The late Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020), perhaps the greatest conservative philosopher of our age (though he often remarked that there was not much competition around), was my mentor. Scruton was my teacher during my Master’s degree and supervised me for my doctorate until his death in January of this year. He and I shared an especial interest in the question of religious feeling and its social role, and spent much time discussing this. It is a particular take of his on this topic I wish to consider here, namely the necessity for religion to be chiefly about concrete things over doctrines and ideas.
For Scruton, religious beliefs were really a private matter. The doctrines to which one truly assented, and how close one was to orthodoxy, was principally one’s own private business. What was not a private matter, and what ought not to be tampered with, was public worship and ritual. The liturgy was the inheritance of the community, and rooted us in a particular place as a particular people, and bestowed upon that community a sense of transcendent purpose it would never possess otherwise:
We instinctively connect the sacred with the transcendental, seeing holy places, times and rituals as windows on to another realm – places in the empirical world where we look out in astonishment at something that we can understand through ritual and prayer, which we try to explain through theological doctrine, but which always in the end eludes our attempts to describe it… Religion is a stance towards the world, rooted in social membership.
As a Catholic, I was never comfortable with the demoted place which Scruton granted religious doctrine. I argued that, though it is true that religion can never be solely about doctrines just as a friendship I enjoy cannot only be about my ideas about my friend, it was nonetheless necessary to have correct ideas about my friend for the friendship to be true. To say that religious doctrines are principally a private matter is comparable to saying that whether I – in the cloister of my own heart – believe truths or falsehoods about my friend does not matter, it will not affect my friendship, and my friend’s friends ought not to mind either.
Scruton’s view of religious doctrine cannot be accounted for merely by reference to his Kantian epistemology, a position which enveloped apparent true knowledge in such a way as to largely exclude metaphysical propositions (though I would suggest that this in fact presupposes certain metaphysical commitments), and definitely excluded any claim to possess revealed religious knowledge. Rather, for Scruton, there was another factor with which I have far greater sympathy, namely that he always believed that religion, once it prioritized ideas, doctrines, or articles of belief, deteriorated into a system of mere abstractions. Religion, in his view, to be a true good, had to be centered on concrete realities: the liturgy, the parish church, the colorful vestments, the local pastor, and the land which such things sought to render sacral. These must form the arena for healthy religious feeling, not a mere system of abstract ideas.
Scruton held that once religious feelings departed from the concrete realities of one’s experience, venturing into a Platonic realm of abstractions deceptively appearing more real than the world to which our senses are privy, those unanchored religious feelings and impulses could easily be transferred onto something else. In Scruton’s view, this was a terrifying prospect: there is ‘nothing more dangerous to the state than the transfer of frustrated religious feeling to petty secular causes.’ If religious feeling, so often characterized by zealousness and fervor, found itself without God as its object, and emancipated itself from the taming channels of the liturgical year, orderly rituals, prescribed prayers, and the watchful community with which one prays, it would wreak havoc.
I do not wish to put words into the mouth of a dead teacher, and I may be wrong, but I suspect this is how Scruton would have analyzed the recent activities of the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement’s most recent manifestation began as a campaign against a particular person (a violent policeman in Minneapolis) or even the ‘systemic racism’ seemingly inseparable from the particular organization of the police force (though Candace Owens has forcefully argued that such a claim does not hold up to scrutiny). This movement has since become a chaotic rallying of zealots whose aggression is aimed at no particular person, organization, or community, but at an abstract idea, the idea of racism. This aggression demonstrates its detachment from reality by finding its only expression in frenzies theatrically directed at inanimate objects, such as old monuments and statues.
