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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but unsatisfying, 3 April 2013
This review is from: Our Church (Hardcover)
This book leaves me feeling that I don't know quite where Roger Scruton is coming from now, nor what its purpose is.

Scruton is, it must go without saying now, a very intelligent writer. (Sometimes one wonders whether he himself overrates intelligence.) And he probably can't touch a subject without saying something of interest. Nevertheless, I'm not sure what he is trying to do in this book or who he thinks he's writing for. Perhaps he's just musing on a subject that interests him -- but then he must have an image in his mind of those he would like to read those musings.

The historical background to the English Church given here seems accurate and unexceptional to me. There are some personal stories that are interesting, too. For example, we're shown Mr. Scruton Senior, an atheist, a socialist and a republican, who won't have a TV in the house, sitting watching the Coronation on a borrowed set with his wife, the two of them overcome by the spectacle and weeping. That tells one something about 1950s Britain and its people -- and something I think admirable.

In the larger picture, where is Scruton now coming from? A few years ago I recall his writing that human life was "a tragic flutter towards extinction". He would seem to have come a long way since then. Towards the end of this book he gives a brief statement of some reasons that might lead anyone in a theistic direction: that there is anything at all; that there is consciousness; that the world is intelligible, and so forth. All well and good, and though none of this amounts to proof, which is not to be had, these seem good reasons. Still, why not conclude thus and think in terms of something vaguely Platonic or perhaps pantheistic? As regards Christianity, Scruton's argument would seem to be that the incarnation and atonement make sense of his moral understanding and religious intuitions. This too is, I think, a good argument.

So why Anglicanism? Here I think one might say: The Church is now split -- which is something of an embarrassment -- however, perhaps the important thing is to worship at one's local church (the parish system) with one's local community. That would mean, in denominational terms, something somewhat different according to whether one is, say, an Englishman, an Italian or a Scot. (Not that matters of doctrine are unimportant, but, given that one is attending *a* Christian form of worship, they might not be more important than this.) I'm not sure that Scruton would disagree. However, over and above this he seems to find some value in Anglicanism as expressing something of Englishness, seen as valuable in itself. I'm not sure one would want to follow him very far in this direction -- or should if one did. In this connexion it's interesting to note that Scruton extends the meaning of the term "Anglican" somewhat unscrupulously. He seems to want to claim every English writer or artist seen as significant by him as an "Anglican". So Hardy, Pater and D. H. Lawrence are all identified as "Anglican". One wonders what the men in question would say about that! It seems an odd manoeuvre for a philosopher, since the concept is only extended thus at the cost of emptying it of meaning. By the time he's finished, "Anglican" seems merely to be a synonym for "Englishman".

Some reviewers in the press seem to have concluded that Scruton is recommending Anglicanism on cultural grounds rather than because he sincerely believes in Christianity. There are actually several clear statements of belief in the book that suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, and given what I pointed to above, one understands how a careless reader -- particularly one who perhaps skimmed the book rather than reading it -- might have come away with that impression. That impression would only be reinforced by the tendency of the author to offer sociological explanations from authors like Durkheim that seem to me to sit uneasily with those expressions of belief, since there are quite different premises behind them.

Scruton's attitude towards other religions is interesting. Islam he is strongly enthusiastic about, and refers to periodically throughout the book. He seems at least mildly approving of Hinduism and Buddhism. However, he is dismissive of Judaism, and indeed seems to have a definite if muted disapproval of it. This is strange inasmuch as Christianity emerged out of the matrix of Judaism, and the Church has always understood itself in terms of a history reaching back into that past. Twice Scruton describes the Jewish Law as "fussy". This seems a failure of imagination and sympathy, not made, for example, by C. S Lewis, who, referencing psalm xix, writes to a correspondent of

"... the characteristically Jewish feeling that the Law is not only obligatory but beautiful, ravishing: delighting the heart, better than gold, sweeter than honey ..."

One could say of the hedge of provisions erected around the Law by the Scribes by Jesus' time that they were fussy, but to say it of the Law itself? ...

