Roger Scruton on death

Saint Paul saw Christ’s sacrifice as a redemption–a way by which Christ purchased our eternal life, through taking our sins upon himself.  This idea is strange, perhaps not wholly intelligible:  for how can the suffering of the innocent pay the moral debt of the guilty?  Saint Paul also told us that now we see as through a glass darkly, but then face-to-face.  And by “then” he meant after we had passed the threshold of death.  Richard Crashaw, in a long poem inspired by Aquinas, put the thought in the following words:

Come love! Come Lord! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal’d source of thee.
When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase,
And for thy veil give me thy Face.

Here, it seems to me, is a way in which faith verges on hope.  We can shun death as an annihilation, or greet it as a transition.  We can see it as a loss of something precious, or as a gain of another way of being.  It is, in a sense, up to us.  When we live in full awareness and acceptance of our mortality, we see the world as making a place for us.  We open ourselves to death, and accept death as our completion.  Simone Weil puts the point in terms of the Christian myth of origins:

Man placed himself outside the current of Obedience.  God chose as his punishment labour and death.  Consequently labour and death, if Man undergoes them in a spirit of willingness, constitute a transference back into the current of Supreme Good which is Obedience to God.

The afterlife, conceived as a condition that succeeds death in time, is an absurdity.  For succession in time belongs within the causal envelope, in the spacetime continuum that is the world of nature.  If there is any message to be extracted from my arguments, it is that the idea of salvation–of a right relation with the creator–in no way requires eternal life, so conceived.  But it does require an acceptance of death, and a sense that in death we are meeting our creator, the one bound to us by covenant, to whom we must account for our faults.  We are returning to the place whence we emerged and hoping to be welcomed there.  This is a mystical thought, and there is no way of translating it into the idiom of natural science, which speaks of before and after, not of time and eternity.  Religion, as I have been considering it, does not describe the natural world but the Lebenswelt, the world of subjects, using allegories and myths in order to remind us at the deepest level of who and what we are.  And God is the all-knowing subject who welcomes us as we pass into that other domain, beyond the veil of nature.

To approach death in such a way is therefore to draw near to God:  we become, through our works of love and sacrifice, a part of the eternal order; we “pass over” into that other place, so that death is no longer a threat to us.  The veil to which Crashaw refers, that hides the face of God, is the “fallen world”, the world of objectified being.  The life of prayer rescues us from the Fall and prepares us for a death that we can meaningfully see as a redemption, since it unites us with the soul of the world.

— from The Soul of the World (2014)



6 Responses

  1. I don’t find this convincing; but then (although intelligent and productive) Scruton was not a particularly wise or deep person – and he never seemed to state clearly that he was A Christian.

    “The afterlife, conceived as a condition that succeeds death in time, is an absurdity. ”

    …Is itself an absurd statement, since that is the common sense understanding of countless Christians; while what Scruton suggests about time is a high abstraction that, for most humans, would have strictly zero intelligible meaning.

    Indeed, what Scruton describes sounds more like Buddhism or Hinduism (or the deism of the Enlightenment) than Christianity – If our trajectory is to leave the oneness of Heavem, spend some time in the illusory world of mortality and then return to be absorbed as ‘part of the natural order’/ united with the soul of the world – there is nothing in this scheme that makes Jesus necessary.

    What is difficult is to explain in these scheme what is the point of this our mortal life?

    Such salvation is what I call double-negative theology – God creates a problem by expelling us from Heaven, then saves us from it (presumably with the assistance of Jesus) by allowing our re-admission. Why bother? Just let men stay in Heaven in the first place. Or, keep mortal life to the bare minimum of suffering – mere incarnation, or mere birth… then death and back to Heaven.

    But if the Fourth Gospel is taken seriously, *The* purpose of Jesus was to give us life everlasting, which previously Men lacked (all going to the demented, ghostly, half-life of Sheol after biological death).

    For Christianity *Time* is of the essence. Before Jesus – Sheol for all; after Jesus – Heaven or Hell.

  2. Hi Bruce,

    The purpose of mortal life is indeed a puzzle if one supposes that humans pre-exist in some immortal form and might have continued that way. I see acquiring a body as a prerequisite for being a distinct individual human, so having a perpetual immaterial existence was never an option; if I hadn’t been incarnated, I wouldn’t have existed at all. Scruton probably believed something similar. One must be careful in interpreting his talk about “emerging from” and “returning to” the “soul of the world”. Scruton conceived religion as an exercise of a particular type of intentionality that exists between subjects, i.e. the “I-thou” encounter. So his talk of “hoping to be welcomed” upon his death translates to a sort of interpersonal attitude toward God or the universe conceived as a subject. Because it doesn’t really refer to an anticipated sequence of events, it can be true in its own sense even given the annihilation of the self in death.

    My attitude toward death is not quite the same as Scruton’s. Like most philosophers, he wanted to reconcile himself to death, and I refuse to do this as a requirement of my peculiar understanding of the virtue of hope. Others may more easily understand it as a matter of honesty with oneself. However, I do think Scruton was a profound thinker. I mostly admired him as a political philosopher, but I’ve also gained from his writings on aesthetics. Regarding his religious thought, I’m not sure that the distinct mental “world” of intersubjectivity does all the work he wants it to do, but there is clearly something to it.