One of the proofs that this movement has ceased to be about any concrete reality is its failure to propose anything positive. It does not see itself as contributing, developing, and purifying a settled community and its culture, which certainly possesses features both good and bad. The ‘protesters’ in Bristol, for example, did not arrive with a petition for Edward Colston’s statue to be replaced with one of Mary Prince, William Wilberforce, or Louis Celeste Lecesne. They simply came to destroy. We have seen that this movement will wreck and vandalize, it will call for historical monuments to be taken away, and for words to be prohibited, but it is unable to restore, renew, construct, or create. It is filled only with what Scruton called the ‘power of the negative.’ Observing this movement raging, I have continually called to mind one of Scruton’s oft-repeated aphorisms: ‘conservatism begins with the observation that it is easier to destroy than to build.’
It is the way that Black Lives Matter has manifested itself internationally which causes me to wonder if it actually is about racism at all. Were this movement truly concerned with injustices against people of color, presumably it would be equally concerned with the sort of ‘systemic injustices’ which have led to the deconstruction of the family among black communities, not just in the United States but across the whole world. Surely it would concern itself with the historic and ongoing targeting of the black community by the abortion industry. I presume it would also seek to raise awareness about violence within black communities. Rather than focusing on monuments connected with the historic transatlantic slave trade, an occupation which does not now exist, perhaps it would focus on the existent slave trade operating today on the East African coast, which is as brutal for its victims as it is lucrative for the Arabs who run it. If this movement is so interested in history – which I suppose is a good thing, since historical literacy is at an all-time low – perhaps it would seek to disseminate more information about the slave-based economy of much of the African continent as it was when the European colonizers began to explore it in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Surely the black lives enslaved by Africans mattered just as much as those taken by European slave-traders. Transatlantic slave-traders did not establish slavery in Africa, but took advantage of an already well established African slave trade run by Africans.
Perhaps the members of Black Lives Matter believe that Europeans ought to have known better. If so, I completely agree. They should have known better because they had a whole treasury of wisdom by which to judge the ethics of the situation, from Greek and Roman philosophy to the Justinian Code, from the Common Law tradition to the many papal condemnations of slave-trading since Eugene IV’s 1435 papal bull (Sicut Dudum) condemning Portuguese slave-trading in the Canary Islands. They had centuries of accumulated material to fall back on. They only needed to have a quick read of Francisco de Vitoria to be perfectly clear that what they were doing was evil. And, most importantly, they had the revealed truth of the Christian religion.
Obviously they should have known better. I suspect, however, that with this line of argument I would lose the sympathy of the average Black Lives Matter demonstrator.
Why might such a line of argument be objectionable to the average member of Black Lives Matter? Well, I think it is because this movement, having begun as a response to a concrete event, with an actual person dying by the brutality of another actual person, transformed, as I have said, into a campaign against an idea, the idea of racism; since then, however, it has further transitioned, and now it is about the ‘racist West’ in general. Our entire inheritance must go. Even Stirling’s statue of King Robert the Bruce has been vandalized and spray-painted with the acronym ‘BLM’ (was he racist? toward whom? the English? He was probably born in Essex…).
Everything must be pulled down to get to the ideas – root out those heresies – so that the ‘decolonization of the curriculum’ may begin, for which we have already heard calls. The remedy to our social evils, however, is to attend to that treasury of wisdom, not to scrap it, which would only lead to evils unimaginable. The heresy which this movement now exists to eradicate is the proposition that the inheritance of the West has something to teach us, a terrifying notion for those who do not have the patience to learn and who only possess the impulse to tear down. This is what Scruton really meant by the ‘culture of repudiation’: the frustrated religious impulse directed at an improper object and transposed to a passion where it ought never to be found.
The destructive desire for a utopia, free from history and from received institutions, in which everyone thinks like you and everything is exactly as you would have it, stems from a highly rationalist (and narcissistic) prioritizing of one’s ideas – to which one is fervently committed – over the concrete realities with which one has found oneself in the world. In place of a utopia, which can only belong to the world of ideas (and a very small world that is too), I propose Scrutopia, that world of actual things, from which one dispassionately, patiently, and humbly seeks to learn, sometimes critically, as if at a liturgy.
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