Unbelief, like belief, takes a unique form in every age. The dominant form of contemporary unbelief is a materialistic one. It comprises a network of fairly coherent (though generally unexamined) claims, including the claim that modern science has effectively displaced religion and philosophy as the final word on reality; that human life can best be understood in light of our evolutionary past, which explains our moral, aesthetic, and religious behavior; that consciousness is nothing more than the effect of the brain’s operations, and will one day be explained in terms of wholly physical causes.
What is notable about this materialistic synthesis is that while it presents itself as a rationale for atheism—that is, as a set of arguments about the question of supernatural reality—it encompasses an extraordinarily broad range of assertions about nature, and specifically human nature. The validity of modern unbelief stands or falls, then, with the soundness of its account of nature.
For modern people to encounter the sacred, it is necessary that we recognize the many errors wrapped up in that account. We must appreciate its gross insufficiency as a theory of nature before we even consider it as a theory of the supernatural. A true account of nature, in opposition to materialism’s false account, employs a conceptual vocabulary that assumes, and perhaps entails, a reality transcending nature in some manner. It encompasses the truths that rationality clearly extends beyond the capacity to catalogue empirical facts; that man’s moral, aesthetic, and religious predilections clearly place his behavior in the realm of interpretation rather than explanation; that the intentionality of human consciousness clearly defies any mechanistic picture, and so on. To “re-enchant the world,” we must grasp the way that the sacred manifests itself in the most ordinary appearances of being, and in the most primal impulses of human mentality.
The Truths of Ordinary Human Experience
This is precisely the argumentative tack taken by Roger Scruton in his new book, The Soul of the World. It is no exaggeration to say that Scruton has provided a template for how discourse concerning divine things can, and should, proceed in our day and age.
Rather than getting bogged down in a recapitulation of the argument from design, or pointing out that the church did a few more things over the last two millennia other than burn heretics and launch crusades, Scruton invites us to move past this modish noise and look at the world afresh. Bringing his impressive powers of reflection to bear upon ordinary human experience, he shows us how our meeting with a friend, or our pleasure at hearing a lovely melody, when thought about properly, reveals us to be creatures moving among truths that have no place within the causal picture of modern science.
Scruton begins his reflections by asking what is entailed in the “real phenomena of faith,” in encounters with what people have always taken to be the “real presence” of God. This includes things like “prayer and the life of prayer . . . the experience of certain times, places, objects, and words as ‘sacred,’” and so on. These are not explanations of the origins of the universe. Rather, they are encounters with “the presence of a subject, a first-person singular who can be addressed, implored, reasoned with, and loved.” Such experiences are “forms of address from one person to another: a readiness to give and accept reasons, to make demands …a recognition of mutual freedom.” Quite simply, God is a person, and the only conceptual vocabulary sufficient to describe our encounters with Him is the one we use in describing our encounters with other human persons.
But what does it mean to think of someone as a person? Most basically, it means to recognize him as a subject, and not an object, and to evaluate his behavior in the unique way appropriate to subjects. “Persons are able to reply to the question ‘why?’ asked of their state, their beliefs, their intentions, their plans, and their desires,” writes Scruton. When we deal with subjects rather than objects, “In addition to explaining their behavior, we seek to understand it.” Persons exist in the realm of interpretation. To seek God, at the most basic level, simply means to “ask the question ‘why?’ of the world as a whole,” to hold God to account, so to speak, in a way that makes our existence intelligible and acceptable to us.
Encounters, Contracts, and Vows
It is no surprise, then, that man’s relationship with the divine “other” has always been conceptualized in the same terms we use to understand our human relationships. Scruton emphasizes the significance of the Israelites’ covenant with God, “since it implies that God’s relation to us is of the same kind as the relations that we create through our promises and contracts.” The world of “promises and contracts” in which we encounter God is not some mythological construct, promulgated to legitimize political power, but emerges out of the ordinary social interactions of human persons.
Yet just as clearly, there are occasions when human relationships pass beyond the terms of a contract and rise to a level of fidelity that only finds its perfect expression in vows. Vows are “open-ended commitments to make oneself trustworthy in a certain respect.” Unlike contracts, vows “have an existential character, in that they tie their parties together in a shared destiny.” A vow has a “transcendent” character to it, “having no delimited terms, and stretching forward indefinitely in time.” It is appropriate, then, that when we make a vow, we call the gods to witness it, giving it a “sacramental quality.”
Secularization has remorselessly stripped the world of this transcendent order, leaving in its wake only those bonds that arise through “free choice and self-made obligations.” But the profound alienation of modern persons testifies to the fact that “the world without transcendent bonds is not a variant of the world that had not yet been cleansed of them, but a completely different world, and one in which we humans are not truly at home.”
