Roger Scruton was not a Catholic. While this point is uncontested, his relation to Christianity has become a point of contention. After his death in 2020 at the age of 75, a series of articles were published discussing his faith. Did he in fact believe in the Christian God, or did he remain an atheist as he had proclaimed himself to be in his autobiography Gentle Regrets? If he was a Christian, what kind of a Christian was he? His later turn to Anglicanism is often dismissed as mere aestheticism and posturing, most commonly by Catholics. But since he was never a professed Catholic, it is unjust to condemn him for not adhering to certain dogmas which a Catholic would. A more interesting question, and an often neglected one, is how Catholics might think with Scruton as a philosopher in his own right. By thinking with Scruton we can realise the meaning of ritual and aesthetic experience, while also approaching sensitive questions on which we Catholics have hitherto failed successfully to convince the secular world.
For many Catholics today it seems to be taken as read that the philosophical foundation on which we build our theological augmentation is – and ought to be – the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. Scruton did not have much time for Thomism, writing on Twitter that: “Aquinas offers foundations, but you have to dig down to them through clotted arguments. Maybe life is too short.” Instead, Scruton serves as a reminder that the Church has built its speculative edifices upon varying schools of thought throughout history: Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Bonaventurism and Scotism, to name but a few. Scruton was a philosopher of the highest calibre, and one we have yet to engage with on a more serious level when it comes to religion. Towards the end of his life he turned much of his attention to religious questions. On top of that, throughout his life he discussed many themes which should occasion a Catholic to reflect on their own “presuppositions and prejudices”, as Scruton once called it, by which all people are conditioned.
Scruton’s intellectual background is contested and might be instantly suspicious to someone thinking within the mainstream Catholic tradition. For certain, he read “moral sciences” at Cambridge, which is what philosophy was called at the time. His supervisor was the Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe, who had been a student of Wittgenstein and who Scruton claimed “never read any books other than those she herself had written,” but also that she was “perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English”. His roots were, in other words, in the Analytical tradition. Despite this, he turned his attention towards the continent rather swiftly after graduation. Famous for his introductory monograph on Immanuel Kant, Scruton often returned to the sage of Königsberg as a source of inspiration, and to the Idealist tradition that followed in his wake. Hegel also became a household name in German philosophy, and also a large part of the Scrutonian outlook. Whether Scruton was more of a Kantian or a Hegelian is still disputed. What is important for my argument is that his main sources, irrespective of the stress laid upon each figure, are all considered suspect in terms of prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.
Some Catholics turned their attention to Kant and the Idealists around the time of the Second Vatican Council. A classical accusation is that Modernism, the intellectual movement of the early 20th century which precipitated what came to be called the “Modernist crisis”, began with the positive reception and rehabilitation of Kant in the Catholic Church. This narrative is convincing because it is easy to accept. A villain can be identified and the rest, as they say, is history. But many of the “Modernists” were in fact Thomists. Scruton had no time for this line of thought. In his superbly comedic yet intellectually rigorous I Drink Therefore I Am, Scruton presents the reader with examples of what he considers philosophical gobbledygook. St Thomas had built his philosophy on the pagan thought of Aristotle, but Aristotle had asked questions such as “what is being?” when perhaps it suffices to ask “what are these beings?”. St Thomas then elaborated on this metaphysical speculation, turning our attention to angels and species. For a Kantian such as Scruton, this is interesting speculation at best, but not something which we humans are ever in a privileged position to pronounce on. The epitome of such metaphysical speculation comes in precisely one such controversial figure of the last century: Karl Rahner. The only thing more confusing than reading St Thomas, writes Scruton, is to read commentaries on St Thomas.
Thinking with Scruton, we can never attain a holistic school or new tradition to replace any of the existing schools of thought. The main reason for this is that Scruton never aimed at or attempted to provide such a thing. Instead, he presented a posture or stance towards the world which Catholics may find much to sympathise with. For Scruton, as for Kant, we are not objects in a world of objects, but rather subjects with a unique point of view on the world. Looking out at the world we can see the transcendence that shines through it and which permeates it. Here the central theme is aesthetics. Instead of thinking about God in rational terms, as if this were the primary or central way of relating to God, for Scruton we meet God in transcendent beauty. This comes in the form of beautiful church building, divine choral music or religious paintings and rituals. It is through the repetitive actions of long established rituals that lift us out of the mundane and elevate us to a sphere which seems to be outside of time. In the end, faith depends on the rituals that sustain it.
In concrete terms as well, Scruton turned his powerful mind to issues that occupy much of our lives, such as love and sex, a longing for home and our relation to the created order. Looking at sex, for example, he explicitly stated several times that he found the Catholic teaching on sexuality to be correct but insufficient. Yes, he says, sex is for the procreation of children, but there is a prior question which relates to the meaning of desire. What does it mean to desire someone? Are all desires the same? Can desire ever be fully satisfied? Without these questions, the question of biology will surely never suffice, or never in a moral fashion, for we must know what it means to approach someone in the very desire for union and progeny. When we seek the most intimate union possible with another as the sexual union is, we ought to seek the person in their freedom, a person we seek to exist alongside with, and who is not replaceable by another out of mere biological necessity.
As he approached the end of his life, Scruton wrote about religion. It was not always consistent, nor was it always orthodox. A Catholic is not asked to accept his philosophy at large, but nor is it wise to reject it immediately. St Thomas, after all, turned to pagan and Jewish philosophers for inspiration and made something entirely Catholic out of it. Reading Scruton’s work we can appreciate our enchanted world anew, if – as he was – we have been hardened by the scepticism that pervades it. Yet he found a way out of this scepticism by turning his gaze toward the Crucified Christ, seeing in this powerful image a redemptive story lifting us out of our navel-gazing modernity. Whether he believed in the full salvific truth of the Easter story is something we might never be privy to.
Drinking wine in a monastery in Croatia one late summer evening, however, he told me he did in fact believe in God. Maybe it was the vintage claret speaking, but I believe his philosophical oeuvre speaks to a Christian understanding of the world, and it is a way of thinking, which Catholics would do well to engage with more seriously.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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