You learn a lot about a person from tributes at their passing. Someone I much admired left us in January. Two phrases I continue to read about Roger Scruton are “He changed my life” and “He brought me closer to God.”
Sir Roger Scruton
I first heard about Sir Roger Scruton from my daughter. She introduced me to him through his video, Why Beauty Matters. As the title suggests, Scruton finds beauty to be far more important than just something God gave us to enjoy. He sees a correlation between beauty and selflessness, theorizing that as we look less for beauty, we become more centered on ourselves. I have reflected on this video frequently over the years and shared some of my thoughts in a column written in 2018.
I did not hear of his cancer diagnosis last year, so his death came as an unhappy surprise to me.
Scruton was not Catholic but held high respect for the Church. In many ways, he thought like a Catholic. In fact, several articles discussed him possibly being on the path to Rome. When asked why he never crossed the Tiber, he responded:
There are two reasons why I held back from joining the Catholic Church. One is that it requires a bigger leap of faith than I’ve been able to achieve. And the other is that, because I’m divorced, I couldn’t possibly get married a second time in the Catholic Church.
After I first read that statement, I found myself re-reading it. What did he mean by “leap of faith”? Ultimately he found his spiritual home in the Anglican church. What leap of faith is necessary for Catholicism that is not required of the church he joined?
He was an Atheist
I learned from Rod Dreher that Scruton used to be an atheist. That made me even more curious about the journey that took him to Christianity and the Anglican church but left him unable to become Catholic. Trying to understand, I read several articles. I even bought one of his books, Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life, because in it is a chapter entitled Regaining My Religion. That chapter is also online. I read it, hoping it would give me some answers.
Unsurprisingly, it gave me even more to ponder.
In this chapter, Scruton discusses loss and its consequences:
In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable.
He says later that “For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.”
Scruton realized that this particular loss does not need to happen. He made a decision; he would look again into the Christian religion. Specifically, he re-examined the church of his childhood, the Church of England.
An Intellectual Journey
That decision made, Scruton continues to share parts of his intellectual journey. It is too much to tell here, but well worth reading. In a different chapter, Stealing From Churches, he tells us of the great influence of two Catholics in his life. One was a priest. The other was a Polish philosophy student. Rod Dreher describes this chapter “as having the effect of turning on a lamp in a dark room, and seeing in their fullness things only perceptible before in outline.”
In Regaining My Religion, Scruton ultimately concludes:
But it is the silence itself that matters: the silence of the penitent soul. Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace.
In time, he moved to the country, where he decided to visit his local church. Scruton says it was curiosity that brought him there. He gives this reason for staying:
And because the little church announced the use of the Book of Common Prayer — in whose idiom my prayers are invariably expressed — I joined the congregation and volunteered to play the organ. The truth contained in the words of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion is not directly there on the page but revealed in the silence of the soul that comes from speaking them. It is a truth that reaches beyond words, to the inexpressible end of things.
He prepared and waited. Then he returned to his roots.
This leads me back to my original question. What leap of faith kept him from Catholicism?
In an article reviewing Scruton’s book, Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England, Brian Miller says this about the philosopher: “He further confesses that ‘The English know in their hearts that faith is in large part a human invention.’” An article at the Catholic Herald quotes Scruton as referring to the Anglican church as “my tribal religion, the religion of the English who don’t believe a word of it“. Does this mean that, while Scruton regained his religion, he still struggled with belief in God? He may have felt a lack of belief did not bar him from membership in the Anglican church as it would the Catholic church.
Scruton writes so frequently and eloquently of God that it came as a surprise to me that he may have remained an atheist. In my search to understand, I discovered he did not believe in life after death. Some sources suggest he believed in religion but did not believe in God. According to Agnus Kennedy:
Roger Scruton, in “The Soul of the World,” agrees that hope for an afterlife is an absurdity. There can be nothing following on from death, since things only follow on from each other as causes in the bounded ‘space-time continuum that is the world of nature’.
The Soul of the World was published in 2016. I wondered if Scruton changed his thinking before he left us.
Sir Roger Scruton Found His Way to God
The editors of The European Conservative indicate he may have finally found his way to God. In an article written in 2018, they said:
In his autobiographical work, Gentle Regrets (2006), ‘why’, we asked him, ‘do you write that you have no problem with the precepts of the Catholic Church — except the premise of God’s existence, while all your latest books seem to be about God?’
His reply seemed to suggest that either he is not the same person he once was, perhaps increasingly unconvinced by his own arguments, or that, despite the difficulty of accepting the premise of God, he has.
Given his brilliance and his unceasing search for truth, I suspect he found Truth before he died. It speaks volumes that even in his struggle with belief, even when he did not yet believe, he showed others the way to God.
In a moving tribute in The Federalist, Sean Haylock speaks of ways that Roger Scruton changed his life. Most importantly, he states:
And he gave me God. I was like someone who had spent his whole life staring at the ground, who was then told, gently but emphatically, “Look up,” and with astonishment discovered the sky.
What more can a person contribute to the world? What better gift than to lead others to God? He did this through his desire to understand, his gift for words, and his willingness to share his journey with us all.
I wonder how many more through the generations, on reading Scruton’s works, will come to the Haylock’s conclusion. Sir Roger reminds me that what we leave behind is important. If my existence helps even one person to know God better, it is a life well-lived.
One more thing must be said about this man: he was full of gratitude. It is abundant in his writing. To me, it shows that even when the philosopher called himself an atheist, God was right there with him. Scruton’s openness to truth allowed God to work in him.
It is appropriate, then, that these were his last words written for the public:
Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.
Requiescat in pace, Sir Roger Scruton. You leave behind a grateful people.