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A General Theory of the Face as Natural Theology
on 16 July 2013
(This review first appeared in Philosophia Christi 15.1 , 208ff.)
In this published version of the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of St Andrews in 2010, Roger Scruton, the British writer, philosopher and self-proclaimed skeptical Anglican, argues for theistic belief via the face. Scruton's thesis appears in the final paragraph of Chapter 1. He states: "I shall argue that we can reconcile the God of the philosophers with the God who is worshipped and prayed to by the ordinary believer, provided we see that this God is understood not through metaphysical speculations concerning the ground of being, but through communion with our fellow humans (21)". He goes on to construct "a general theory of the face: the face of the person, the face of the world, and the face of God (21)". That said, humankind's response is to "destroy the face (1)", and this in an attempt "to escape from the eye of judgment (2)".
Scruton begins with the scientific worldview via Richard Dawkins, the Big Bang theory and Immanuel Kant, but finds the scientific worldview wanting. He then considers two responses: Richard Swinburne's version of the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe and Stephen Hawking's version of Brandon Carter's weak anthropic principle, but finds these similarly wanting. After a brief discussion of the Newtonian world, the theory of relativity and Quantum mechanics, Scruton concludes "that while science has closed the gap between the world and our knowledge, it has also dissolved the world in the knowledge. By becoming knowable the world has ceased to be imaginable (8)".
Turning to Aristotle, Avicenna, and then Aquinas, Scruton argues for a "relation of dependence that binds the world to God (13)", and this in distinction to a causal relation. The issue here, however, is that, "place[d] outside the world of empirical particulars (15)", God becomes unknowable. Scruton thus turns from philosophy to the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Following Durkheim, Scruton argues "that belief is a form of membership (16)", and that it is "received from a community (19)". And it is here, in the community, with its practice of communion, that we come face to face with God.
In Chapter 2, "The View from Somewhere," Scruton moves from God's presence to God's personal revelation. He notes: "God is a person, and he reveals himself as persons do, through a dialogue involving three critical words, `I', `you' and `why?' (23)". The bulk of the chapter is concerned with the third of these words. Scruton explains: "The question `why?' lifts our actions out of the realm of cause and effect and places them squarely in the realm of reasons and goals (38)". Advocating an implicit personalism, he argues over and against the evolutionary account for human distinctiveness and freedom, a freedom not found in the world of objects. "Freedom," Scruton says, "is bound up with the first person perspective (49)". In Chapter 3, he shifts from God's presence to the question: "what and where am I, in the world of objects? That question," says Scruton, "is a necessary preliminary to the question of God's presence (52)". And the answer to that question is found in freedom, action and accountability. We, like God, are present in the world as a subject, a subject who acts and makes itself known through the face.
In Chapter 4, Scruton explores the face as "an instrument of meaning", arguing that it "mediates between self and other (75)", a sort of visitation "from a place beyond it (74)". The face is flesh and spirit (i.e., "the vehicle for subjectivity", 81), a means of being present to the world. Here, Scruton considers various phenomena including the kiss, smiles, looks, laughter, tears, blushes, masks, as well as the face and human sexuality, the latter no doubt drawing upon his Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (Continuum, 2006). A discussion of human sexuality in terms of desire and hunger follows. Sexual hunger and its resulting perversions (e.g., rape, pornography, voyeurism, etc.), perversions that deface and desecrate the sacred, occupy Scruton's attention for the remainder of the chapter.
In Chapter 5, Scruton moves on to consider the face of the earth (i.e., the built environment), and more specifically, sacred places. He explains: "The sacred place is a place that has been signaled out by suffering or sacrifice, by revelation or prayer (116)". But he is not interested in the place per se, but in "the emotions and motives that lead us to respect some place as holy or in some related way protected from violation (117)". And for Scruton, this emotion has everything to do with "what it means to be in the world, and in dialogue with it (118)". Here, Scruton discusses the Israelites and the Promised Land, the Temple, the human body, architecture, and the environmental movement. In relation to the latter, he notes: "The earth ... has its own subjectivity (126)". He continues: "Just as the subject appears in the human face, and lays before the assassin and the abuser the absolute `no', so does an observing, questing, interrogating `I' appear in the sacred place, and command us to respect it (127)". Returning to Kant, Scruton addresses the judgment of beauty and aesthetic value, suggesting that aesthetic experience is a sort of "face-to-face encounter with the world (132)". He goes on to consider beauty along the lines of his Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) before concluding the chapter with a sort of broad sacramentalism. The face of the earth leads us to the face of God, the subject of his final chapter. There, Scruton identifies humanity's condition as one of existential loneliness (i.e., as other to the other), one for which grace is the only remedy.
In some ways, Scruton fits in with the "gallery of figures" canvased in Aidan Nichols A Grammar of Consent (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), Scruton's general theory of the face beings yet another experiential cue pointing towards the existence of God. The book takes its place alongside works such as David Brown's God and Enchantment of Place (Oxford University Press, 2004), but stands alone in its unique and extended consideration of the face.
Positively, two things: 1) The book covers a wide array of material, and this without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. 2) His engagement with the visual arts and the accompanying figures throughout the book are especially helpful.
Negatively, two things: 1) While Scruton's project is generally concerned with theism (i.e., as opposed to Christian theism), his conclusion oversteps this boundary by implying particularity. Two examples should suffice, Scruton's use of the designations "grace" and "the transcendental `I AM'". Regarding the former, Scruton states: "The separation between the self-conscious being and his world .... can be remedied only by grace (153)". But I wonder what "grace" means divorced from a specifically Christian context. A bit further on, Scruton explains that "grace" is wrapped up with "receiv[ing] the world as gift (169)". He argues: "In the religions that are familiar to us, the idea of grace is of fundamental importance .... The idea that the world is sustained by gift is second nature to religious people (169)". But it seems as though Scruton is borrowing a bit too much too soon from Christian theism here. Regarding the latter (i.e., "the transcendental `I AM'"), he states: "For the religious being ... redemption is an emancipation from the things of this world, and an identification with a transcendental `I AM' (156)". This designation is especially problematic, being simultaneously (non)specific. As such, it goes too far, and yet not far enough. Scruton wants to root religions in "the communities of the faithful (157)", and while this has the appearance of specificity, sociological if no other, "religions" and "communities" are grammatically plural, and thus explicitly non-specific. While "the real presence of the other (157)" is, for Scruton, granted through "a community", without specificity or singularity we seem to be left with syncretism or polytheism, both options being an abuse of the given: "I AM". Later, Scruton acknowledges his Christian leanings, noting: "For me the Christian view of the matter is the one that gives the greatest insight into our situation (172)". This seems appropriate here, even if not earlier where his concern was with theism as opposed to Christian theism. His discussion of the incarnation, "[t]he distinctiveness of the Christian Eucharist (172)", and encountering the face of God "in all that suffers and renounces for another's sake (177)" bring appropriate specificity with regard to the referent, even if they do not explain exactly how this works. 2) Finally, his discussion at the end of Chapter 2 might have included Alvin Plantinga's God and Other Minds (Cornell University Press, 1967), and the discussion in Chapter 5, T.J. Gorringe's A Theology of the Built Environment (Cambridge University Press, 2002) as well as Brown's God and Enchantment of Place. That said, these texts might be considered "too specialized or intricate (ix)". All the same, they would have been welcome conversation partners.
I recommend this book to students and scholars interested in natural theology or theology and the arts, particularly those with interests in imaginative apologetics, the visual arts or the built environment, as well as those with more general interests in philosophy of religion or metaphysics.