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In praise of meticulous ritual

04 July 2014

Paul Vallely reads of how life must be viewed religiously as well as scientifically

THE heart of religion is ritual, and it is a mark of religion that its rituals are meticulous. So says Roger Scruton in his latest book The Soul of the World. The words reverberated because I was reading them just after visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan.

It is hard to bring to mind any ritual as exact as those performed in Shintoism, a religion that seems at once totally primitive and yet immensely sophisticated, with its lack of creeds, doctrines, or dogmas, and its lack even of foundational scriptures. It is particular in its animist belief that spirits or deities reside in objects throughout the natural world, as well as in animals and people. But it is universalist in a pantheism that resonates particularly with our growing sense that our planet functions as a breathing eco-system.

A religion so different from Christianity only underscores how extraordinary is Professor Scruton's book in defence of the sacred. Anyone for whom a beach-towel thriller is insufficiently stimulating as holiday reading would do well to pack it in their suitcase.

It is not an evenly easy read. It ranges across territory that is philosophically analytic. But it has moments of acute psychological insight, and quite mystical turns of poetic phrase. It is studded with gems of real profundity.

Its basic thesis is that, to make sense of the world, we must live with a cognitive dualism that allows us to view life both through the scientific and the sacred.

The reductive challenge of the new atheism insists that religious belief is some kind of rival to the theories of physics - and a rival that science can disprove and dismiss. Real faith, of course, is nothing like that. The image of Jacob wrestling with God reveals that, when people are looking for the divine, they are not looking for proof of God's existence, but for a personal encounter.

Scruton takes us down a variety of avenues to converge on the truth that the sacred is an intrinsic and essential part of what it means to be human. He has demanding but rewarding chapters on philosophy, neuroscience, and rights and obligations. But then comes a sequence of riveting chapters on art, the human face, and human society.

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is more than a sequence of pitched sounds of varying timbre, just as the smile of the Mona Lisa is more than a spread of pigments on a canvas. What we learn from that, and from looking at the human face - which, for Rembrandt, was the place where the self and the flesh melt together - is that meaning in life is inevitably concerned with our relationship with another rather than something focused on ourselves alone.

In each gaze, or kiss, we reach out to new horizons of understanding. We find the sacred in the other. Sin, by contrast, is rooted in failing to see others as people like ourselves, and using them, instead, as objects to further our self-focused desires.

Without the sacred, Scruton demonstrates persuasively, the world would be impoverished far more wretchedly than militant secularists have the imagination to comprehend.

Paul Vallely is Senior Research Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton, Princeton University Press £19.95 (£18).

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