Of course the Law is not enough, but then I doubt the prophets (or the author of psalm xix) thought it was. And, yes, Jesus does speak of the central importance of love for God and one's neighbour. But, then, when he does that he's quoting Deuteronomy.

In the traditional Christian view, Jesus didn't come to preach a new morality, but to suffer and die -- and rise again. (Interestingly, the 1662 Communion service, which Scruton elsewhere in the book rather unthinkingly lauds, prescribes the reading the of the decalogue: it's the 1928 revision, never ratified by parliament, that substitutes the "Summary of the Law".)

Again, Scruton dismisses the Jewish conception of Jehovah as a "tribal god". That probably was true at first (c.f. Elijah on Mount Carmel). But not later on. It's quite clear that the Jehovah of Genesis i is the Creator of Heaven and Earth. And as for universality (never fully realised, of course) in psalm 117 we have "O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people." One could multiply these references. Suffice to say: Scruton's claims here do not stand up to scrutiny.

The other remarkable point is Scruton's decided preference for the AV and the 1662 prayer book. Most writers who've been really serious about their Christianity have seen this language as now problematic despite its evident beauty. George MacDonald was advising his readers to consult the RV in his day; in the 1930s Charles Gore was recommending the translations of Moffat and Knox; later on, C. S. Lewis writes to J. B. Phillips that he has done an inestimable service with his translations and tells him to take no notice of "the 'cultured' asses" who will say he's spoils what the AV makes beautiful. Scruton never addresses this question properly, instead aligning himself with people like Melvyn Bragg, who don't believe anyway, and don't see the meaning in the text as important, so long as it sounds good. "Common Worship", in any case (and rightly), makes provision for a range of different services in different languages, traditional and modern.

There's much more one could say. It's an interesting book in parts, but strangely unsatisfying. It also seems rather half-hearted. I mentioned George MacDonald above. Now there's one of the most remarkable Christian writers of the past couple of hundred years. His romances are poetic and deeply moving; his "Unspoken Sermons" truly shattering. Perhaps it's significant that here's one writer Scruton *didn't* mention. I can't help wondering if it was because MacDonald took his Christianity all too seriously.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 8 Jun 2013 09:34:52 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 31 Oct 2013 21:19:18 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2013 19:39:26 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 Jun 2013 19:42:38 BDT
Michael says:
"This is Scruton taking his religion seriously but not in a solely or even in a principally theological sense. ..."

Of course, the most obvious construction one could put on that would be that he saw it as "serious" in the sense in which Leavis would have meant "serious". (Or perhaps as Leavis as interpreted and modified by Scruton's friend John Casey in The Language of Criticism (Routledge Revivals) might have meant it.) Bunyan had a "serious" view of "life" for Leavis, but asking whether what Bunyan believed was *true* ...

But that would mean Scruton was dissembling when he has offered quite clear statements of belief here (and elsewhere). I don't think he is.

It's all the more strange that he seems to be not quite wholehearted.

Talking of C. S. Lewis, there's a thought very well and concisely expressed by Walter Hooper in his C. S. Lewis: The Companion and Guide. When commenting on Lewis's thoughts on the psalms, Hooper says Lewis had seen that you can't make "religion" a "department of life". Either EVERYTHING is a bottom a "religious" matter or religion is simply an illusion. There really is no half-way house. (Interestingly, Nietzsche makes a similar point.)

It seems to me that Scruton is quite sincere in his expressions of Christian belief. I'm also inclined to think that his thoughts in this direction account for his new "niceness". Previously, he obviously delighted to put the knife into intellectual opponents -- see, for example, "Thinkers of the New Left" (1985). Now he seems more inclined to look for points of agreement with opponents. I assume he always read people he disagreed with with care and looked at their arguments with some disinterestedness, but now he wants the reader to know that and to see the concessions he makes.

So I think he means his expressions of belief, but it seems to me that at bottom his assumptions and mindset remain largely secular. I think I could show that given enough space, but it seems to me that any sensitive reader will be aware of that from a score of different comments and even turns of phrase.

