Intelligent Apologetics

Intelligent Apologetics January 2, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 6.38.35 PMI recently read — at the instigation of a friend’s recommendation — one of the English-speaking world’s finer minds, Roger Scruton, and I began with his The Soul of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). It is an intelligent apologetics, a flat-lining of the omnicompetency of science (scientism, naturalism, empiricism) and a probing of the subjectivity and personal core of reality.

He doesn’t let modernity set his categories and then show how the Christian faith is modernity plus. He offers a kind of dual forms of knowledge: scientific explanation and personal interpretation. He plumbs what he sometimes calls “aboutness” and the beyond of our experience.

My intention has been to introduce the reader to two fundamental thoughts: first, that the I-You intentionality projects itself beyond the boundary of the natural world, and second, that in doing so it uncovers our religious need (175).

He cares about religion but doesn’t seem so much concerned to prove the God of the Bible or the God of Christianity, but instead a conservation of ultimacy as the only way to explain (ahem, interpret) much of what we know to be true.

The real question for religion in our time is not how to excise the sacred, but how to rediscover 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 (23).

In all its forms religion involves a beseeching of the unknown to reveal itself as both object and subject of love. To look for God is to look for the redeeming person, to whom you can entrust your
life (29).

Personhood is an “emergent” feature of the human being in the way that music is an emergent feature of sounds: not something over and above the life and behavior in which we observe it, but not reducible to them either (67).

What I perhaps liked most about this book was its constant penetration of the limits of scientific explanation, but never in a way that dismisses or devalues what science can do (very well):

So science cannot tell me who I am, let alone where, when, or how (31).

In science we describe the world to others; in Verstehen we describe the world for others, and mold it according to the demands of the I-You encounter, on which our personal lives depend (33).

And then we might conclude that it is just as absurd to say that the world is nothing but the order of nature, as physics describes it, as to say that the Mona Lisa is nothing but a smear of pigments (40).

But it illustrates the way in which evolutionary explanations reduce to triviality, when the thing to be explained contains its own principles of persuasion (56).

He lines up with nuanced conservative liberalism when it comes to morality:

And morality makes sense only if there are reasons for action that are normative and binding. It is hard to accept this, and still to resist the conclusion drawn by Thomas Nagel, that the universe is ordered by teleological laws (57).

Vows of marriage, obligations toward parents and children, sacred ties to home and country: such things have to be rescued from the corrosions of the will, made inflexible and “eternal,” if they are to perform their manifest function, of securing society against the forces of selfish desire (94).

God belongs to the non-scientific explanation dimensions of our knowing — or perhaps better, God won’t submit to some ways of our knowing:

God disappears from the world, as soon as we address it with the “why?” of explanation, just as human persons disappear from the world, when we look for the neurological explanation of their acts. For God, if he exists, is a person like us, whose identity and will are bound up with his nature as a subject. Maybe we shall find him in the world where we are only if we cease to invoke him with the why?” of cause, and conjure him with the “why?” of reason instead. And the “why?” of reason is addressed from I to you. The God of he philosophers disappeared behind the world, because he was described in the third person, and not addressed in the second (70-71).

Scruton distinguishes claim rights from freedom rights, the latter about protecting one’s person. Here again he expresses a more conservative orientation — distinguishing freedom rights from claim rights:

It seems to me that rights talk has the unction of enabling people to claim a sphere of personal sovereignty, in which their choice is law (85).

A claim against another, if expressed as a right, is an imposition of a duty (86). [And it can] “override the other’s sovereignty” (87). He, with Bentham, calls claim rights “nonsense on stilts” (87). [I would say that “rights” doesn’t cover enough of social need and obligation and responsibility.]

Or, one of my favorite set of lines:

We don’t understand the plays of Shakespeare by conducting surveys and experiments. We don’t interpret The Art of Fugue with an acoustical analysis, or Michelangelo’s David with the crystallography of marble. Art, literature, music, and history belong to the Lebenswelt, the world that is shaped by our own consciousness, and we study them not by explaining how they arose but by interpreting what they mean. Explanation has a method, and it is the method of science. Interpretation goes in search of a method, but is never sure of finding one (141-142).

Or maybe this:

 And maybe this is how we should understand the sacred and the supernatural— not as irruptions of supernatural causes into the natural order, for the idea of a “supernatural cause” is close to contradictory, but as revelations of the subject, places within the scheme of things where the question “why?” can be clearly asked, and also answered (184).

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  • Tim


    I appreciate Scruton’s perspective, and feel many of his analogies are apt. However, the “ways of knowing” meme that seems to be circulating these days has, at least to me, felt increasingly vacuous. While I do get the idea that people may be drawn to see a painting behind all these pigments of life, as it were, where that seeking has drawn us is to wildly discrepant faiths. Even within Christianity. If such were the case of science, it would not be a respected enterprise. Sure it has it’s limitations. As Scruton notes. And things it does “very well.” But what has religion, broadly speaking, done “very well?” What knowledge has resulted from it? Broadly I mean. As Scruton is speaking in general terms, not specific to Christianity in these apologetic arguments. And then there’s the scientific observation that we’re naturally geared to seek patterns in pretty much everything. Not just existential patterns in the beauty of nature, but we’re geared to see patterns in just about any random assembly of shapes or data. So I do appreciate his criticisms of reductionism, for example. But as an apologetic for faith, at least based on what’s posted above, I don’t see it as providing very much backing for the legitimacy of any faith or faith in general as a matter of pointing to real knowledge about reality.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, my impression from your comment is that you are asking Scruton to play the game he doesn’t think can be played — the “beyond” is beyond, it’s not susceptible to the way of knowing you seem to be asking for. That right?

  • Tim


    You may be right, I may misunderstand what he’s ultimately driving at as an apologist. What do you see Scruton as arguing for then? A general tendency amongst human kind to seek “beyond,” yet one that may also be explained as pattern seeking? However, Scruton also mentions that “God won’t submit to some ways of our knowing.” Which does seem to imply that there are some “ways of knowing” that would yield fruit. Is he arguing for any such method?