The Sacred and the Material
At the heart of his book, Scruton illustrates the ways this sacred order “emerges” out of the material world—dependent on, but not reducible, to the latter. He invites us, for instance, to reflect on what happens when we are face-to-face with another person. We are looking upon a part of the other’s anatomy, of course, but “in seeing an array of features as a face, I do not understand it biologically, as the visible film that encases another brain . . . I understand it as the real presence in our shared world of you.”
Similarly, “I lie behind my face, and yet I am present in it, speaking and looking through it at a world of others who are in turn both revealed and concealed like me.” The face is something more than just an anatomical part, more than just a physical object in the world. To describe it adequately “we must use concepts from another language than the language of science.”
Perhaps the most intriguing reflections in this vein are those devoted to music. Again, there is a purely physical substrate to the phenomenon, which “consists of a series of pitched sounds, one after the other, each identified by frequency.” But what we hear when we listen to music is not just this collection of pitched sounds, but a melody, a phenomenon adequately described only in terms of “movement in musical space, of gravitational forces, of answering phrases and symmetries, of tension and release, and so on.” The physics required to describe the pitched sounds have been left far behind once we hear them as music; in doing so, “we are situating them in another order of events than the order of nature.”
Of music, as of God, we may ask “why?” In speaking to us of “another order of being than the one in which our embodied lives are trapped: an order of pure sympathy between subjects,” music “offers an icon of the religious experience.”
Of course, these examples of a sacred order “erupting” into nature are contingent upon the existence of that order in the first place. Scruton never pretends that the mind’s pursuit of God involves anything other than an immersion in profound mysteries. What he calls the “overreaching intentionality of our interpersonal states of mind” continually seems to direct our gaze over the horizon of nature, where the transcendent order of sacrifice and vow is finally justified.
Being as Gift
The primordial I-You relationship between man and God is made intelligible as soon as we grasp the “fundamental religious truth, which is that being is not an accident but a gift.” We exist in a world that is truly a creation—a concept that finds no place in the realm of physics. Faith is, in part, a response to this insight. “Faith,” Scruton writes, “looks beyond nature, asking itself what is required of me by way of thanks for this gift.”
The religious life that arises out of faith aspires to the noblest ideals of human life. In them, “the sacred, the sacramental, and the sacrificial coincide.” In the end, we find that a life lived according to transcendent truth is a life lived in accord with what is best in human nature.
Nothing here is likely to sway the dogmatic skeptic. But it doesn’t matter; the materialism upon which he stakes his faith has already been left far behind. The language of mechanism and analysis has already been shown to be woefully inadequate for describing our encounters with our fellow man. How in the world then could it prove adequate for describing our encounters with God?
The materialist thinks that the explanatory resources of science are enough to carry him through the whole frame of nature back to its origins, when in fact they don’t even get him past his “good morning” to the mailman. A consistent application of his principles renders normal human interaction as inexplicable as the most arcane forms of mysticism. As Scruton writes, “the search for God often seems hopeless, but the usual grounds for thinking this imply that the search for the other person is hopeless too.” Desperate to discredit the very possibility of the supernatural, the modern atheist has utterly distorted and falsified the truth about man.
At the heart of The Soul of the World is the deep truth that the language we speak about man and God, the conceptual vocabulary at work in the study of human and divine things, is one and the same. Each of us, in our subjectivity, our I-ness, is an “incarnation” of a person among a dominion of objects. Each of us is “revealed” to one another in our faces, our gestures, and our words. We are “lifted outside” of ourselves by the practice of moral responsibility and placed in the presence of an “impartial spectator,” and we promise ourselves to one another in ways that “stretch forward indefinitely in time.”
Given that so great a portion of our lives takes place in an order beyond the natural order of science, the reality of the divine is already implicit in a proper description of the human.
Deeply humanist in spirit, Scruton’s book calls on philosophy to reflect once more on the fundamental shape of a lived life. Philosophers must work to displace the grotesque caricatures of human experience resulting from the long domination of mechanistic thought, which are served up to us daily in the form of evolutionary psychology, neuro-philosophy, and so on.
Yet this is a call that extends beyond philosophy to encompass the totality of human life. The way we build our cities and appoint their authorities, the way we dance and sing, the way we look one another in the face: all of these things can manifest a sacred presence in a way that supersedes argument. The Soul of the World provides a wise reminder that the “why?” we ask of God receives its most persuasive answer in the beauty, the love, and the heroic devotion of human life.
Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in the New English Review, the Front Porch Republic, the University Bookman, Arion, and the Evansville Review. His personal website is markanthonysignorelli.com.