It was particularly interesting to me that Scruton thought to put the Apostle to the Gentiles right (this is buried in the notes). The particular point at issue is a bit beside the point. The fact that Scruton is clearly assuming that St. Paul is "just some bloke" expressing opinions (and doubtless somewhat outdated ones) is clear. But St. Luke (in "Acts") had described Paul as a "chosen vessel". So what is it to be? Can you really get "behind" Paul and "historicize" him as "merely" a 1st century Jewish man from Tarsus? As documents, the epistles predate even the gospels, and this is a man who knew people who'd been close to Christ and who apparently himself had an experience of the risen Christ. This is not to claim infallibility for the man, but throw Paul out and what's left? (And Paul seems not to demand more stringent standards of sexual -- or any other -- morality than Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount, as Gore points out, extends the spirit behind the ten commandments in a way that seems implicit, but that yet renders obedience literally *impossible* -- for human beings in their own strength ...)

Was St. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus genuine? And, if so, can we see him as just another writer offering opinions and arguments on this or that, much as we might see Schopenhauer, for example? Are there aspects of reality, and experiences, that can't be easily accommodated within a "naturalistic" frame of reference? And I don't mean just then. How about now? How about the unusual events that happened around Dorothy Kerin and that seem to have been linked in some way with her deep prayer life (Dorothy Kerin - Called By Christ To Heal)?

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jun 2013 09:36:03 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 31 Oct 2013 21:19:29 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jun 2013 18:13:02 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Jun 2013 18:24:24 BDT
Michael says:
Quote ...

"It's all the more strange that he seems to be not quite wholehearted".

Is it the case that Scruton is rather fearful of others being wholehearted; and that in a particular way ...

... /quote

He might be, but I tend to see that as not really relevant to what I wanted to say.

"Religion" is one thing and God another.

The contrast with Lewis is, again interesting, Lewis says in several places that THE worst thing in the world is "religion" gone bad. (I think he says this, among other places, in "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" -- but it's a familiar idea with him.) Scruton, by contrast, argues that atheism is potentially more dangerous. (See, for example, the essay "The Philosopher on Dover Beach" published in Philosopher on Dover Beach . And I suppose that Scruton was agnostic (at the least) at the time of writing that essay: why else describe oneself as being on Dover Beach (c.f. Arnold)?

Yet no-one could read Lewis and wonder whether he *really* believed in God and *really* believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God. With Scruton you might, and some reviewers have. In fact, Scruton does -- probably -- but somehow trails a miasma of doubt behind him. Whether "religion" is *dangerous* is a different question from whether God exists ... and from the further question "If he does, do I need to do much about that?"

On reflection it seems to me that "wholehearted" might not be the right word. It seems to imply criticism. But I was less interested in criticising than in trying to say as accurately as I was able where I thought the author was coming from.

Again: maybe saying that Scruton's outlook and assumptions seem to me to remain (largely) secular might be closer to the mark. To be honest, I hardly know *how* to say it, but I'm pretty sure that people who haven't seen this *is* so (whether they like what he's saying, or don't, or remain indifferent) have missed something that really is there.

May I cite Bishop Gore again? Sermon on the Mount:. Gore says that it's sometimes said that there are more good adherents of Religion X (let's not name it to avoid the possibility of bad feeling) than of Christianity. This is true, says, Gore, but only because Religion X is easier. You only have to adhere to some minimal moral requirements that are, anyway, necessary for any society if it's not to be torn apart by conflict (giving alms to other believers -- stuff like that). Besides that, you have to be brave in war, and you have to observe some ritualistic stuff (praying at certain times, avoiding certain foods, etc.). Who can't do that? But Christianity requires a total about-face. I, as a self-conscious being (an important fact about Man grasped by Hegel, as Scruton himself points out in many places) have a "natural" tendency to see myself as at the centre of things. That won't do, says the New Testament: God's at the centre. I have to move from a self-centered view to a God-centered view.

