The Magazine

Life Scrutonized

The hard-won faith of a modern philosopher.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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With the birth of their son, inevitably named Sam, Scruton finally became part of a family. Sam's difficult birth filled him, too late, with compassion for his own mother, who had died of cancer more than 30 years before: "What I had reproached in my mother as timidity I remembered now as gentleness; what I had deplored as Puritanism I recalled as moral sense; what I had feared as anxiety I knew to be love--love baffled by my selfishness." A chance to reconcile with his father also came too late. Scruton admired Jack's fight to prevent planners and developers from despoiling his town, and came to see that the energy and ability whose thwarting had made him angry and bitter and dangerous now enabled him to fight this good fight.

The book's other extended story is of another partial reconciliation, Scruton's return to a "much amended" Anglicanism. "Stealing from Churches" begins with the melancholy comedy of tourists strolling the aisles of a church, their aesthetic (or anthropological) pleasures parasitic on the commitments of the handful of worshippers in the pews. Scruton argues briefly here, and at length elsewhere, that common culture, which defines and fulfills the basic human need for membership in a community, is at its core religious; and that, when religion declines, our only resources for meeting that need are the institutions of high culture, "part of the attempt--always necessary, and never successful--to make us at home in the world and to affirm our moral right to it."

The final essay, "Regaining my Religion," completes that thought. The great Victorian doubters, living in a society with still-vital religious institutions, could steal from churches, "patch[ing] up the social world, while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it." That is no longer an option. But needing religion doesn't make it true. In An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton put this as a brutal paradox--that "the falsehoods of religious faith reveal the truths that matter"--and endorsed the Confucian wisdom that offers not a metaphysics or a creed but the injunction "to live as if it matters eternally what we do."

Since writing those words, Scruton has groped toward religious belief, a journey he does not characterize in terms of religious doctrine or any other truth claims:

The fact that the mass of mankind may be unable to live without religion . . . is no proof that the loss we have suffered is for each of us either unbearable or final, or that the loss is not offset by gains. In recent years I have constantly asked myself what I have lost. And by pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion.

I suspect that a great deal of his religion is captured in a single sentence: "Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace."

Faith, Scruton says, is not a matter of assenting to certain propositions but "a transforming state of mind, a stance toward the world"--in particular, toward loss, the basso ostinato of human life. A Christian is enjoined not to cultivate a philosophical indifference to loss, but to transcend it. (Scruton's view of transcending loss by giving it the sacred character of sacrifice owes less, I'd say, to Christian orthodoxy than to his study of Wagner.) So Gentle Regrets--often touching, often charming, and often funny, serious but far from somber--appropriately concludes with the words of the 100th Psalm, the Jubilate Deo.

O, be joyful in the Lord . . .

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth

endureth from generation to generation.

The radical impulse is oppositional: What is should not be. A conservative recognizes that civilized life depends on pietas, on givens that retain their benign power only so long as they are, precisely, given. He can criticize them "from the inside" in order to renew them and stave off their decay. Manning the barricades against assaults on pietas may be a duty but can't be a joy.

Scruton offers a parable in the story of his name. He was christened "Roger Vernon" and called Vernon (which Jack thought sissified)--until he farcically vanquished a schoolyard bully with an accidental blow and decided that Roger suited the new identity that victory conferred. He has, he says, spent much of his life pursuing Vernon's ends--books, music, art, the conservative impulse to affirm--by Roger's means. Many readers will wish them both well.

David Guaspari, a mathematician and computer scientist, lives in Ithaca, N.Y.