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A defaced culture
4th April 2012
I was once asked by a BBC researcher whom I would nominate for the Radio 4 programme Iconoclasts, in which people of strong and unfashionable views are tested in the heat of debate.
I suggested Roger Scruton. In an age in which authority is there to be questioned, traditional mores contested and our right to offend anyone about anything vigorously defended, Scruton is exceptional, iconoclastic precisely because he is not an iconoclast but marked, instead, by a deep respect for tradition, ritual and custom.
Scruton is also exceptional on account of the sheer range of his knowledge. Whether it is art, architecture, music, philosophy, theology, or wine he probably knows more than you. Most of these fields are on display in The Face of God, a short book of six chapters based on the Gifford Lectures he delivered in 2010.
For many years an agnostic, Scruton has of late regained a “much-amended” (as he describes it in) religion. But while this is clearly the foundation on which this book is written, its focus is not so much religion as “the consequences of the atheist culture that is growing around us”.
A phrase like sounds ominous and can sometimes be a cue for a defensive, self-righteous rant. Pleasingly, and not surprisingly, The Face of God is about as far from a rant as it's possible to get, a thoughtful, difficult and profound book that is worth reviewing at length.
The book begins by offering us “the view from nowhere”, what “objective”, “neutral”, “scientific” study (choose your preferred term) might tell us about God. Scruton starts with the well-worn observation that not only is the universe law-governed but, more strikingly, it is governed by laws that are comprehensible to us. The idea that a universe, left to its own devices, “will produce conscious beings, able to look for the reason and the meaning of things” is remarkable and invites, indeed demands, some kind of response.
Drawing on various sources including, interestingly, much Islamic thought, especially that of Avicenna, Scruton builds on this towards idea of God as necessary being, one “whose existence follows from its nature”, on and by whom everything that it contingent, including us, is grounded and sustained. This may look like a goal for Christian apologetics but Scruton is too sharp to believe so. Indeed, his man point in chapter is less “look at what objective scrutiny can tell us about God”, as look at what it can’t.
Specifically, the view from nowhere leaves us, at best with “an unknowable and unlovable God”. The God of the Philosophers is a hidden God about whom “nothing can be known except that he lies behind knowledge”, and while there are strands of Christian theology, known as apophatic, that major on God’s unknowablilty, this is, at very best, an emaciated picture of the God of Christianity. “The arguments that we might use to reconcile belief in God with the scientific worldview, however cogent in themselves, raise another problem for the believer, which is the problem of God’s presence in the world.”
Building on this conclusion chapter two offers “the view from somewhere”, the focus shifting away from God and towards us, specifically – and crucially – us as persons. Humans, Scruton observes, can be understood in two ways. The first is objectively: as beings whose mental and emotional capacities can be traced back to the demands of life in the Pleistocene and can be “explained” by evolutionary biology and neuroscience. This is the view of humans from nowhere. The second is subjectively: as persons, subjects rather than objects, beings that can use the words ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘why’ meaningfully.
There has, of late, been a craze for the first kind, for “scientific explanations of the moral life”, a craze that Scruton puts down to “the charm of disenchantment”. At best, these are inadequate, failing to do justice to our experience of language, agency, relationships, even our capacity for mathematics. At worst, they are simply “neurononsence”.
By contrast, “the self is not a thing but a perspective”, he notes. “The subject is in principle unobservable to science, not because it exists in another realm but because it is not part of the empirical world. It lies of the edge of things, like a horizon.”
Personhood is a much fuller, more satisfying and comprehensive description of humans, explaining not only our ability to talk of ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘why’, but also our experience of freedom, intention, duty, guilt, and so forth. It also provides an important connection to how we may think about and know God. “Maybe”, Scruton muses, “God is a person like us, whose identity and will are bound up with his nature as a subject. Maybe we shall find him in the world where we are only if we cease to invoke him with the ‘why?’ of cause, and address him with the ‘why?’ of reason instead.”
Chapter 3 pushes the argument on by posing the very difficult question of “Where am I?” or, more precisely, how does the ‘I’ of the subjective person interact with the objective world of which it is a part. Where, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, does the timeless intersect with time? Attempts to answer such questions ‘scientifically’ have been a failure from Descartes on and this, in turn, has bred the modern conviction that there is no intersection, no subject and no free will.
Scruton firmly rejects such an approach. In its place he adopts what has elsewhere been termed a ‘stratified’ approach to reality. This means that while we all encounter precisely the same reality, we can do so on different levels. A painting may be understood as blobs, lines and pigments, or as “a face that looks out at us with smiling eyes.” Music may be encountered as “mere sequences of notes”, or as a “melody”. Sexual feelings may be ‘explained’ in terms of various genetic strategies or in terms of devotion, fidelity, betrayal, etc.
