Till We Contemplate Faces

The Face of God

‘[In] the culture that prevails today… belief in God is widely rejected… But… we lose [more than merely it]… when we lose that belief… [because] atheist culture… is not only an intellectual phenomenon… but also a moral phenomenon…[While] atheists can be thoroughly upright people… there is more than one motive underlying… atheist culture… and the desire to escape from the eye of judgment is one of them. You escape from the eye of judgment by wiping away the face [of God].’

In these opening remarks from his 2010 Gifford Lectures, Roger Scruton suggests something more, and more worrisome, than mere changes of prevailing belief are  impelling the West’s current headlong rush towards ever greater secularity. What lies behind it, he intimates, is not simply the intellectual repudiation of God’s existence, but rather an attempt by many to evade the moral corollaries attendant upon its acknowledgement. Among these corollaries, the one from which many are seeking to escape, Scruton is claiming, is the consciousness of always being scrutinized by an all-seeing eye who discerns and judges our every thought and deed. The salutary moral influence of such a form of consciousness was well described by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, when he wrote:

The idea that, however we may escape the observation of man, or be placed above the reach of human punishment, yet we are always acting under the eye… of God… is a motive capable of restraining the most headstrong passions… The religious man… never acts deliberately but as in the presence of that Great Superior who is finally to recompense him according to his deeds. [Part 111, ch. 5, section 12.]

To evade recognition of that all-seeing eye, contends Scruton, demands expunging all trace of God from our world, and since God’s presence may be detected, at least potentially, wherever beauty and goodness reside, whatever possesses either attribute must be defaced by those seeking to evade Him. The result today, according to Scruton, is the increasing defilement and pollution of our physical and moral world in the endeavor to remove from the face of the earth all trace of God.

Atheists, of course, will deny anything save error becomes lost when religion is abandoned.  Scruton disagrees, although he acknowledges individual atheists may possess as much moral integrity as believers. His account of what else is lost besides belief along with religion is complex and subtle. It involves his making several wide-ranging forays into subjects as various as art, music, architecture, socio-biology, philosophy, and, last but not least, religion itself. The result is a set of profound meditations whose primary subject is the phenomenology of personhood, inter-personal relations, and numinal experiences. He combines them en passant with an acute and characteristically acerbic critique of contemporary consumerist culture that should pose a challenge to all free-marketeers. While his is not the most readily accessible recent treatment of these subjects, as ever Scruton’s is highly original, often deeply insightful, and never less than always thought-provoking.

Scruton’s first task is to dispose of the atheist’s denial of any reason to postulate God, natural science, in his view being able, at least in principle, to explain everything as fully as anything admits of one. Scruton’s riposte is that, while science might well be able to supply an adequate causal explanation of every occurrence and feature of the world, it neither can, nor endeavors, to supply any reason why the world should contain these things, where by ‘reason’ is meant a purpose, sense or meaning, and not cause. Scruton further observes that to want to know why the world exists in the form it does in any of these latter senses of the word ‘reason’ is a perfectly natural and legitimate human aspiration, one that science can never satisfy. As he puts it:

It is in the nature of consciousness to ask other kinds of “why?” from those posed by the scientist. We are not satisfied with the “why?” of causal explanation… We are troubled by the “why?” of reason, and also by the “why?” of meaning. What reason is there for the world’s existence, and what does this existence mean? The “ why” of reason is… seeking an account that removes the paradox of an entirely law-governed world, open to consciousness, that is nevertheless without an explanation: that just is, for no reason at all.

To know why the world exists, and has the general form it does, in the latter senses of the term is coextensive with what the ancient Greeks understood by sophia, by which expression they understood intellectual wisdom, as opposed to the practical variety (which they called phronesis). As the ancient Greeks conceived of philosophy, it was nothing but a search for such wisdom. Moreover, save in the case of the sceptics, all the ancient Greek philosophers, above all Plato and Aristotle, believed not only that its acquisition was a perfectly legitimate aspiration, but also one they, and other like-minded thinkers, had accomplished through philosophical enquiry, culminating in their knowledge that the reason the world existed in the broad form it did was because it had been so ordered by a divine intelligence, whom Aristotle, and occasionally Plato, had no hesitation in calling God.

