Sayings — on the sacred

The world has a meaning which is greater than what is revealed through to our ordinary scientific inquiries, but it is revealed directly in an everyday way to all of us, if only we would keep our attention ready for it.

Roger Scruton, Beauty and the Restoration of the Sacred, Catholic Art Guild, Oct 29, 2017

Roger Scruton

This is an opportunity for me to look inside some of my own views of the sacred, and about how important it is for us in the modern world to retrieve it. We live in a largely secular world, and yet, perhaps partly because of that, we feel all around us a growing need for the sacred, not just as an object, but also as a way of life. And I want to explore why that is so.

We all accept the scientific world-view. That is, we believe the universe has a kind of order to it, which can be explored and discovered by people who have no religious faith, and this universe was put before us by Newton with his his clockwork idea of how everything functions in accordance with rigorous laws of motion, and that for a long time in the 17th and 18th century was accepted as the truth about the universe. But people also believed that the universe was created, that the whole clock, the clock of being was set in motion by the Divinity, and that it went on forever in time, and forever in space. At a certain point, Kant raised this great question, where is the edge of the world?

If you think that it has a beginning in time then what was it about that beginning that made it possible that made the universe exist just then. There could be no answer to that question unless you referred to some prior moment. So it couldn’t have a beginning in time but of course it must have a beginning in time. Otherwise an infinite series of moments would have elapsed and how can an infinite series come to an end so it must have a beginning and it can’t have a beginning. So if we think about the universe in this way and as a totality we end up in contradictions. That’s what Kant thought. I won’t say his arguments were necessarily valid, but he put before people the thought that maybe we’re not in a position, we human beings, to understand the universe as a whole. We can only understand it from our point of view.

Our understanding can reach out to the edge of the universe but not beyond that edge. It’s as though we lived surrounded by a one-sided boundary confined in space and time but not able to get to the beginning of time or the end of time or likewise get beyond the edge of space. We are contained in an envelope and then the question arises, although we can’t get beyond that boundary is there nevertheless something beyond that boundary?

In our time quantum mechanics has obviously made a great difference to people’s way of looking at the world because quantum mechanics seems to imply that how things are in the universe and at the smallest level is something which is affected by our own attempts to measure it. In which case is there really such a distinction as we think there is between the universe and our point of view upon it? Are we even more firmly trapped in our point of view by modern science than even Kant thought we were? All of this has led to the question what our place in the cosmos is. I’m sure most of the people in this room will think that is not really a scientific question. Whatever science tells us, we know that we’re in relation to something else, it’s just that we cannot have a complete account of what that something else is except through faith.

Recently, as we know, we’ve been subjected to a barrage of propaganda on behalf of the evolutionary theory about nature which tells us that actually not only are we a small part of the universe, but we are simply the product of a process of adaptation which we share with all the other animals and with the plants, according to which we have come to be adapted to our environment and therefore to possess the capacities needed to understand that environment as something that is useful for our own reproduction. In the end, all we are is machines for the reproduction of our genes. And whatever we think about our point of view on the world, that’s all that its validity amounts to — the thing that gives us the means to reproduce. And what room is there for God in such a picture? That’s just a brief summary of something which you are all aware of, of course. And the question is is that all there is that we can say?

Kant introduced a concept of transcendental idealism partly in order to answer this question. He said we can transcend our point of view insofar as we can see just how limited it is. But we can’t get beyond those limits. Yet, as he also said, we have intimations of things beyond the limits, intimations of the transcendental in the moral life. For example we know with absolute certainty of necessity that we are free, we know that by the laws of reason that we must treat each other in such a way as to obey a law that all of us could accept. This is a categorical imperative which binds us regardless of any empirical circumstances. That is something we know, a priori. We don’t know how it is that we know it but it brings with it an intimation of a world beyond the one on which the eyes are opened. Likewise in aesthetic experience, the experience of art and the beauty of nature especially, we seem to be granted intimations of a world beyond, of a transcendental realm about which we can’t actually speak, but nevertheless of which we can have a certain kind of knowledge. Wittgenstein famously said at the end of his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus that that whereof we cannot speak we must consign to science, but the very sentence contains within it the thought that there IS something whereof we cannot speak. But of course he’s also telling us to shut up about it. A true artist is someone who doesn’t want to shut up about it. He doesn’t want to wrap it up with words, but do something else which provides an intimation of what that thing is that lies beyond the reach of the ordinary understanding. So this doesn’t mean that we have no knowledge of transcendental things, only that it is not a factual knowledge. And this brings me to the idea about which I’ve been asked to talk, which is the idea of the sacred.

At the turn of the century, the anthropologists who had done all that work in Africa and South America, exploring the visions of more primitive people, came up with the view that, indeed, all observed human beings seemed to have a conception of the sacred. And the famous sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who was the son of a rabii, brought up in the Jewish faith, became obsessed with this question: Why is it that all human beings, regardless of their circumstances, have a sense of the sacred? Certain things are set aside, and forbidden, like the Ark of the Covenant, a thing which cannot be touched without some transcendental authority for doing so. These things are surrounded by ritual, in which our bodies are taken over, so to speak, by the collective need for reverence. People are held together in a way they would never be by a mere contract. According to the evolutionists, by these rituals of taboo and purification, people are saving their gene pool, guaranteeing that their genetic inheritance will be passed on. In this way, people have tried to develop a kind of natural science of the sacred, saying this is just like any other experience, it’s there because it promotes the reproduction of the human gene, and that’s all there is to it.