Scruton is clear that the former of each of these explanations is not wrong in itself: paintings are made of paints, melodies of notes, humans the product of evolution. The crucial point is that those explanations “under-determine” the phenomenon that is to be explained, reducing it to something less than it is.
And this, if adopted as a consistent strategy, can be severely deleterious. If you see persons as objects, evolved primates simply motivated by evolutionary strategies of which they are unaware, you are treating them as rather less than they are or can be, and will demean their culture accordingly. “Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’… It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind, and with it our kindness.”
What is, in effect, the second part of the book looks at how this objectification, this treatment of human being-as-object rather than human person-as-subject, plays out today. The chosen icon is that of the face, and chapter 4 is an extended exploration, with illustrations, of the human face.
This, Scruton insists, is fundamentally different from the faces of animals. It is not, of course, that animals don’t have faces, or can’t make, recognise or respond to facial expressions. Rather, it is that they don’t see and respond to them as faces. There is no intentionality or meaning in animals’ faces.
Humans, by contrast, see faces and see what lies behind them. We understand that the face is not simply an object but rather a subject “revealing itself in a world of objects”, “the threshold at which the other appears.” This is demonstrated by the way we smile, the way we look, the way we cry, the way we blush, and by the formalities and rituals that grace the way we eat.
Supremely, it is revealed in the way in which we treat sexual desire. Human sexuality, Scruton writes, “belongs in the realm of the covenant”, relational, “morally weighted”, and rightly vulnerable to feelings of modesty, shame and the like. In all of which, the face is central. Yet, a culture that fails to recognise and respect the person, will detach erotic love from “inter-personal commitments” and treat it as a “commodity”. This, he argues, can be seen in pornography, which “is not a relation between subjects but a relation between objects,” in which the “human being disintegrates into an assemblage of body parts.” Choosing his words carefully, Scruton claims that the contemporary growth of a pornographic culture is “a crime against humanity”: it is not comparable to those crimes with which we associate that term, but it is, nonetheless, a crime against our being fully human.
Chapter five moves onto “The Face of the Earth”. This is where his facial icon is stretched to (and perhaps beyond) its workable limit for, if the face is the sign of personhood and intentionality, how can you justly talk about the face of the earth? Scruton answers this charge by focussing on the seemingly-ubiquitous idea of sacred or hallowed ground, the “emotions and motives that lead us to respect some place as holy… and which govern our sense that there are right and wrong ways to treat the earth.” This, he says, can provide “a paradigm of environmental protection”.
The result is probably the least clear chapter in the book. It’s not that Scruton’s writing is particularly opaque here, or that he fails to make the argument that “the earth is not just a heap of objects”, or that “the sense of the sacred puts a brake upon [our] instrumental attitude.” These are convincing points, which most people instinctively get. Rather, it is that it is not quite clear where the earth’s subjectivity is grounded.
He argues that “aesthetic values are intrinsic values”, and that “environmental degradation” is similar to “moral degradation” in that both come “through de-facing things”. And yet it is not clear, in the terms he has chosen to use, whose face it is that is being defaced when we damage nature. Indeed, it seems as if he verges towards the idea that to deface nature is in effect to deface fellow human persons (“people become answerable to other rational beings for our aesthetic choices”). That may be so, but if that were the prime reason for protecting nature, it would be a weak and instrumental one, precisely not what Scruton argues for.
The final chapter turns to “The Face of God”, and opens with a “conclusion” to which the author admits he has “reluctantly” come: “There is a human loneliness that stems from some other source than the lack of companionship…[and] the separation between the self-conscious being and his world is not to be overcome by any natural process. It is a supernatural defect, which can be remedied only by grace.”
This is not an easy position to verify, and Scruton confesses that “every attempt to state it seems to run into logical and metaphysical difficulties.” Accordingly, chapter six defends rather than demonstrates it, touching on questions of community, suffering, piety, death, being, and gift. It is as rich a discussion as you could hope for but an inconclusive one. Indeed, as Scruton admits early on in the chapter, “maybe there is no way to state the position that is not fatally flawed.” It is, then, clearly, not accident that the chapter concludes with a discussion, with notation, of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. Whereof we cannot fully speak, Scruton implies, thereof we must pass over in music, if not in silence.
The reader who has followed me this far will have picked up that I think The Face of God is a superb meditation on what matters most to us or, rather, what should. It is at times difficult and demanding (though rarely technical) but that is far from a criticism. Indeed, it reflects a subtext of the book, namely that easy explanations or ways of life are usually inadequate ones.
The book’s arguments are unlikely to persuade anyone already convinced that science has the answers, and that human beings and contemporary culture are doing quite alright, thank you. But to anyone who has their doubts, The Face of God will help explain why they should, really, have faith.
Photograph from http://rogerscruton.wordpress.com/