Being the erudite philosopher that he is, Scruton is fully aware this was their view, as well as that of many other ancient and medieval thinkers and theologians. Indeed, in one of its many versions, namely, that advanced by Avicenna, Scruton even seems prepared to acknowledge the validity of a variant of the cosmological argument that yields as its conclusion the existence of a necessary being, answering in terms of its other equally as demonstrable attributes, to much of the traditional description of God.

Yet for all that, Scruton remains profoundly dissatisfied with such an immutable unmoved Mover as posited by Aristotle and the like. Scruton explains the source of his dissatisfaction with such a far-removed and detached God when he writes:

The “God of the philosophers” is… one whose nature and being… [makes] it hard to envisage how such a being… could intervene in the world… We seem… forever and irremediably cut off from him… And how can we relate to such a God: how can we love him or know that he loves us in return?  If we resolve the tension between the theistic and the scientific worldview [by following their route to God] … the danger is that we end up with an unknowable and unlovable God – since only what is knowable can be truly loved. And if that is so, how can we obey the two great commandments, to love God and our neighbour as ourselves… on which “hang all the law and prophets”? … ‘[T]he problem arises… because we have set out to prove God’s existence from purely abstract premises, and without reference to how things are in the empirical world.

Given Scruton rejects the adequacy of traditional natural theology, his conviction that, without acknowledgement of God, defacement and defilement of the world become all too tempting and ubiquitous leads him to try and find some alternative basis on which God may be restored to the human frame of reference, one that will make our interaction with Him both possible and even regular. Scruton locates such a basis in human community with all that it presupposes and entails. He writes:

Religions exist and endure in part because they offer membership… By signing up to the doctrine [of some faith] you are incorporated into the community [which shares it]… It is this connection with the community that enables us… to find the transcendental God…as a real presence in our world…We can reconcile the God of the philosophers with the God who is worshipped and prayed to… provided we see that this God is understood, not through metaphysical speculations… but through communion with our fellow humans… We can justify this [claim]… by exploring more fully the meaning of three critical words: ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘why’?

The bulk of Scruton’s book is given over to exploring their meaning in the course of which he constructs what he calls ‘a general theory of the face: the face of the person, the face of the world, and the face of God’. He indicates how what the three terms designate are bound up with one another, when of God he asks and responds to his question:

Where do we find him and how? The ghost of an answer… is th[at] God is a person, and he reveals himself as persons do, through a dialogue involving those three critical words, “I”, “you” and “why?”.

Scruton’s first task is to lay to rest the notion, now popular in Anglophonic philosophy, that human beings are not ghosts in a machine, but rather simply machines — in other words, complex physical systems whose inner mental life is either an idle epiphenomenon of the brain or worse still a primitive fiction. Scruton rightly will have no truck with any of these currently fashionable forms of reductive materialism. He disposes of them thus:

Imagine what it would be like to replace our ordinary ways of understanding human action with the theories of some future neuroscience… The result would inevitably undermine the use of our three metaphysical words. We would all be condemned to a third-person view of ourselves and others… Each person would become a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, and no I or you would remain. We would be able to describe our mental condition only by investigating our brains, and the give and take of reasons [for and against our actions] between you and me would [disappear], since it depends on first person privilege[d access to such reasons]… With it would disappear the possibility of inter-personal relations… In short the neuroscience would be left with nothing of interest to explain… [thereby implying] that our way of representing the human world is not replaceable by neuroscience…

The third-person point of view of natural science has no place for subjectivity or personhood. Consequently, Scruton infers, it has no place for God either, should God also be a person. Yet if God is one, Scruton further suggests, there is scope for us entering into a similar dialogic relation with Him. He writes:

 God disappears from the world, as soon as we address it with the “why?” of explanation, just as the human person disappears… when we look for the neurological explanation of  his acts. So maybe God is a person like us…Maybe we shall find him… only if we cease to invoke him with the “why?” of cause, and address him with the “why?” of reason instead…God… is present in our world in the same sense that we are: as a subject. And when we attribute an event to his will, we are saying that there is a reason for it, and that reason is God’s answer to our question “why?” … We are not describing it as a miraculous intervention… while   acknowledging God’s presence as an agent in space and time.

