Encounter with the Sacred Realm
“I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music.” So wrote Charles Darwin, conceding that his mind seemed “to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts” causing “the atrophy of that part of the brain alone on which the higher tastes depend”.
Emma Darwin sagely noted that this impoverishment of aesthetic sense affected her husband’s understanding of faith: “May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.”
Roger Scruton, drawing on all the things Darwin’s limited aesthetic sense could not appreciate, makes much the same plea in The Soul of the World. Directing himself at those who advance arguments based on a reductive scientism — those who say “the meaning of art and music reside in what they do for our genes” — Scruton uses Shakespeare, pictures and music, to disentangle interpretation and explanation. Or rather, to pull these two threads of experience apart momentarily in order to subject them to analysis, before letting them muddle back together in the “mess of hermeneutics”.
Scruton is a philosopher who appreciates the uses of a good muddle. For one thing, it enables clarity. Reading Scruton is to take delight in his clarity of expression and linguistic economy, and it’s to feel as though you’re in the hands of a guide who is unafraid of doubts and uncertainties. And The Soul of the World could not have been written by anyone unable to rest easy with doubt, for it is concerned with the “faithful frame of mind” and faith, as Thoreau said, “keeps many doubts in her pay”.
To have a faithful frame of mind is to see the ordinary everyday things of the world shot through with a sense of the sacred. Recovering this sense of the sacred for a secularised culture is Scruton’s purpose: “The real question for religion in our time is not how to excise the sacred, but how to rediscover it.” In answering this question Scruton advances on ground covered more prosaically by Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic, namely the “how it feels” of religious experience.
That the “how it feels” needs to be explained was the surprise of Spufford’s book — the surprising realisation that culturally and intellectually we might have lost touch with something once so universally understood, and so basic. But as Scruton observes, the phenomena of faith are wrapped up in “notions of the sacred, the real presence, and the search in this world for God” and these are notions “not always given due attention in arguments about the existence of God”.
Like Spufford, Scruton offers a defence of the epistemology of the sacred but with more highfalutin language. Scruton’s defence rests on what he calls cognitive dualism, “according to which the world can be understood in two incommensurable ways, the way of science, and the way of interpersonal understanding”. Looking at the world with the eyes of science is to see as Darwin saw, missing out aesthetic experience “through the systematic attempt to explain what we observe”. The world known in another way is an “emergent world”, “emerging from the physical reality, as the face emerges from the pigments on the canvas, or the melody from the pitched sounds”.
Scruton notes the habit of “nothing buttery” which declares “emergent realities to be ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them”. So human consciousness is nothing but neural networks. The questionsays Scruton, “is how we move from the one concept of information to the other”; how understanding and interpretation are underwritten by perception. It is as Coleridge put it, “nothing mysterious in nerves, eyes, &c: but that nerves think &c!!”
For Scruton the problem is not consciousness but self-consciousness, encountering objects within the world and experiencing oneself embodied, simultaneously subject and object: “I am I to myself only because, and to the extent that, I am you to another.” Scruton posits the concept of the subject as “the defining feature of the human condition, and the feature to which the mystery of the world is owed” because “each human object is also a subject, addressing us in looks, gestures, and words, from the transcendental horizon of the ‘I’.” This is an “I — You encounter” and this is what makes up the second part of cognitive dualism: it is “the way of interpersonal understanding”.
To a person of faith, the following statement will seem so obvious as to hardly need stating but as Scruton contends, it needs pointing out: “People who are looking for God are not looking for the proof of God’s existence [. . .] not looking for arguments but for a subject-to-subject encounter.” The Soul of the World holds that the experience of sacred things is a kind of interpersonal encounter: “It is as though you address, and are addressed by, another I, but one that has no embodiment in the natural order.”
What The Soul of the World captures so beautifully is how conversion through a subject-subject encounter with God necessarily changes a person’s worldview, and all the consequences of that transformation. It is to see that “being is a gift”, not an accident. It is to understand ourselves as judged. It is to see other persons as uniquely individual, endowed with an inviolable dignity: “We cannot live in full personal communication with our kind if we treat all our relations as contractual. People are not for sale: to address the other as you rather than as he or she is automatically to see him or her as an individual for whom no substitutes exist.”
A culture that has lost all sense of the sacred necessarily treats relations as contractual. For persons of faith, communicating with this culture on issues like abortion, assisted suicide or same-sex marriage, is difficult because it means entering a plea for an understanding of the sacred before it is possible to explain why treating relations as contractual, rather than as sacred avowed bonds, is antithetical to true human flourishing. With his quietly considered explanation of the sacred, Scruton puts the case for traditional marriage, for example, in a way that resists the hysteria surrounding most discourse on the topic.
Above all, The Soul of the World insists that a materialist view of the world is unacceptable, its consequences necessarily debasing. It leads to a world “remade without the transcendental reference, without the encounter with sacred things, without the vows of allegiance and submission which have no justification other than the weight of inherited duty”. Scruton warns: “Those vows were far more deeply woven into the fabric of our experience than enlightened people tend to think” and a world without such vows is “a completely different world, and one in which we humans are not truly at home”