The Face of God
by Roger Scruton
Continuum, 200 pages, $27.95
The search for God can take two paths: outward and into the world, in pursuit of the cause of causes, or inward and into oneself, in pursuit of life’s meaning. The Christian supposition is that these paths have the same destination, which is Jesus of Nazareth.
How can we be certain that these two paths really do lead to a destination, let alone the same one? Philosophers ancient and modern have doubted this, and in The Face of God, based on his 2010 Gifford Lectures, Roger Scruton suggests that we can find God’s presence in the world only if we attend to the nature and significance of human community. We doubt the reality of God, he argues, because modern life is rootless and its values are inhumane, which prevents us from perceiving our world as a gift and therefore from acknowledging the real presence of the giver.
Scruton contends that it is not the facile argument of the Dawkinses and Dennetts that dissolves religious belief but a culture that treats persons as if they were mere things and reduces aspirations to brute desires. God is denied because the face of the human person has already been blotted out. The atheism that interests Scruton is therefore not just the denial of a metaphysical proposition; it is the flight from judgment and responsibility that is a symptom of moral disorder and self-alienation.
But Scruton insists, “Like the spouse in a sacramental marriage, God is unavoidable, or avoidable only by creating a void. This void opens before us when we destroy the face—not the human face only, but also the face of the world. The godless void is what confronts us, when our surroundings are defaced.”
Although he seems reluctant to acknowledge it unblinkingly, Scruton’s project is a recapitulation of nineteenth-century idealism, in which God and sacredness are explained in terms of man’s self-realization and philosophical theology must begin with an account of properly human nature. But to describe Scruton’s project in this way makes it seem less interesting than it actually is, and in fact his observations have much to recommend them, even to orthodox Christians who would reject his immanentizing tendencies. If man is God’s image and likeness and those who receive the grace won by Christ are “divinized” through adoption as sons of God, human nature and community are instances of God’s presence in the world.
Scruton starts from the observation that being present to another as a person both empowers and restricts us, opening us up to the prospect of love but also subjecting us to the authority of obligation. The humane spheres of family, neighborhood, and church are outgrowths of our capacity for personal relations, and the patterns of behavior, affect, and judgment displayed in these spheres are distinctive and precarious achievements that mark off human from merely animal existence.
When God reveals himself to Moses, he refers to himself in the first person: “I am that I am.” This revelation, Scruton says, tells us that “God is a person, an agent, and an ‘I.’” It implies that the question “what and where am I, in the world of objects?” is a “necessary preliminary” to the question “what and where is God?” But for Scruton, once the question “what and where am I?” has been answered, there is nothing more to the question of God’s presence. “God is understood not through metaphysical speculations concerning the ground of being, but through communion with our fellow humans.”
Classical philosophical theology reasons from the contingency of beings to the noncontingent ground of being, which explains why contingent things have the natures they do, given that they could have been otherwise. This necessary ground of being is God, and he exists whether or not there are human beings to commune with each other.
Scruton does not want to reject this strategy outright, but his allegiance to Kantian presuppositions about objectivity and subjectivity forces him to reinterpret it. Assuming that only empirical science provides objective causal explanation, he recasts the traditional metaphysical argument for God’s existence as noncausal and subjective, contrasting the “why?” of causal explanation and the “why?” of rational interpretation.
Thus God is not the causa causarum but the ratio rationum. Whereas Plato, Aristotle, and their scholastic successors would understand the rational interpretation of a person’s actions as an instance of causal explanation, Scruton works within a kind of dualism in which reasons and values are divorced from causes and explanations.
To say, as Scruton does, that God is the reason for existence but not its cause means that “God” has been redefined to make his presence compatible with a materialistic picture of the world as a causally closed sequence of events. This allows us to speak about events as God’s will without “describing it as a miraculous intervention, and we can accept Hume’s skepticism about miracles, while acknowledging God’s presence as an agent in space and time.”
Scruton thinks that the importance of the first-person perspective lies here. The first-person plural, or community, “enables us to bridge the gap opened by the [metaphysical] arguments of the philosophers, and to find the transcendental God that is allegedly proved by those arguments as a real presence in our world.”
Culture consists in “the external forms of our inner freedom—the social networks, institutions, and laws; works of art, buildings, and landscapes that are the face of our world.” Religion arises when “we extend this way of relating beyond the society of our fellows to the whole of nature, finding subjectivity enfolded, as it were, in the world around us.”
This extension of humane experience to the world as a whole is the “real presence” of God. By adopting a posture of communion with existence, “as a subjective view that takes in the world as a whole,” we can redeem ourselves, for from “this view from nowhere we are judged, as we are judged by every ‘I’ that turns its face to us.”