There is, of course, a clear palpable difference between human persons and the divine person God is should God be one. The former persons have discernible bodies and explain the reasons for their actions to one another in face-to-face exchanges. God, should He exist, would be incorporeal. How genuine two-way dialogue might still be possible between God and man is something that Scruton begins to make clear after first examining the purely human variety of I-Thou dialogic relation. For these, the human face is the principal medium through which human persons gain access to one another’s subjectivity. Scruton writes:

The science of the human being has no real use for faces… it does not acknowledge  the thing that makes faces so important to us – namely, that they are the outward form and image of the soul, the lamp lit in our world by the subject behind. It is through understanding the face that we begin to see how it is that subjects make themselves known in the world of objects…The face, for us, is an instrument of meaning, and mediates between self and other in ways that are special… Seeing a face as a face means going beyond the physical features… to a whole that emerges from them… and which is… both a visitation and a transcendence…. When I read a face I am in some way acquainting myself with the way things seem to another person.

There are ways people may acknowledge and respect the subjectivity and personhood of others, as there are ways of relating to others that deny and disparage their personhood. Before proceeding, by way of considering the face of the earth, Scruton takes a swipe at the innumerable ways he claims contemporary consumerist culture has begun to defame and deface the human person. He writes:

In pornography the face has no role to play, other than to be subjected to the empire of the body… A parallel development can be witnessed in the world of… [f]ashion models and pop stars [who] tend to display faces that are withdrawn, scowling and closed… [T]he fashion-model’s face is… characterised by an almost metaphysical vacancy, as though there is no soul inside…The growth of the pornographic culture… is a crime against humanity… th[e] first stage on the road to desecration… in which the face disappears, and the human being disintegrates into an assemblage of body parts.

Something similar, and no less heinous, Scruton claims has lately been happening on connection with humankind’s treatment of the natural and man-made environment. These too have been defiled and defaced, he argues, by a widespread disregard and disrespect for the subjectivity and personhood of the humans who inhabit them. Scruton never waxes more lyrical than when deploring what he sees going on all around him. Here he is in full flight on this subject:

 Graffiti are acts of aggression against the public realm, ways of ‘defacing’ it… Something similar should be said about fast food. This does not merely wipe out the place (the shared meal) in which aesthetic values enter daily life and order it, but also leaves a trail of packaging and waste across the surface of the world… It desecrates townscapes and landscapes with childish logos… that reinforce the message that eating takes place outside society… [away] from the world of obligations…

Beauty is the face of the community, and ugliness the attack on that face…[H]oardings and bill-boards desecrate the public spaces that contain them…[R]ecent developments [in architecture] involve an assault not only on the façade, but on the whole idea of public space…Townscapes built from such architecture resemble land-fill sites – scattered heaps of plastic junk where no-one settles… What all such examples show… is that environmental degradation comes in  just the same way that moral degradation comes, through de-facing things – representing people and places in impersonal ways, objects to be used rather than as subjects to be respected.

At this point in his argument, Scruton anticipates his reader raising the following objection:

 T]he physical environment is only an object or collection of objects…. [T]o think that there is a spirit in the things around us… is at best a metaphor, at worst a superstition.

Scruton declines to follow his reader here. His reason for disagreeing leads straight to the place where the face of God finally appears on the scene as Scruton invites us to envisage it. ‘Is it,’ asks Scruton, ‘so simple’ as his imaginary interlocutor supposes? He answers: no.

When the world looks back at me… as it does in aesthetic experience, it is also addressing me in another way…What is being revealed to me in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being – the truth that being is a gift, and receiving it a task… Hence our exploration of the face of the earth guides us to… [my] real topic which is the face of God.