But this natural science of the sacred, I maintain, would never actually satisfy us. Just as we would never be satisfied by a natural science of mathematics, or music. Suppose someone said, the reason why all human beings are mathematical, why we understand these extraordinary truths, such as that two plus two equals four, is that if we didn’t, we would never reproduce, you know, if you can’t add, you won’t multiply. We know that might be true as a scientific explanation, but it doesn’t tell us what mathematics means. And the same is true of music as well, and the same is true of the sacred.

It’s not an instinctual thing, it belongs to our way of thinking about each other; there grows around it a whole system of story-telling and beliefs which gain confirmation from our experience. We know that our sense of the sacred is directed towards the world, is directed towards that one-sided boundary which we cannot cross by ordinary thinking, but we do seem to be able to cross in moments of inspiration and elevation, of the kind that art puts before us. No science of the sacred would ever satisfy us.

Here is a painting, the Virgin and Child by Bellini. To modern people, it isn’t an object of worship. Even for the pious Catholic, perhaps especially for the pious Catholic, it’s not an object of worship. It expresses the sacred without itself being sacred. To worship that painting would be idolatry, wouldn’t it. But to address the Virgin Mother through that painting, and by means of it, is wholly appropriate. Indeed that’s why the artist painted it. But how do we know that it expresses the sacred? We know that there is a sacred story attached to it. But many of us perhaps have difficulty in believing that story, or recognize it as only part of the truth. And anyway, we are prepared to set the story aside, just because of the overwhelming presence in this painting, of the object of our reverence. So the artist is wanting to look beyond what we see, and also see that beyond in what is immediately present. It’s as if that blue of the cloak is in this world, but not of the world — something in which just the mere color is so beautifully presented and so beautifully wrapped around the holy figure itself, the tenderness of the mother is at the very edge of what a mother can reach. Again it’s pointing beyond that one-sided boundary in the same way, the painting is also telling us that there’s something other than what it presents.

Many things have meaning such as my words now, my gestures, there is something else that they mean [that they refer to]. Meaning is a relation. Sentences in language relate to that meaning. But some things have meaning even though there is nothing ELSE that they really mean [or refer to], nothing that you could put into words or that you can say is the meaning of this thing. The meaning of that Bellini painting is the Bellini painting. The meaning of a Beethoven quartet is in the music that you hear but could never be put into words. Many landscapes are like that. We all standing at the one-sided boundary looking out from our limited human perspective towards something which has no limit. To give you a famous example,

in the face of Botticelli’s Venus is embodied a wealth of feeling and ideas. But what are these ideas, what was he trying to say? This is one of the paintings behind which there IS a philosophy and that philosophy was Plato’s idea of the object of desire, that when you focus on the beauty of the other person and your desire is aroused by this, it’s a mistake to think that you are aiming to do something with that person, to unite with that person in the physical way that sexuality prompts us to unite with them; although erotic feeling fixes on the individual it’s actually seeking the transcendental. It can never really be satisfied by the act itself. The essence of each individual which captures the individuality of that thing and tells you why you you love it, you want to be with it, it’s not the individual but the idea of that thing, the transcendental — he takes us up to the boundary and the look of this face, this is what Botticelli who was himself a Platonist, does. He wanted to convey the look that comes from these eyes, from beyond them, from a place that we could never ourselves reach, it comes from a region that we know only in this way. We know it just as as we know it through the experience of prayer, so the meaning in this face, it’s in the face but it’s somehow not of this world.

This brings me to the conception of a sacred place. I’ve just told you about the meaning of the human face and how you can see in the beauty of a human face this sense that there is something beyond it which is revealed to us in it, even if we can’t reach through to it in this world. Likewise, places often have that significance for us. In the story of Moses and the burning bush he has an encounter with something, a strange encounter, he is of course afraid, he doesn’t know what it is that’s addressing him and of course it is a sense that in this place something is happening which doesn’t really HAVE a place in this world, this is one of those points of intersection of the Timeless with time. So he has the question with what am I being presented, what am I encountering here, in the burning bush? And he asks God to define himself. Tell me who you are. And God says, I am that I am. He doesn’t give him any more information except what is contained in the word I, and in other words, here he’s encountered just the very same thing that Botticelli was trying to force us to encounter within the face of his model, that sense of the subjective view of things which is addressing me through those eyes, addressing me from a point beyond, a point that I could never reach. And isn’t that what Moses encountered in the burning bush — that he was being addressed from a point beyond this world, which is like the point of view that each of us has, the point of view of the I that we can never reach through to your I or the ego with which you address me — to do so, I’d have to BE you. So this is a paradigm of an experience that we encounter in many other forms, and we feel as though we’re being addressed by the world. And the true artist is someone who is always stopping to be addressed by things, to recognize that transcendental perspective that has picked him out in the way that God picked out Moses.

