Not long after reading Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World I picked up Etienne Gilson’s short but insightful essay, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (1938), in which he discusses the metaphysical systems that preceded our present era (all of which, including atheism and materialism, were to be found as far back as ancient Greece). Gilson examines, among other things, the theories of Averroism which one cannot help but compare with the “cognitive dualism” of Scruton (see my last post).
Gilson touches on the strengths and limitations of a psychological approach to religion. It is this approach that Scruton has undertaken so ably to the benefit of religious and non-religious readers alike. When he says of the Jewish idea of the Sabbath, that it “contains the essence of religion in all its higher forms: an injunction to stop, to be futile, to repeat actions that have no explanation other than themselves… and that it is up to you to renew the order of the covenant among those whom you love,” he seems to repeat the views of Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper on the concepts of sanctity and leisure which contribute so much to a healthy culture.
Numerous agnostic philosophers, beginning with William James, have discussed the social advantages of faith, without necessarily believing in the theological claims of religion. Scruton appears to be in the same camp. To this approach, Gilson replies, “It is psychologically interesting to know that it does one good to believe there is a God; but that is not at all what the believer believes; what he actually believes is, that there is a God.”
Scruton’s outlook often appears pantheistic (though that may be an oversimplification of his ideas). I recommend Matthew O’Brien’s review of Scruton’s earlier book, The Face of God, for an examination of this point. Admittedly, the English philosopher presents a number of paradoxes. While emphasizing the immanent nature of divinity, in terms of the collective human aspect of faith, Scruton offers some profound arguments for belief in a personal God who engages in dialogue with his creation – an idea that is at the heart of Judeo-Christian worship.
Needless to say, readers should avail themselves of the original “source material” by listening to the 2010 Gifford Lectures on religion presented by Scruton at the University of St. Andrews.