When the final denouement comes by Scruton disclosing how the face of God may be discerned, many will be surprised by the simplicity of the disclosure. He writes:

We receive the world as a gift, by relating it to… the primordial “I” in which each thing occurs as a free thought… [T]his is the message of religion in all its forms…Aquinas argued that… God wills the being of things – that [this] is what his love consists in… The Hindus believe that… we can find our way to the subjectivity of objects, so as to understand each being… a manifestation of the atman, theself of the world”… Being then makes sense…  not as mere being… but as “being given”… Being, for the religious person… is a gift, not a fact… Hence the world, and the objects contained in it, come before the religious consciousness as the signs of another perspective – the perspective that has “given these things to me”… That perspective… is hidden from us in the way every other “I” is hidden. But like those other “I”s  it can appear in our world as a real presence. The gathering together of the [religious] community in the moment of thanks prepares the way for this.

It is, thus, primarily through their rituals and ceremonies, especially, in Scruton’s view, those marking rites of passage, that religious communities serve to facilitate the discernment of God’s face. During these moments, above all, claims Scruton, during  the Christian Eucharist, being becomes most clearly understood as a divine gift.

By this late stage in the proceedings, so seemingly enamoured has Scruton become of the idea that it is primarily through religious community that the face of God becomes discernible that he seems willing to abandon his earlier apparent disavowal of miracles: ‘We can accept Hume’s scepticism about miracles, while acknowledging God’s presence as an agent in space and time.’  The full panoply of Christian mysteries is embraced by Scruton, certainly, the Incarnation at least, when he writes:

The Eucharist commemorates God’s supreme gift… of himself – his own descent into the world… God, in the person of Christ … [became] present among us… [and] by making himself available for suffering… could make a gift of himself… a sacrifice that points to salvation by showing that sacrifice is what life on earth is all about.

Bearing in mind that the reason Scruton opted for the communal route to God was to make God’s face more readily discernible than did the arguments for theism advanced by the ancients, plus the fact that the idea of the Incarnation is, as Scruton puts it, ‘every bit as puzzling and mysterious as the one that it sets out to explain’ [ -viz. the idea that God’s face can become manifest at all], it is equally as puzzling why Scruton should describe ‘the Christian view of the matter the one that gives greatest insight into our situation’.

Perhaps, finally, precisely which of God’s faces anyone ever discerns is primarily a matter of their acculturation and religious upbringing. Whatever the cause and merits of Scruton’s final opting for Christianity, he seems certainly correct when he concludes by remarking:

We should not be surprised… if God is so rarely encountered now. The consumer culture… [by] rearranging the world as an object of appetite obscures its meaning as gift… It is inevitable, therefore, that moments of sacred awe should be rare among us. And it is surely this, rather than the arguments of the atheists, that has led to the decline of religion… I think we are none of us at ease with the result… By remaking human beings and their habitat as objects to consume rather than subjects to revere we invite the[ir] degradation… Postmodern people will deny that their disquiet at these things has a religious meaning. But I hope that my argument has gone some way to showing that they are wrong.

It most certainly has done. Scruton is to be applauded for having made out such a strong case for that thesis, whatever minor quibbles anyone might have with its details. In light of the challenge it poses to some of their most favored institutions, it is surely time for lovers of the free society and its multifarious benefits to begin to address some of the excesses to which freedom leads, when not moderated by religion.

David Conway is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster-based social policy think-tank Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society which he joined in 2004 and where he worked full-time as a senior research fellow for five years, after leaving academia following a thirty year career teaching Philosophy at various British universities. Professor Conway's numerous publications include A Farewell to Marx; Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal; Free Market Feminism; The Rediscovery of Wisdom; In Defence of the Realm; A Nation of Immigrants? A Brief Demographic History of Britain; and Liberal Education and the National Curriculum.

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  1. Frederick says

    Which raises the question as to the real nature of the Divine.
    What if the Divine is a mirror that does not intrinsically reflect anything?
    What then is it that we are seeing when we see our own faces in such a mirror?
    Our own self-image – narcissus gazing at his beloved image in the pond.

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