We see this in landscape painting. We find a face in the facts of this world, in the transcendental that looks out at me but which I can never reach. You have a place in that landscape, and it also has a place in your heart. This brings me to another way of understanding what the sacred really is for us. We make a distinction, or ought to make a distinction, between consecrating things and desecrating them. It’s one proof that things have a sacred character that we can desecrate them. We live in a world where far too much of what we love and need has been desecrated. Not just the desecration of our cities by thruways and all the rest, but also the desecration of things that really matter to us. The face is one prime target of this. The defacing of the person by pornography and violence in the cinema is something that we’re all familiar with, aren’t we, as if taking attention from the thing that really matters, the thing that Botticelli was trying to show us. Taking attention from that and directing it to the body without the embodied subject that gives it meaning. All of pornography and cinematic violence has that as part of its repertoire. It’s as though people can’t live with the ordinary human face, because judgment comes from that face, and living with judgment is hard. So, to desecrate it, we all have a motive. We have to deface the environment too, with graffiti and garbage, and the clamorous adverts everywhere that put the world on sale. We are all familiar with the great Pacific garbage patch which is the size of Texas.

This is the result of a desecration of the world, the easy way in which we throw things onto what is actually an object of respect and reverence, namely the earth around us. We all know what a real environment which is a home looks like. Of course Venice is a paradigm.

This is a simple little backwater; whatever else you think about it, it’s obviously a home. It’s not only the washing hanging between the buildings that shows this, it’s the architectural forms and the details, and the way things jumbled together in the way that a conversation is jumbled together, fit together with a kind of spiritual affinity, but it’s an ordinary day-to-day sort of place, and you could desecrate it, and every little inch of it is now protected by custom or by law, but you know very well that if you got a modernist architect like Frank Gehry to work on the back streets of Venice, very little of that domestic peace would remain, indeed it would be something shiny and repellent towards the human observer, something which is like a spaceship landed from outer space. The Venice streets teach us about the ordinariness of sacred things.

That’s why we don’t notice them, and why we expose them to desecration. One of the great triumphs of the Roman Catholic Church is to have made the mass into something ordinary as well as extraordinary. It’s something which happens at any moment in a small corner of the city, visited just by two or three old ladies perhaps, and yet is a visitation of the transcendental. In just the same way these old forms of architecture bring the transcendental into this world as an ordinary and day-to-day thing. This is part of what I call the aesthetics of everyday life. We want to fit things together. We don’t do this for ourselves, we do it for other people, and we understand other people as having a face, as does the world that you share. You are both within the envelope and looking out of it. The true artist is always standing on that edge, like Botticelli, learning to see the world with Botticelli’s eyes, learning to see the why of things, why do things look like that. They look like that because that’s the way they look at us, even inanimate things.

We know the world in more than one way. Science explains things. It explains the sacred in terms of its evolutionary potential. Fine, we can accept all that, but that’s not the only way of knowing the world. We also interpret it, as in our moral life, our aesthetic understanding, when we are looking into things with Botticelli’s eyes. So science explains our sense of the sacred in one way, but it won’t understand what it is in itself. This is one of the problems we are living through — people don’t seem to accept that there is any other way of understanding things than the scientific way. And this leads to scientism, which is a kind of systematic misunderstanding of the human world.

OK, let me give you a few tentative conclusions. I think we need to introduce this concept of the sacred in out curriculum in schools. We need to show children from an early age that aesthetic values really matter, that they are part of understanding the world which points beyond itself. We should show where the sacred things are to be found and how we must respect them. I think poets, artists, architects — they find it, and they make it explicit, like Bellini in that painting, or like William Blake in his poetry. Their work also has to be put in the context of ordinary, practical knowledge, knowledge of how to act in ordinary everyday life. That’s why we need to be a little critical in these things, we need to show people how to make judgments about what is beautiful and what is not, what is desecrated by our treatment of it, or on the contrary, consecrated. This criticism isn’t art history or anything like that, it’s putting people directly into relation with works of art, showing the meaningfulness of the things that we ourselves create. I think if we had a curriculum in our schools like that, showing that the sacred and the beautiful are connected, and that they’re both things that could be spoiled, we would bring knowledge into the world that is more and more needed, in this secular time in which we live. You have to open the door to these experiences, make room in the ordinary skeptical mind for this sense that actually, the world has a meaning which is greater than what is revealed through to our ordinary scientific inquiries, but it is revealed directly in an everyday way to all of us, if only we would keep our attention ready for it. Thank you.

Author: Peter Miller

Long-time resident of Kamakura Japan, artist/printmaker (photogravure etchings at, high school in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania U.S.A., college Columbia in New York, PhD (Sociology) Berkeley, consultant at Stanford Research Institute, California U.S.A. Explorer, cultivator of garden, herbal remedies, healthy biome, and common-sense.

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