Thinking the Sacred with Roger Scruton

About the conference

Hosted by the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, April 11-13, 2014

This conference is dedicated to the work of philosopher Roger Scruton who will give the keynote lecture (open to the public) sponsored by the Beatty Memorial Lecture Series.  This event brings together an international group of scholars who will respond to different but related aspects of Scruton's work. The focus will be Scruton's work on religion. Scruton approaches religion and the 'sacred' from philosophical point of view, as an author of fiction and poetry, cultural critic, and composer.

Given Scruton's dynamic approach to the subject, the conference will adopt an interdisciplinary approach to his work, drawing on the expertise of those who specialize in philosophy, philosophical theology, aesthetics, musicology, political philosophy, and church history. The common aim of the papers will be i) to draw out what Scruton understands the sacred to be philosophically; ii) to discern how humans 'sense' or experience the sacred; iii) to consider which historical figures Scruton identifies his own position with and why; iv) to explore how his conservative philosophical convictions square with his views on religion. Finally, in a session open to the public, Scruton will sit on a panel with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and French Intellectual Chantal Delsol to field questions from scholars and the general audience on the place of religion in the public sphere.

The conference will also feature the performance of a selection of the philosopher’s compositions for voice and piano, including his Lorca Songs and a scene from his Opera The Minister put on by the Montreal-based company Opera da Camera.  The event will be recorded by the CBC Radio Programme ‘Ideas’.  The plenary lecture opening the conference will be delivered by philosopher Mark Dooley, Scruton’s intellectual biographer.

Keynote and plenary lecture

The Experience of the Sacred as Lebenswelt

Roger Scruton

In response to the papers to be delivered, I would suggest that I develop further two ideas that are integral to my recent work: first the idea of the sacred as connected intrinsically with first-person understanding, and as therefore setting us in personal relation to the world; secondly the idea of the aesthetic, as a mode of thought which aims to capture the individuality and phenomenal presence of consciousness. I would draw together material from my exploration of sexual desire, both in Sexual desire (1986) and in Xanthippic Dialogues (1992), with themes touched in my fiction and music – notably the theme of chastity, as explored in A Dove Descending (1990) and in Violet (2005). I would try to show the integrity of my work, as a multifaceted attempt to give sense and content to the Lebenswelt, and to show how that world emerges spontaneously between accountable beings, and spreads its mantel over empirical reality, transforming it from a realm of necessity and causal law, to a realm of freedom, obligation and right.

Saving the Sacred

Mark Dooley 

Roger Scruton published his first book in 1974. Since then he has become a publishing sensation: forty books, hundreds of articles and scores of newspaper columns. He has written two operas, three novels and a book of poetry. Yet, although ostensibly diverse, Scruton’s prodigious output is unified by a recurrent theme, one that is perfectly captured in his book On Hunting (1998). He writes: ‘Science has its proselytisers and tub-thumpers – people who tell us that God is now redundant, and should be peaceably or forcibly retired. The smallest dose of philosophy would cure mankind of this delusion. All that science can show is the how of God’s creation; never can we by scientific means disprove the fact of it, still less cast light on the why. But the answer to the why lies here and now, in you and me – in the free and reflective being...’ My aim in this ‘Introduction’ is to show that Scruton’s work is best characterised as a defence of personhood, subjectivity and freedom in the face of scientism or pseudo-science. For, it is this which unites his writings on philosophical aesthetics to those on architecture, sex, politics, animal rights, culture and conservatism. Moreover, in declaring that ‘the free being is incarnate, and to see the human life as a vehicle for freedom – to see a face where the scientist sees flesh and bone – is to recognise that this, at least, is sacred, that this small piece of earthly matter is not to be treated as a means to our purposes, but as an end in itself’ (The Philosopher on Dover Beach, 1991), it can be seen that Scruton’s principal preoccupation has been that of saving the sacred. If The Face of God (2012) supplies a systematic analysis of Scruton’s theological thinking, I contend that the religious is a core feature of all his writings. Consequently, if it is mistaken to claim that Roger Scruton is, strictly speaking, a philosopher of religion, it is certainly accurate to argue that an abiding concern - if not the abiding concern - of his work is to defend and legitimise the religious experience in its varied manifestations. In sum, by tracing the theme of the sacred (qua human freedom) from his early writings on aesthetics to his recent work on God and the environment, this Introduction will seek to demonstrate, first, why Scruton cannot be fully understood without appreciating the religious dimension of his thought, and, second, why his perceptive writings on the religious urge serve as a persuasive response to those whom he has recently condemned as ‘evangelical atheists’.

Full conference program

File Scruton Conference program

About the speakers

Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is currently a senior research fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington DC. He was for a while employed by Birkbeck College in the University of London, but since 1990 has been self-employed. He is author of over forty books, including works of criticism, political theory and aesthetics, as well as novels and short stories. His writings include The Aesthetics of Music (1997)Death-Devoted Heart: Sex ad the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (2003)Understanding Music (2009)The Face of God (2011)The Soul of the World (2014) and Notes from Underground (2014). Roger Scruton is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He lives with his wife and two children in Malmesbury, England.

Visit Roger's personal website at roger-scruton.com.

Drawing on art, architecture, music, and literature, Scruton suggests that the highest forms of human experience and expression tell the story of our religious need, and of our quest for the being who might answer it, and that this search for the sacred endows the world with a soul. Evolution cannot explain our conception of the sacred; neuroscience is irrelevant to our interpersonal relationships, which provide a model for our posture toward God; and scientific understanding has nothing to say about the experience of beauty, which provides a God's-eye perspective on reality.

Ultimately, a world without the sacred would be a completely different world--one in which we humans are not truly at home. Yet despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today's world, Scruton says, the paths to transcendence remain open.

Mark Dooley

Mark Dooley is an Irish philosopher, journalist and broadcaster.  From 1992-2003, he lectured in Philosophy at University College Dublin, where he was John Henry Newman Scholar in Theology from 1999-2002. In 2006, he joined the Philosophy Department of NUI Maynooth, where he taught until 2011.  Since 2006, Dooley has been a columnist with the Irish Daily Mail. In 2009, he published Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach (Continuum-Bloomsbury), the first book-length study of Scruton's work to date.  In the same year, he published The Roger Scruton Reader (Continuum-Bloomsbury). Dooley's other books include: Questioning Ethics (Routledge, 1999); The Politics of Exodus: Kierkegaard's Ethics of Responsibility (Fordham, 2001); Questioning God (Indiana, 2001); A Passion for the Impossible (SUNY Press, 2003); The Philosophy of Derrida (Acumen, 2007); Why Be a Catholic? (Continuum-Bloomsbury, 2011), and Moral Matters: The Case for Conservative Thought which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.

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