intentionality,” both leading us to the “more than just” dynamic. Music is one of his clearest examples, so let’s consider that example to elucidate what he means. Cognitive dualism is the observation that we experience the world as full of meaning and more than material. “Understanding music,” he notes, “is not a matter of exploring neural pathways or acoustical relations, but is a matter of attending to grasping the intrinsic order and meaning of events in musical space.” “Over-reaching intentionality” is what we experience as the agency of that ‘more.’ “All these musical events are propelled by the harmonic and melodic movement, through which the extra-musical meaning is deepened and developed.” He argues that we respond to music as if it were person-like because it expresses meaning and seems to have intent. That, allegedly, gives us “the sacred”: “I have tried to show that the overreaching intentionality of interpersonal responses presents us with meaning that transcends the domain of any natural science.” This becomes something he calls the “order of the convenant” which is “out there and objectively perceivable as any feature of the natural world.”
He then asks whether this sense of the sacred is a natural invention or comes to humans from God. The answer is clear to him, and the argument now becomes an assertion. By this point, the end of the book, the sacred is also no longer free of doctrine: it is the Christian sacred, with one true and right God, and one cause.
“Such writers [Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich] affirm that God is a subject, who can and must be loved. And this means that, if he exists, he is a person, marked by those features which are essential to personhood, such as self-knowledge, freedom and the sense of right and wrong. Such a being can love us in his turn. Moreover God, if he exists, is One, and he is Creator.” We have left the generic sacred behind.
There is much to admire and engage with in this argument. And yet as I read I felt that the book kept slipping from me, that I was losing the trail of specific claims. That is because Scruton is not only making a philosophical argument. The book is full of sentences which seem ambiguously metaphorical, like this one: “What is revealed to us in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being—that being is a gift.” It has many sentences that seem to give agency to abstract terms like beauty, like: “Why does [beauty] exist and what does it do for us?” This is a non-philosophical way of writing, I think, and it illustrates the second way Scruton seeks to make room for faith.
A Second Way of Making Room for Faith
I am an anthropologist, and for many years I have sought to develop an anthropological understanding of the Christian experience of faith. For me, one of the disorienting things about talking to Christians is that they say such vague, paradoxical things about God. God is near when he is far away. The years when you saw only one set of footprints, that is when he carried you. Books on spirituality are full of this language. Here is a sample, from The Inner Compass, a book used in a prayer group I attended:
Prayer is not just a means of sustaining us through our linear journey (though it does that too) but is itself the reality of our journey. It is not primarily a calm interlude in our day, a “quiet time,” but the very essence of our being.
This is not prose in which the words set out to delineate an object with precision.
At first it used to confuse me to ask someone a question that I thought was clear and direct, and to be given in return an answer that seemed vague and unspecific. Phrases like “[prayer is] the very essence of our being” did not seem to tell me anything about what people did when they prayed (a question about which we still have precious little data). Then I realized that I was thinking like an observer. I was looking at an experience and I wanted people to put words to it so I could describe it and understand how it differed from other experiences, as if I were a naturalist traveling to another country and trying to characterize the new and different place. But the people I spoke with were not thinking like observers. They wanted to do something with their words; they wanted to make a difference to the person who was listening to them, to make them confident that God loved them and that the world was good. They were trying to change the listener’s perspective from that of a scared human looking out at life’s challenges to that of a creator God looking down with love.
This is what Scruton is doing, and it is the second way he is making room for the sacred. He is trying to change your attitude, your orientation to the world—to remind you of its beauty and its goodness, and to use that awareness to help you to hold on to faith.
If I were to make his argument from an anthropological perspective—a perspective in which the observer describes what humans do in the world without judgment, or at least one that does not start with theological assumptions—I would describe it this way. Far more happens to humans than they can possibly process. We live in a world bursting with specific events and sensory detail. Selective attention (you could call this culture) shapes what we notice and remember, what we see and hear. If you attend to life with an openness to beauty, you will experience love and joy: and that will make your world a better place.
We have excellent evidence from the social sciences that this is true for individuals. We also have excellent evidence that it is hard to shift your attention to focus on love and joy, and that faith in a loving God is good for your mind and body, probably because it is more effective than most efforts in shifting your anxious, fearful anticipations to an expectation of love and joy. There is now a wealth of medical data which demonstrates that, for reasons still poorly understood, those who attend church and believe in God are healthier, happier and live longer than those who do not. In many, many ways—immune response, stress hormones, blood pressure—people do better when socially connected, and that connection includes God. (Although it is true that the quality of the relationship makes a difference. Belief in a wrathful God seems to make you more lonely and to increase your risk of mental illness.)
It doesn’t follow from this that there is indeed such a god. It also does not follow that there is not. It just follows that, statistically speaking, it is good to believe that there is one. I don’t think that Scruton would dispute this. But I do think that his glide between argument and evocation pretty much actively avoids accepting the point. The inference he draws from the observation that we experience the world as full of meaning and more than material is that it is, in fact, created by a God who remains active within it.
In short, I don’t buy the argument that it is the limitations of science and naturalist description that lead us to the sacred. Scruton is grumpy about a lot of things is this book—modern music, modern buildings, modern doubters, modern lives. “Such examples [canals in Venice] help us to understand what was lost when the modernist vernacular took over, and the city of slabs replaced the city of columns.” Now it is my turn. He has a remarkably thin understanding of science. There is no sense in this book that science itself is an aesthetic enterprise, that there is joy in curiosity and love in exploration, and a sharp awareness of wonder. Scientists come off in this book as drab fools who see nothing of grace or beauty. “No science, no theory, no form of explanation with which we order and predict the physical world, could possibly make contact with the movement we hear when we hear a melody in musical space.” Perhaps this book is a long attack on Richard Dawkins, who admittedly is tone deaf on the question of faith. But it is not a counter-argument to be tone deaf about science which, to those who do it, is a reach to hear the music of the stars.