Look at the Sermon on the Mount. Personal revenge is categorically forbidden; looking at a woman with lust is akin to adultery ... and on and on. There's a gulf between how the "natural man" lives and how a Christian is told to live. This is symbolized in Lewis's "The Pilgrim's Regress" by a canyon. How do you get across?

What's needed, according to traditional Christian teaching is a "dying" to the self. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." This is in the Theologia Germanica; it's throughout Lewis; it's everywhere in Christian writings of any depth. It's strongly expressed in Lewis's "master" George MacDonald:

"You will not sleep, if you lie there a thousand years, until you have opened your hand, and yielded that which is not yours to give or withhold. You may think you are dead, but it will be only a dream; you may think you have come awake, but it will still be only a dream. Open your hand, and you will sleep indeed--then wake indeed."

The man from Tarsus (that fellow rather airily put in his place by Scruton) said, if I recall correctly, that one had to begin this task of dying to the self every day anew it was so difficult.

There's no sense in "Our Church" that so much is asked -- let alone that if God really exists and we are really dependent beings (*creatures* of the creator literally) that might well be simply how things are, and we'd better wake up to it ...

I'll end by saying that I lent this book to a priest. He didn't say much, but I don't think he disliked the book or the author; rather the reverse. However, my impression was that he thought the author's faith rather minimal. He also said, tapping his forehead, "He wants to grasp it all with his mind, and you can't."

I agree. This is a different point from the one I've been trying to lay out above, but also an interesting one. At the end of the day, Scruton rather over-values culture -- and more generally intellectualism and discursive reason. It's telling that Swinburne (or was it Pater?) makes his way into the book, but the woman who sweeps the church doesn't. If you pressed him, I expect Scruton would agree that, theologically, the latter was no less important than the former, and that in the life of the church the latter had a kind of importance that the former (who wouldn't darken its doors) lacked. Yet Swinburne (or was it Pater?) is in the book, and the ladies who clean and dust remain invisible.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Jun 2013 16:00:43 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 31 Oct 2013 21:19:38 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Jun 2013 19:23:38 BDT
Last edited by the author on 26 Jun 2013 06:22:46 BDT
Michael says:
"The comfort of ritual linked to the culture of hearth and home."

Scruton observes somewhere that Hegel (_his_ "master"?) says that what man really seeks it to be "at home" in the world.

And, yes, this *is* appealing. If people with "progressive" mindsets can't see this -- the appeal of the familiar, the homely -- even, more abstractly, the actual, the existent, the concrete, -- then they don't really understand something pretty basic about humankind. But it's *not* what Christianity is about, and such an attitude undercuts Christian claims ... even if, at some level, this is what many of us want (as we might even if something better were on offer, as, in a theistic universe, it might well be.)

To be frank, there's actually something a little scary about the thought that God really is there and really does want us.

C. S. Lewis writing to an American admirer:

"Dear Mr ----, My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was *not* ..."

As Lewis had realised, if it really is so, where do you hide?

"Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit : or whither shall I go then from thy presence?

If I climb up into heaven, thou art there : if I go down to hell, thou art there also. ..." (Psalm 139)

I'm reminded of when I was young, and a lad I worked with said: "I like to think God is there when you need him -- like a policeman." Exactly ... but not like the kind of policeman who's there when you don't want him to pick you up on your own misdemeanours. I also recall that my favourite one of Lewis's children's stories was "The Horse and His Boy". I think that this is because that one is the most this-worldly of the set. Unseen reality -- the supernatural -- is there, and that's more comforting that its absence, but it's also comforting that it's rather on the fringe of things ... But I labour the point, and I think we agree here, anyway.

"Few, Scruton says, choose to enter the service of God. There is some acknowledgement here that there may be something else other than satisfying ritual."

Well spotted. He's a subtle man, and it is like him not have missed the possibility.

On Jill's dream -- I looked it up and re-read it. I agree there's a "dreaming that you are awake" there, but I don't see a strong parallel with MacDonald in that passage, myself. I could be misunderstanding what Lewis is trying to do there, though. The "dreaming that you are awake" motif occurs also in MacDonald's fairy story "The Princess and the Goblin". Interesting remarks on this in Lewis's letter to Arthur Greeves 15 Jun 1930 (Letters vol. I).

