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How Scruton embraced religion

24 January 2020

The conservative philosopher was more than a cultural Anglican, says Frances Ward


IN HIS book Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a life (2006), Roger Scruton described how he regained his religion. He found himself playing the organ for evensong at his parish church and reflecting on the Jubilate Deo. “Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh,” he lamented.

What might it be to lose what the Church of England brings to national life? More than merely the loss of false beliefs or moral absolutes, he believed, the Church offered the emotional and moral knowledge to cope with loss itself. He thought that modern culture anaesthetised tragedy, grief, and mourning into banal superficiality, where all is fun and pleasure in a hellish denial of the reality of loss and death.

The loss of religion was the loss of loss, he wrote; the Jubilate Deo was a reminder that life should be rounded with joy and thankfulness, not resentment at rights unfulfilled. The Face of God (2012) and The Soul of the World (2014) continued to question what humanity loses when God is effaced from the human condition.

TRAINED as a philosopher in Cambridge, Scruton initially specialised in aesthetics, and this gave him a keen sense of the importance of truth and beauty, which ran through more than 50 books on subjects that included music, religion, architecture, green philosophy, politics, and wine.

In I Drink Therefore I Am (2009), he used his love of wine to introduce philosophers through the ages, giving each their favourite wine, as he explored the civilising part that wine had played in Western culture. In Modern Culture (2005), Scruton argued that the loss of a trans-generational wisdom that shaped the individual through the acquisition of a legacy of art and poetry, literature, sculpture, and music denied successive generations the emotional and moral knowledge to cope responsibly with the vicissitudes of life.

His political awakening came in Paris as he watched the events of 1968 unfold. He was appalled by the sight of students tearing up cobbles to pelt the police: “I suddenly realised that I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of Western civilisation against these things. That’s when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”

From that point, he found himself against the grain of the dominant discourses of contemporary academe, and his career as a polemicist and controversialist was fixed as he promoted his unpopular opinions — for tradition and high culture, against “equality” and identity politics. He opposed feminism, homosexuality, and anti-racism in his time, and his defence of “The West” led him to be highly critical of Islam. There are many reasons — some justified — why he is repudiated by so many. Often, though, when the trouble is taken to read him, he challenges one’s assumptions and prejudices. As Edmund Burke said, “Our antagonist is our helper.”

Scruton’s defence of Western civilisation led him to Burke, who, in his age, had also reflected on revolution in France, commending the traditions and institutions that carry political and cultural continuities within society as the best protection against the exercise of arbitrary power.

His reading of Burke took him in a green direction, too, where conservatism is conservation, when humanity works in harmony with traditions that take seriously the future of the planet, mindful of the rights of the living, the dead, and the as yet unborn (Green Philosophy, 2012).

Scruton was not always in step with today’s Conservative Party, particularly when it departed from his Burkean conservatism in its support for market forces that escape into the global stratosphere, breaking free of the natural constraints of locality and mutual acquaintance.

TO READ his 2012 book Our Church is to experience Scruton at his most sentimental, where his traditionalism betrays a lack of nuance and a failure to engage with the challenges faced by the Anglican Communion today.

Of abiding interest, though, was his belief that Christianity commended to human civilisation the notion of forgiveness. To forgive is to break cycles of revenge and honour, which is possible only when life is received as a gift and a privilege, not a right.

His secular friends insist that Scruton continued to be an atheist; that his Christianity was merely cultural Anglicanism. It was that, certainly — but also more. He regained his religion through philosophy, not as a leap of faith, but as an appreciation of a deep ordering to life, culture, and meaning which ultimately leads to God.

The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward is a former Dean of St Edmundsbury. She is the author of Full of Character: A Christian approach to education for the digital age (Jessica Kingsley, 2019). Her forthcoming book Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate crisis, eco-anxiety and God will be published next month by Sacristy Press.

Read an obituary to Sir Roger Scruton here

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