Scruton on God and Persons

With little free time on my hands during the holidays, my approach to Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy was to skim over the sections on epistemology and the related “subject-object” question of Kantian morality. Admittedly my amateur cogitating has always been on a “practical” level, since I have never felt the Berkeleyite temptation to deny matters of common sense, which seems to offer many thinkers an excuse for avoiding the challenges of everyday living. By contrast, Scruton’s treatment of ethics and freedom (including sexual mores) is refreshingly uncompromising. Some of the most interesting questions in this volume concern the human person and the idea of the divine.

The chapter on “Persons” succinctly dismisses modish intellectual distractions over supposed animal “rationality.” Dogs, apes and bears, Scruton points out, have desires but do not make choices. They are concerned only with the present. They do not make judgments about the past and future. One of the key things that sets humans apart is language. Dialogue defines our behavior. This endeavor requires some basic rules: 1) both parties to the dialogue must present valid, rational arguments; 2) they must be free to make choices and, just as important, they must “take responsibility for the outcome” of those choices; 3) negotiation requires consent and sometimes concessions; 4) the freedom of each party must be respected; and 5) each party “must understand and accept obligations.”

In the chapter on “God,” the author insists on the importance of religion, though he seems to believe that Christianity has gone into an irreversible decline despite his sympathy for the old creed and even the traditional ritual that surrounds worship, whereby the divine is made present and approachable. Although Scruton is an admirer of Spinoza, he admits the dilemma of positing a purely immanent deity that is indistinguishable from the physical universe. At the other end of the spectrum, the completely transcendent Supreme Being of the Enlightenment does not quite measure up either. For all the objections that can be raised against the orthodox theology of the incarnate God, the fact remains that the “ability to see the world” by means of the sacred “in personal terms overcomes human estrangement.”

Scruton does not say so directly, but he implies that a creator must necessarily engage in “dialogue” with his creation. This in turn would seem to necessitate a God who is also a person. A point related to religion is made in the section on “Morality.” Aside from the necessarily pragmatic side of ethics, Scruton speaks of the old virtue of pietas, which he says is more than a vestigial social trait as the utilitarians would have it.

Put in simple terms, piety means the deep down recognition of our frailty and dependence, the acknowledgement that the burden we inherit cannot be sustained unaided, the disposition to give thanks for our existence and reverence to the world on which we depend, and the sense of unfathomable mystery which surrounds our coming to be and our passing away.

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