  3. There is no such thing as leaving-the-oneness in Buddhism. I suppose it would be better if people would only talk about religions they actually know something about. But I am gonna break that rule, too. I know very little about Christian theology but one way the whole thing would make sense to me would be something like this: God is inherently unintelligible and thus un-approachable to humans. Christ as fully human and fully God sort of acts like a bridge. You can relate to the human half of his nature, because it is like yours. You can understand approach that. So you approach Christ-as-human, and through his person you somehow get linked with Christ-as-God and through Christ you are linked with God. Would this be at least very roughly accurate?

    I suppose not, because Christ is “about” sin and not “about” men understanding, approaching, relating to an incomprehensible God. I am just saying that is something that would make sense to me. Sin against God does not really. Christians see that basically like a debt, that the cosmic ledger had to be balanced by Christ’s sacrifice paying it for us. Why does that debt have to be paid at all? Why would not God the Father just forgive that debt without having to sacrifice Christ? I don’t understand this debt-like approach to cosmic justice at all. It is not intuitive. We punish criminals because we hope it has practical utility in having fewer criminals in the future, not to make them pay some kind of a cosmic debt…

  4. Hi Dividualist,

    Christianity is about both, in that a supernatural (but still interpersonal) union with God is the ultimate goal but can only take place if we are “right with the cosmos” by repentance and accepting Christ’s payment of the debt of our sins. That is, our alienation from God has two parts: the unavoidable ontological gulf and the moral break.

    Whether this is true is another matter, but there certainly are intuitions it appeals to. (The religion presumably wouldn’t exist otherwise.) We punish criminals not only to deter but as a matter of justice, because we think they deserve it. Punishing a morally innocent man for the greater good of society would be considered immoral by most. In the case of our own faults, we may also have an intuition of having broken fellowship with the universe, as if all goods and duties are mystically connected in a single cosmic order. This sense of unity is, of course, the intuition that blossoms into monotheism, God as the “face” of this underlying unity of the cosmos. One also naturally imagines this alienation from the cosmic order to be a persisting condition until it is somehow righted, that is that sin is not just something you do, but a state you can be in. Imagined as a personal property rather than a relation, this would be the “stain” of sin. When we feel genuine guilt, we don’t think the cosmos is being vindictive in holding our sins against us; we see it as a requirement of its essential justice, something it cannot set aside without being the thing with which we desire to re-establish communion. Hence the Anselmian dilemma to which Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is supposed to be the solution.

    At least in the West, grace (the operation of God in the soul) is involved even in repentance itself, so God is at work even in souls in a state of mortal sin. The Protestants are especially clear on this, but Catholics (and probably the Orthodox too, although they’re less sin-focused) would agree. The real flowering of grace comes after the “stain” of mortal sin has been “washed” away, and God can infuse a familiarity with and love for Him beyond a human’s natural powers. Biblically, we are said to become “sons” of God, relating to the Father by participation in the same sort of way the Son does. In the East, they say that even then the divine essence remains inaccessible, but this distinction is usually not made in the West.

  5. Sorry, I think I might have worded it poorly. Basically my real point is this. The difference between debt and sin is that if ten people owe you five dollars each and someone offers to pay you fifty dollars in their name to settle that debt, that is fine. But when ten thieves deserve five years in prison each and an innocent man offers to serve fifty years in prison in their name, that is something we obviously don’t accept. It does not work like that. In this sense sin is not debt, other people can offer pay our debt but not offer to be punished for our sins. So why did the innocent Christ have to die a torturous death? Why did someone else have to suffer for our sins?

  6. A perceptive distinction.

    One way it can work is in the case of collective guilt. If it is not the individual but the group that is primarily guilty, then anyone who identifies sufficiently with the group can consider himself implicated and offer restitution. Some of the talk about Jesus Christ redeeming mankind, considered as a whole of which He is part rather than as distinct individuals, might be interpreted in this sense. Collective guilt is, after all, invoked in explanations of original sin as well.

    However, most Christians aren’t thinking of it this way and speak of Christ’s taking their sins upon Himself in an individual, personal way. Usually, the idiom is more that of debt than of guilt. The distinctive thing about Jesus’ death being the great obedience and love it involved rather than Him getting what somebody had coming.

    There is also a distinctly Catholic, sacramental, version of this. We affiliate ourselves to Christ’s self-sacrifice to God in the Eucharist. God gives us the sacrifice we are to offer back to Him as a debt for sin and a gift befitting His majesty. This sacramental reasoning gives a rationale for the incarnation. Christians would say that the Son is always/eternally perfectly loving and obedient to the Father, but this needed to be made a symbolic act in the material world so that it could be appropriated by many.

    The other major thread of Christian thinking is to regard sin not as debt or guilt but as a spiritual affliction, the “slavery to sin”, from which Jesus heals us. Here the focus is not on how we deserved to be punished because we act badly but that without divine deliverance we are powerless to behave any way but badly.

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