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For an age of desecration

12 March 2012

Richard Harries reads a philosopher’s case against Godlessness

The Face of God
Roger Scruton

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ROGER SCRUTON is one of our most interesting intellectuals. A philosopher with a wide cultural range and a strong social concern, these Gifford Lectures offer a counter-cultural defence of religion in general and of Christianity in particular.

Following Kant, he wisely does not claim too much for the use of reason alone. He rightly rejects both probability arguments and the much touted anthropic principle as proofs for God’s existence. He then makes a strong defence of the uniqueness of the human person against all forms of reductionism, especially attempts to explain altruistic behaviour in evolutionary terms.

He rejects all forms of “mereology”. The “I” is a perspective on the world, a horizon, but not a thing in it. There is a metaphysical abyss between I-Thou relationships and I-it ones. The “I”, my consciousness of myself as a person able to intend, act, and give rational reasons for what I do, and who is open to the moral judgement of others, is not an object in the world of objects.

Further, he has a moral as well as a philosophical critique of reductionism. In an apt phrase, he refers to “The charm of disenchantment”. “Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic.”

Scruton offers two helpful analogies. A face in a painting cannot be reduced to the pigments on the canvas; yet neither can it be located other than in relation to them. Similarly, a melody cannot be reduced to a sequence of individual notes, but is not apart from those notes. So a person is not identical with his or her biological make-up, and yet cannot be identified except in relation to it; and, again, God is not to be reduced to the tangible world, but is not known to us except in and through it. Both the relation of the self to human action and God to divine action in the world bring us up against mysteries that lie at the limit of language. Crucially, both are part of the way in which we interpret the world in terms of personal meaning, not a way of explaining it in scientific terms.

The key image of the book is that of the face. First, the human face. Scruton strongly rejects the idea that expressions on the human face can be seen in terms of similar expressions on the faces of animals. The human face mediates the self.

It goes beyond its physical features in the same way as a melody emerges from a sequence of sounds. In the words of Levinas, it is both a visitation and a transcendence. The lips and the eyes are key features in this revelation of human meaning; they are, in Dante’s words, “balconies of the soul”.

What has happened in our time is that the face has become defaced, as the body has been lusted after in itself, through pornography, and in other ways. Here he makes an illuminating contrast between Botticelli’s Venus, in which the body is subservient to the face, and Bouguereau’s version of the scene painted in 1879. All this is part of the desecration of our times; for it is fundamental to Scruton’s view that what has happened is not just a moral failure, but a religious one: a turning away from the sacred, which leads to desecration in a variety of forms.

One expression of this is what has happened to the environment and our attitude towards it. The fact that from earliest history we have had sacred places and have built temples is a sign of the face of the earth which addresses us in its beauty. In our times, we are degrading and defacing the world about us by treating it in a purely instrumental way — there just to be consumed. This is reflected in modern architecture and town planning. It parallels what has happened in our attitude to sex and the human body.

A final chapter on the face of God suggests that it is through religious communities that we begin to receive life as sheer gift, and are drawn into communion with one another and God; for it is part of the human condition that we suffer from an existential loneliness that can be overcome only by grace. This grace comes to us, above all, in the self-giving of God in Christ. Scruton points to this through an illuminating discussion of Wagner’s The Ring.

Finally, moments of sacred awe are rare now, not because of any arguments of the atheists but because: the consumer culture is one without sacrifice; and easy entertain­ment distracts us from our metaphysical loneliness. The rearranging of the world as an object of appetite obscures its meaning as gift. The defacing of eros and the loss of rites of passage eliminate the old conception of human life as an adventure within the community and an offering to others.

This is an important book, with a very wide cultural range. It is brave in pointing to a turning away from God as the fundamental plight of our times. This leaves a void, which we try to fill by defacing, degrading, and destroying.

Occasionally, the judgements seem too sweeping, as in the condemnation of all modern architecture on the basis that the Greek temple is the ideal by which all other building is to be judged. Occasionally, it lacks imaginative sympathy, as in its wholesale condemnation of fast-food outlets.

It will certainly annoy the cultured despisers of religion and will give some confidence to any believer who has felt galled by the shallow arguments of aggressive atheism.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the author of The Re-enchantment of Morality (SPCK, 2008), which was shortlisted for the 2011 Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing.

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