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Angela Tilby: Sir Roger Scruton’s fall is bad news for Christians

18 April 2019


Sir Roger Scruton is knighted at Buckingham Palace in 2016

Sir Roger Scruton is knighted at Buckingham Palace in 2016

AFTER the Jordan Peterson affair (5 April), I did not think I would once again find myself defending a conservative-minded philosopher. But the recent sacking of Sir Roger Scruton as chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has troubled me.

Sir Roger was under suspicion before he even started the job: his every comment has been scrutinised for months by those for whom his appointment to a government commission was already unacceptable.

The last straw was an interview with him in the New Statesman, in which Sir Roger was reported as expressing views on Islamophobia and other topics which were deemed unacceptable by opponents. He is now irreversibly tainted as one who, in the words of the MP Dawn Butler, “invoke (s) the language of white supremacists”.

Much of this is unfair, though there is no doubt that some of Sir Roger’s remarks have been unwise. His fall is bad news for those who believe in free speech. It is also bad news for Christians, because he is one of the very few public intellectuals who are prepared to give Christian belief a run for its money.

Sir Roger argues that beliefs about the nature of God shape public life in ways that have an impact on all of us. I have recently been reading his 2010 Gifford Lectures, published as The Face of God (Bloomsbury, 2012). In this, he questions the view that human beings can be understood as objects — the accidental products of impersonal processes. Nor are humans conscious merely in the ways that animals are conscious. To be a human being is to have what no animal truly has: a personal point of view.

Our subjectivity is grounded in and depends on the concept of God, who is not part of the empirical world, and so cannot be known to science. When God announces himself as “I am who I am”, he makes it possible for us to realise our personhood. When we seek to obliterate the idea of God from public awareness, we are, in fact, destroying what is most precious about ourselves: the grounds of our freedom and the source of our ability to love.

In the course of his argument, Sir Roger draws not only on the work of Christian theologians, but also on that of the Muslim philosopher Avicenna.

The Face of God has accompanied me through Lent this year, and I shall go on reflecting on it during the Easter season. It has kept me grounded in those moments when current events have infuriated me. Sir Roger challenges me to recognise that the Easter faith is not a sideshow for those who like that sort of thing, but the unveiling of our ultimate meaning.

What I cannot understand is why it appears that only conservative thinkers are prepared to re-explore basic Christian belief.

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