I’m sharing the second of two excerpts from Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World. Each comes from “Believing in God,” his first chapter, and conveys the challenge of belief in light of reason with the conclusion that what both faith and reason share is an interest in knowledge “beyond the horizon” of our world and a pursuit of transcendent experience. Today’s speaks particularly to the human desire for the sacred and the transcendent, and knowledge and experience which are not properly part of observable nature:

That God is present among us and communicating directly with us is a central claim of the Old Testament. This “real presence” or shekhinah is, however, a mystery. God reveals himself by concealing himself, as he concealed himself from Moses in the burning bush, and as he conceals himself from his worshippers in the Tabernacle (mishkhan) and the Holy of Holies. The nouns shekhinah and mishkhan are both from the verb shakhan, to dwell or settle: sakana in Arabic, from which is derived the noun sakīnah, used here and there in the Koran (e.g., al-Baqara, 2, 248) to describe the peace or comfort that comes from God. Dwelling and settling are the underlying themes of the Torah, which tells the story of the Promised Land, and of the people who finally settle there, to build in Jerusalem the Temple whose design and rituals were given to Moses, and which will be a dwelling place for God. As the narrative makes clear, it is not the chosen people only who are in search of a place to settle: it is God too, who can dwell among them only by being ritually concealed from them. As God says to Moses, no man shall look on my face and live. And the whole tormented story of the relation between God and the chosen people brings home to us the terrible truth, which is that God cannot show himself in this world, except by hiding from those whom he traps into trusting him, as he trapped the Jews. The knowledge of his presence comes with the failure to find him.

Metaphysically speaking, this is what we must expect. It is not just that the intervention of a transcendent God in the world of space and time would be a miracle—though miracles, for reasons made clear by Spinoza and Hume, are not the simple exceptions that their defenders make them out to be. It is rather that it is difficult to make sense of the idea that this, here, now is a revelation of an eternal and transcendental being. A direct personal encounter with God, when God is understood in the philosophical way of Avicenna or Aquinas, is no more possible than a direct personal encounter with the number 2. Now you see through a glass darkly, wrote Saint Paul, but then face-to-face. However, by “then” he meant “beyond the here and now,” in the transcendental realm where God resides. Saint Paul may seem to be denying the hidden nature of God; in fact he is affirming it.

And yet the experience of the “real presence” is at the heart of revealed religion, and foundational to the liturgy and ritual both of the synagogue and of the main Christian churches. It is important to grasp this point. Many of those who currently write against religion (and specifically against the Christian religion) seem to think that faith is simply a matter of entertaining beliefs of a cosmological kind, concerning the creation of the world and the hope of eternal life. And these beliefs are imagined to be in some ways rivals to the theories of physics, and exposed to refutation by all that we know of the evolution of the universe. But the real phenomena of faith are nothing like that. They include prayer and the life of prayer; the love of God and the sense of his presence in the life of the faithful; obedience and submission in the face of temptation and the things of this world; the experience of certain times, places, objects, and words as “sacred,” which is to say, in Durkheim’s phrase, as “set aside and forbidden,” reserved for uses that can be understood only on the assumption that these experiences mediate between this world and another that is not otherwise revealed to us. …

People who are looking for God are not looking for the proof of God’s existence; nor would it help them to be persuaded, say, by Aquinas’s Five Ways, or by Avicenna’s version of the cosmological argument, or by any of those specious arguments that have been doing the rounds in recent years, concerning the improbability that the universe should be just as it is, and there be no God as its creator. They are not looking for arguments but for a subject-to-subject encounter, which occurs in this life, but which also in some way reaches beyond this life. Those who claim to have found God always write or speak in those terms, as having found the intimacy of a personal encounter and a moment of trust. The great witnesses to this—Saint Teresa of Avila, Margery Kempe, Saint John of the Cross, Rumi, Pascal—surely persuade us that one part, at least, of the encounter with God lies in the irruption into consciousness of an intersubjective state of mind, but one that connects with no merely human subject. And included within that state of mind is the sense of reciprocity: the sense of being targeted by the Other, I to I. …

One thing is clear, which is that the old theories of magic, associated with Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Frazer, and the nineteenth-century schools of anthropology, do not explain the sacred. There is a prosaic quality about magic, a here-and-now character, and a practicality too, which have little or nothing in common with the awe-inspiring otherworldliness of sacred things. Consider the examples familiar to us: the Eucharist, and the instruments associated with it; the prayers with which we address God; the Cross, the scroll of the Torah, the pages of the Koran. The faithful approach these things with awe, not because of their magic power, but because they seem to be both in our world, and also out of it—a passage between the immediate and the transcendental. They are both present and absent, like the mishkhan and what it hides from us.

That indeed seems to be a feature of the sacred in all religions. Sacred objects, words, animals, ceremonies, places, all seem to stand at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world, because it belongs in the sphere of the divine, and looking also into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face. Through sacred things we can influence and be influenced by the transcendental. If there is to be a real presence of the divine in this world, it must be in the form of some sacred event, moment, place, or encounter: so at least we humans have believed.

There is truth in Durkheim’s view that sacred things are in some way forbidden. But what is forbidden is to treat a sacred thing as though it belonged in the ordinary frame of nature: as though it had no mediating role. Treating a sacred thing in this day-to-day way is a profanation. One stage beyond profanation is desecration, in which a sacred object is deliberately wrenched from its apartness and trampled on or in some way reduced to its opposite, so as to become mean and disgusting. …

Is there anything that answers to this search for the sacred? Can the eternal be present among us in the way that rewards our search for it? We must not think of this merely as a theological or metaphysical question. For it is a question that inhabits the religious sentiment itself. It is the source of religious doubt and also the challenge offered to faith. …

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. Only when we are sure that this moment of the real presence exists in the human being who experiences it, can we then ask the question whether it is or is not a true revelation—a moment not just of faith but of knowledge…