If you don't know MacDonald's stuff he's worth a look. He's a pretty poor prose stylist, but a really remarkable writer. "The Wise Woman" as a fairy story for example ... well, nothing quite like it around now, but it's pretty deep. And it's clear that MacDonald does see grace as necessary:

" Couldn't you help me?" said Rosamond piteously.

" Perhaps I could, now you ask me," answered the wise woman. " When you are ready to try again, we shall see."

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jun 2013 09:57:24 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 31 Oct 2013 21:19:49 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jul 2013 19:01:27 BDT
Michael says:
"[G]eneral ... Gordon wrote to his sister while on campaign in Egypt saying that he wished `the King would come'. ..."

Didn't Sylvia Plath remark after having read the well-known parable, "Why isn't *my* soul required of me?" ? ... although I guess she wasn't English, even if she was brought up in an English-speaking nation heavily influenced by English ways of thinking.

Yes, I think Scruton probably underestimates the depth of religious feeling that there has been among English people. One of the first, and most famous, professors of comparative religion (a German, of course) said, having visited England between the wars, that he believed England was actually "the most religious nation on earth". The professor may have been mistaken -- and, coming from a Lutheran background, may have been biased towards a form of belief that could be seen as Christian and not only that but as "Catholic and yet reformed". Still that he could suggest it at all ...

Looking at modern Britain, which is fairly agnostic and in which the Church is not particularly obvious, one can forget just how interwoven into the fabric of British society it had been till really not so long ago. My understanding is that it somehow limped through the Great War, but that WWII on top was too much for it. This country bankrupted itself, and in a wider sense broke itself to defeat Hitler (and, incidentally, only just finished paying off its war debt a handful of years ago!) The young men who would have kept the priesthood and the parish services going were called up; the parish organisations were devastated. After the war, the Church was happy to see its social-help functions taken over the by state -- since it could no longer cope .. and anyway, couldn't the state do this as well or better, while the Church got on with the "spiritual" role? But, as one American sociologist studying this era has remarked, spirit and matter cannot be separated and as the Church bowed out of the one area, it faded from the other.

Scruton never even discusses that analysis, although it's been mooted in the "conservative" circles he moves in. (It may, in the end, be mistaken, but it surely deserves thinking about.) Instead he, as I recall, puts the decline of the Church down to its refusal of the 1611/1662 language. And, yes, the language is beautiful (I agree wholeheartedly), but that is not just unpersuasive, but seems sociologically incompetent. There is more going on here.

Anyway, to return to English piety in the recent past -- it may have been quiet and unobtrusive; that doesn't mean to say that it didn't run deep.

I was staggered to learn the other day that THE most widely read book of poetry in Victorian England was John Keble's "The Christian Year". (Pusey said that 95 (ninety-five) editions were printed in Keble's lifetime!) Not Tennyson, not those famous figures from the then-recent past Shelley or Wordsworth ... or even the silver-tongued Keats. Who'd have thought it? From the perspective of Eng. Lit. Crit., people might have made better choices, but it does give an interesting insight into what those people thought important.

Anyway, to return to the main theme -- I simply don't believe that Christianity can be sensibly treated as if it were something that adds a bit of gloss to life. I think perhaps the Ancient Pagan Roman religion could be seen in that way. R. M. Ogilvie's book suggests to me it was:

The Romans And Their Gods (Pimlico)

But Christianity? No. Never was, never could be if understood in its own terms.

I think Scruton himself gives the game away when he points to the Crucifixion as making a kind of sense of our experience as human beings

Yet what is the crucifixion but obedience (yes, *that* word, sorry Rowan Williams) writ large? What is it but that all-to-serious dying-to-the-self in its most literal form?

"He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,*
and was born in our human likeness.

"Being found in human form, he humbled himself,*
and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross ..."

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jul 2013 10:58:51 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 31 Oct 2013 21:19:59 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jul 2013 19:36:07 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 18 Jul 2013 18:43:46 BDT]
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