9.12.16

SOUL SEARCHING

Roger Scruton. The Soul of the World. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World is in eight chapters. The first is titled “Believing in God” and the last “Seeking God.” It’s gratifying that he doesn’t end on the certainty of having found God nor propose any speculative evidence for God’s existence! Scruton is a philosopher not a theologian. But he’s also not an atheist. He writes in a dispassionate, careful manner that’s never coldly rational. 

The great pleasure of reading this wise, lucid and elegantly written book is to discover Scruton’s perception of spirituality (or the Sacred) as something found on the cusp of reason and feeling. Any notion that the material benefits of science and “fashionable forms of atheism” have made the spiritual redundant are firmly refuted. The Soul of the World is about re-engaging with the spiritual (or at best having a momentary awareness of a spiritual space). For Scruton, a world without a perception of sacred is a place where we are less human.

“The real question for religion in our time is not how to excise the sacred, but how to reclaim it, so that the moment of pure intersubjectivity, in which nothing concrete appears, but in which everything hangs on the here and now, can exist in pure and God-directed form. Only when we are sure that this moment of the real presence exists in the human being who experiences it, can we then ask the question whether ii is or is not a true revelation – a moment not just of faith but of knowledge, and a gift of grace.”

Scruton makes his case for the transcendent. How to experience this is fraught with difficulties. For in our political and social life we’ve lost the traditional collective religious response, whilst as lonely individuals we shun solitude – a state necessary for us to think and feel beyond our material existence. For the poet Rilke this was also a vexed issue. Scruton quotes from Rilke’s second book of the Sonnets to Orpheus where a sense of authentic being in the world comes from listening to music.
 And music, always new, from palpitating stones
 Build in useless space its godly home.
Scruton’s passion for architecture and music reveal him at his very best. If you agree with Scruton that Western European classical music has the power to enchant and spiritually move you inside its “useless space” then I would urge you to buy The Soul of the World if only to read chapter 7, 'The Sacred Space of Music.' Chapter 1 is mainly concerned with institutional religions (post 9/11) and is fascinatingly insightful on the Islamic and Christian idea of sacrifice and The Fall. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 are titled 'Looking at the Brain', 'The First Person Plural' and 'Facing each Other.' Here Scruton sets out to discover a sense of the self that is comfortingly free from being pinned down by the biological sciences.

Although Scruton is well read and very perceptive in the area of moral philosophy sometimes there are shortcomings – a sense of Scruton, the conservative moralist is present. Yet in aesthetics he makes a very convincing case for the reclaiming of the sacred in everyday life.

The Soul of the World is an important work, that’s affirmative even when he tackles the question of death. Highly personal, demanding, yet beautifully written and moving in its insights. A book to read, savour and reflect on. -- Alan Price

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