You need not accept Scruton’s proposal for romantic self-redemption in order to appreciate the deep truth in his diagnosis of the human condition. As he observes, modern life constantly threatens those humane spheres that are the external forms of our inner freedom. The cold, utilitarian logic of the state and the market treats people as preference-satisfaction maximizers, equally manipulable by statist central planners and corporate profiteers. Various strains of biologism—first Freud and Kinsey, now evolutionary psychology—have tried to reduce judgment and emotion to animal drives or the “reproductive strategies” of our genes.
Also threatening those humane spheres have been the celebration of lust and sentimentality in the arts and the rise of mass pornography as a form of entertainment, as well as the pollution of the natural and built environment. Lust objectifies its subject by redirecting erotic desire away from its proper object, and the faceless glass-and-concrete boxes of modern architecture and urban planning destroy the classical vernacular through which communities settled themselves.
The cumulative effect of these assaults is the blurring of the distinction between man and animal, between person and object. It is possible to speak of “defacing” our institutions and surroundings because, as human beings, we remake where we settle in our own image—plants become a garden, stones become a building, sounds become a song, and pigments become a painting. All this is possible, Scruton shows, because, as persons who can relate “I” to “you,” human beings rise above the merely causal and material order.
Even in attacking the all-important distinction between persons and objects, its modern opponents perversely reaffirm it. As Scruton observes, “Only what is sacred can be desecrated. Hence the habitual desecration of death and sexual love are, I venture to suggest, proofs of their sacred nature.” In a culture that is, as he puts it, “in full flight from the sacred,”
the practice of desecration becomes a kind of moral necessity—something that must be constantly performed, and performed collectively, in order to destroy the things that stand in judgment over us. All around us, therefore, we find a relentless habit of “objectification”: the display of human beings and their settlements as objects to be consumed and disposed of, the reduction of sex to a relation between body parts, and the display of death in images of crazed destruction.
As phenomenological descriptions, Scruton’s observations are rarely off the mark, and he illustrates his arguments with insightful and typically compelling analyses of paintings, sculptures, buildings, and photographs. Scruton is a winsome and epigrammatic writer, and The Face of God retains the graceful cadence of a lecture addressed to an educated but nonspecialist audience.
The deep flaw that compromises the book is its underlying scientism. Scruton recognizes that attempts to account for the human mind and agency purely in terms of science lead to neurobabble, evolutionary “just so” stories, and other nonsense. This should lead him to reconsider science’s imperial claims over causality and explanation and to subordinate empirical science to metaphysics. Instead, he attempts to concede the truth of scientism while saving God and humane experience as projections that somehow or other “emerge” from the lives of us hairy bipeds.
But God and humane experience don’t really survive the idealist salvation that Scruton offers them. Consider his discussion of the “true meaning” of the Christian Eucharist, which consists in “the community of believers” and not the substantial presence of Christ in the consecrated host on the altar. “There is a mysterious feeling of unity that is experienced by the worshippers at this moment—the moment of the sacrament, when what is given is also received, but received in another form.”
Must there be this feeling? What happens when you’d rather sleep in on Sunday morning, the kids are fighting in the pews, or the choir is bleating out the latest kitsch from Marty Haugen?
The ordinary believer could not sustain his participation in the Eucharist if he came to understand the significance of his liturgical prayer as Scruton does. Participation in the Eucharist may indeed renew the bonds of communal membership, as Durkheim observed, but it can do this only indirectly.
The unity of the congregation follows from its shared object, which is the worship of God. Community, like friendship, is illusive if sought directly, and it arises only when people stand side by side in pursuit of a common goal. This is the ugly lesson of the liturgical chaos that has plagued Christian worship and sacred music since the 1960s. If you want to celebrate the community of believers in the congregation, then seek Christ on the altar.
Scruton remarks that the Eucharist is best explained “through a work of art, as Wagner did in Parsifal,” and he concludes The Face of God with a searching meditation on Wagner’s musical depiction of sacrifice in The Ring of the Nibelung. Like many people, I find Wagner’s music moving. But what his music moves are my emotions, not my will. It was Wagner’s project to compose operas that could replace Christian belief and practice.
This project had to fail because music, even when presented within the Gesamtkunstwerk of opera, is essentially passive; it leaves the will untouched and provides no program of action. Scruton’s conception of religion is similarly spectatorial, and it could not survive its own self-understanding. True religion, however, is essentially active, because God desires love, mercy, and obedience, not sacrifice.
Matthew B. O’Brien received his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and has taught at Rutgers and Villanova.
Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our January 2013 issue.