Psalm 100, Science, Progress, and Human Rights

Roger Scruton on regaining his religion:

I am sometimes known for offering somewhat strange titles to my articles, and today’s piece is no exception it seems. But it does in fact make sense. Just yesterday I shared a number of incisive quotations from Roger Scruton’s 2005 memoir, Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (Continuum, 2005). That piece is found here:

When posting that article I realised that there were so many more valuable quotes that I could have shared. Indeed, in the closing pages of his closing chapter on religion, he has an extended meditation on Psalm 100 which is well worth sharing. It is found on pages 233-239 of the book, and here I want to share most of that with you. But first let me offer you the full psalm that he discusses:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
    Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the Lord, he is God!
    It is he who made us, and we are his;[a]
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise!
    Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

It is from these five brief verses that Scruton makes his case for the sort of world we should be aiming for instead of the world that we now find ourselves living in. What follows then are the words of Scruton:

Image of Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life
Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life by Scruton, Roger (Author) Amazon logo

Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm….

Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature – these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops….

The psalmist is also reminding us that we did not create ourselves, nor did we create the world in which we live. Such is the presumption of modern science that it strives to deny even this evident truth. Scientists are endeavouring to unravel the secret of creation, so as to take charge of it and to turn it in some new direction. This project – hailed by all forward-looking people as promising the final victory over disease, suffering and even death itself – was foretold and rejected by Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World. Huxley’s message was really a religious one. If human beings ever unlock their own genetic code, he foretold, they will use this knowledge to escape the chains of nature. But having done so, they will bind themselves in chains of their own.

The chains of nature are those that God created. They are called reason, freedom, morality and choice. The human chains foretold by Huxley are of a quite different composition: they are made entirely of flesh and the pleasures of the flesh. They bind so tightly that reason, choice and moral judgement can find no chink in which to grow and corrode them. So completely do they encircle the human soul that it shrinks to a tiny dot within the organism. There is no suffering in the Brave New World; no pain or doubt or terror. Nor is there happiness. It is a world of reliable and undemanding pleasures, from which the causes of suffering have been banished, and with them all striving, all hope, and all joy.

But love is a cause of suffering; so too are freedom, judgement and choice. Hence these things too will disappear from the Brave New World. As a result, confronted with the inhabitants of this world, we do not recognize ourselves. We instinctively reject this new form of life as monstrous, inhuman, meaningless. And that is because we seek in vain for God’s image, in a world where man has presumed to be in charge.…

To return, however, to the Hundredth Psalm. The right course for those sheep who have strayed into unknown territory is to go back through the hole in the hedge. This is the essence of the religious life: not progress and experiment, but the journey back to the place that protects us. It is a mark of our sinful nature that those who advocate this course are so often sneered at. Yet there is a way back to those cooling streams, which can be rediscovered at any time.

I don’t mean to imply that the conservation of nature is the answer to original sin. But I do mean to suggest that the truth that is being brought home to us in the sphere of ecology applies equally to the rest of human life. The General Confession tells us that ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, and thereby implies that the ways to which we are called are part of our nature and our destiny, and not to be improved upon. If you ponder the many ways in which people have recently tried to improve on the human condition – from sexual liberation to modernist architecture, and from television to junk food – you will surely come to see how true is that ancient vision of the sheep-like nature of humanity.

We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights.

The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it.

But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame. Misfortune becomes an injustice, and a ground for compensation. Hence our world is full of hatred – hatred for the other, who has got what is mine. Look at contemporary art, literature and music and you will find in much of it a singular joylessness, a revulsion towards human life. This revulsion is the inevitable reward of those who think only of what is owed to them, and not of what they owe.

That is why the psalmist enjoins us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude. ‘O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.’ Once we have made the decision to turn back to the ways of duty, gratitude will flow naturally into us, and – so the psalmist reminds us – gratitude is the precondition of joy. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well-being are not rights but gifts.

A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth. And that is why it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them?

Where there is no gratitude there is no love. Conversely, a world in which there is love is a world in which the good things of life are seen as privileges, not rights. It is a world where you are aware of the good will of others, and where you respond to that good will with a reciprocal bounty, giving what is in your power to give, even if it is only praise.

That is why we should say, even in the midst of suffering, that the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting. After all, we might not have existed; precisely because we are finite, created beings, we endure from moment to moment by God’s grace. It is not through our own efforts that we attain peace but through the great endowment of good will, which lays down for us commands that only a free being can obey. That is what is meant by ‘everlasting mercy’: not the constant forgiveness of sins, but the maintenance of an order in which free choice can guide our conduct, even through suffering and hardship.

However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom, since this is not the way of the flesh. Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God. This knowledge breaks through the barrier of time, and places us in contact with the eternal. Hence the psalmist concludes by telling us of God that ‘his truth endureth from generation to generation’.

Discovering this truth, we encounter what is permanent – or rather what is beyond time and change, the eternal peace that serves as the divine template, so to speak, for our brief homecomings here on earth. When we take those tentative backward steps that I mentioned earlier, trying to restore this or that little precinct of our mutilated Eden, we are creating icons of another pasture, outside time and space, where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.

[1747 words]

7 Replies to “Psalm 100, Science, Progress, and Human Rights”

  1. Thank you so much, Bill, for sharing with your readers — especially in your posts of the past five days — selections from the writings of:

    T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), the American-English Christian poet, playwright and literary critic

    Christopher Lasch (1932–1994), the American historian and social commentator

    Roger Scruton (1944–2020), the English Christian conservative philosopher

    These three writers were intellectual giants.

    Every conservative Christian should acquaint themselves with their writings.

  2. I really identify with Roger Scruton. He seems so wise and gentle. I will obtain this book. He reminds me of Watchman Nee who is also able to convey the truths of the Scriptures with clarity. I felt a little sad when I first learnt of his passing as I recognised a great writer and human being. Thanks, Bill, for your book reviews.

  3. I agree with Russell Guy.

    I, too, readily identify with the late Roger Scruton.

    It’s partly owing to the fact that I was born and spent my childhood in England.

    I understand and share deeply Scruton’s lament at that once great country’s deterioration as it’s discarded so much of its Christian heritage.

    The other reasons I admire Scruton are his moral courage, his accurate diagnosis of the problems of our times, and his gift of being able to write so lucidly about complex philosophical, cultural and political issues.

  4. Thank you for this article, I am in tears of joy. Your writing about Rodger Scruton’s outlook has instilled the conviction of God in my soul. Happiness comes from gratitude! I will meditate on Psalm 100 and this freedom all day. God has used you to blessed me today.

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