Recovering Subjectivity: Roger Scruton’s “The Face of God”

The Face of God, the book form of Roger Scruton’s Gifford Lectures, is the first of a two-part collection of lectures turned into books that tie together the English philosopher’s assessment and challenge of the modern world (the other being The Soul of the World).

“Lord Gifford was not an orthodox adherent of any religion, but someone who nevertheless believed that our relation to God is the most important relation we have.” So opens Scruton’s work. Although he opens with a statement about God, in relationship to our lives, the book is not so much about God but about personal relationships and the issues of subjectivity and beauty which are interlinked in Scruton’s mind and how the worldview of subjectivity and beauty is tied to belief, or a relation, to God.

Roger Scruton is a heterodox Christian, but probably an orthodox Anglican given that, as a prima facie rule, no one knows what Anglicans believe and, as David Bentley Hart has said of Anglicans in a joking but serious manner when giving a talk to Anglicans, “Anglicans are slippery folk.” But Scruton’s cultural Christianity cannot be denied. Indeed, his entire book hinges on the cultural and psychological reality of the Christian God to make sense of subjectivity and wonder in the world.

In orthodox Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, confessional Anglicanism and Protestantism), God is not an object; not a “flying spaghetti monster” as illiterate comic critics like to rhetorically bemuse; not just a distant and faraway prime-mover. God is a subject, he is the great “I Am”, the ground and source of all being and knowledge in the cosmos. God is Truth, God is Wisdom, and God is Love. That humans are made in the image of God, which Scruton recontextualizes to mean “face”, means that humans are capable of intimate relations with one another and that these relations create beauty from them. Indeed, the seat of true beauty is one of subjectivity according to Scruton. This is a common ancient Christian view; one found most declaratively in St. Thomas Aquinas. Interior beauty, the beauty of subjectivity—the beauty of faces—magnifies the beauty and avoids material objectifying or objectophilia.

The emphasis on the face, which includes the eyes—and if the eyes are the window to the soul then the face is the highway to the subject—is the key feature that screams out against the reductionist mentality of reducing humans to mere hunks of matter in a world of other hunks of matter. “The face shines in the world of objects with a light that is not of this world – the light of subjectivity. You can look for freedom in the world of objects and you will not find it: not because it is not there, but because it is bound up with the first person perspective, and with the view from somewhere of the creature who can say ‘I’.” The face, precisely because it is the seat of the eyes, the softness of the human condition—the seat of our most visible emotions—and the seat of language, is that which marks us differently from the rest of the world.

Scruton’s elaboration on human subjectivity as a defining feature of our humanness vis-à-vis the world is also a unique defense of humanism. Humanism is not the petty secular doctrine that we have today. Traditionally, humanism was grounded in the ancient belief—shared by the classical philosophers and Christianity (and Judaism and Islam)—that humans were set apart from the rest of creation. There is, in other words, something special about us. Traditionally, this was conceived of as our ability to reason and know the supreme good (Greeks and Romans) and also our ability to love, caress one another, and form intimate bonds of relations moved by that implanted seed of love deep in the human soul (Christianity). In a different language, Scruton is attempting to articulate the same defense of traditional humanism by honing in on human subjectivity as the third person of the triad reality of the human condition: That is, reason and love come together in subjectivity and this union of reason and love in subjectivity is something deeply beautiful.

When trying to understand ourselves we must also understand where we are. This is one of the gifts of subjectivity. Just as Moses encounters the great “I Am” in the Burning Bush, in which he can have a dialogue with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so too do humans find themselves constantly encounter little “I am’s” in this intimate human world of relationships and encounters. This world of human-to-human, I-You, encounters is one of rational and loving unveiling to each other. We seek to know the “other” through stripping off the veils that hide their face. Why? Because the face is the seat of interpersonal subjectivity. The face is that which contains the transcendent-self. The body is merely the empirical self. The false self. The false self propagated to us by the denizens of reductionist science who destroy subjectivity or have no good explanation for the phenomenon of subjectivity other than to say it magically evolved from that lump of meat called the brain.

Situating ourselves in the world of subjectivity and personal relationships lands us in the middle-ground—how Platonic!—between the “view from nowhere” and the “view from somewhere.” Scruton’s “view from nowhere” is the reductionist consciousness, which is no consciousness at all, which reduces humans to mere bodies in motion with subjectivity to them—no soul, as it were. The “view from somewhere,” which is what Scruton endorses in the book, is the view of faces; that humanistic anthropology that asserts something mystical, indeed, special, about humans and the world they find themselves in.

These two competing views impact our culture and the landscape of the earth. “Botticelli’s Venus is not a sex-object, but a sex-subject. The intrusion of the sex-object into art can be already witnessed in the salon art of nineteenth-century France. Witness Bouguereau’s brilliantly accomplished, Ingres-inspired and entirely saccharine Birth of Venus, in which vapid sensual faces stare vacantly at the goddess, as she turns her face from the spectator in order to sniff her freshly shaven armpit and to toy narcisistically with her hair.” In art, Scruton highlights with selected examples, we see two competing ideas of beauty influenced by these two competitive worldviews. One, exemplified by Botticelli’s Venus, emphasizes the face and presents beauty as a subject. The other, exemplified by Bouguereau’s Venus, emphasizes the body and presents beauty as an object. Subtle, too be sure—triumphs both paintings are—but with major consequences to culture and human consciousness.

This battle between objectophilia and subjectivity plays out in our towns, streets, and cities. Beautifully ordered cities which invite participation, like Botticelli’s Venus, or disorderly messes of protruding objects blotting the skyline that are a sore to the eyes. The view from somewhere is a world that invites participation. The view from nowhere is a world that allows us to pursue our meaningless bodily lives with no concern for future generations. Indeed, Scruton—also a noted conservationist but not environmentalist—implies that the battles over how to treat the earth break down between these two camps: The conservationists seeking intimate participation with their local environ while the environmentalists, who see the world as an object, seek to control (“save”) the world through the power of their might. One view, then, leads to a world of intimacy and sacred relationships. The other view, inevitably, leads to a world of fatalism, despair, and the eventual collapse into the lust to dominate.

With God, or rather, with human subjects, we are called to a higher plane of existence, consciousness, and relationships. Without God, or rather, without human subjects—i.e. a world of “human” objects—we devolve into a lower sphere of competition, bodily objectification, and the depersonalization of relationships which exhausts itself in no relationships at all. At the end of the day, Scruton sees no room for middle-ground compromising. We either go all in from our situated position to the world of subjects which implies certain things moderns are not willing to accept, or we go all in from our situated position to the world of pure objects which is where we’re already heading. In this respect, Scruton’s cry is like the weeping prophet in the wilderness or desert. One world is clearly superior to the other; but woe unto us who have hardened hearts and not the eyes to see or the ears to here.

The Face of God
Roger Scruton
New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014; 2012; 208pp.


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