On a mission to explore the place of God in a disenchanted world
Saturday, January 19, 2013
The Face of God
Review by TP O’Mahony
Roger Scruton Continuum €27.50, Kindle £10.94 Review: TP O’Mahony
In the 1960s there sprang up in the US what many regarded as a theological aberration known as the “Death of God” movement, central to which was a book of the same title by Gabriel Vahanian of Syracuse University. It was subtitled The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era, and it caused considerable controversy.
On this side of the world, the publication in 1963 of Honest to God by John Robinson, who was the Church of England Bishop of Woolwich at the time, also caused controversy. Indeed, such was the reaction to it — pro and contra — that the publishers brought out a follow-up volume entitled The Honest to God Debate.
Neither of these authors was pushing an atheist agenda; indeed, it would have been strange indeed if a bishop was so engaged. But what they were seeking to highlight was (a) many people’s concept of God was outdated, and (b) God was being increasingly sidelined as a reference point, let alone a fount of meaning, in the Western world.
It was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who in 1882 first used the phrase “death of God”, but it was only in post-1945 Europe, following the carnage of two world wars, that spawned a widespread nihilism, that this concept became a common motif in Western culture.
Since then God has been in retreat, and with the advent of the New Atheism — of which Richard Dawkins, since the publication of The God Delusion in 2006, is a leading proponent — the debate about whether a supreme being exists at all has intensified.
Now Roger Scruton has entered the fray. Scruton is an American philosopher who has settled in Britain and holds professorships in Oxford and the University of St Andrews. His recent volume, The Face of God, is based on the 2010 Gifford Lectures.
He sets out to explore the place of God in a disenchanted world, and his main argument is a response to the atheist culture that had been steadily growing since the end of the Second World War, and he also makes a spirited defence of human uniqueness. We live, he says, in a culture “in which belief in God is widely rejected as a sign of emotional and intellectual immaturity”. Yet you might wonder, he says, “how people can deliberately turn away from a thing that they believe not to exist”. The reality, he emphasises, is that God is in intimate relationship even with those who reject him. “Like the spouse in a sacramental marriage, God is unavoidable, or avoidable only by creating a void.”
Scruton is at his best in the first half of the book, debunking the debunkers, chief among the latter being of course Dawkins. Scruton is dismissive of Dawkins’s contention that human beings are “survival machines” in the service of their genes. The argument is that we are “by-products of a process that is entirely indifferent to our wellbeing, machines developed by our genetic material and adapted by natural selection to the task of propagation”.
This is part of the central thesis of Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, a thesis that leaves Scruton distinctly unimpressed. “Dawkins writes as though the theory of the selfish gene puts paid once and for all to the idea of a creator God — we no longer need that hypothesis in order to explain how we came to be. In a sense that is true. But what about the gene itself: how did that come to be? What about the primordial soup?”
This calls to mind an interview I once heard on BBC Radio 4 with a famous physicist, who was explaining the creation of the universe as a result of the Big Bang. “Yes,” said the presenter, “but what caused the Big Bang? Where did the spark come from?” At which point the famous physicist said: “That’s really a question for a theologian”.
Scruton makes good use of the intelligent design argument, asking again and again: “Why is the universe governed by comprehensible laws?” Advocates of the design argument say that, in face of the evidence of comprehensibility, we must suppose some divine intelligence as its cause.
The author is too sophisticated a thinker to be entirely swayed by this approach, but he does remind readers that it is in the nature of consciousness to ask other kinds of “why?” from those posed by the scientist.
He grapples also with the perceived antipathy between science and religion. Reconciling belief in God with the scientific worldview is as problematical today as it ever was. It remains the case, though, that despite the great advances in science, religion hasn’t gone away. Scruton suggests science and religion should be seen as complementary fields. After all, as he indicates, even the atheist is committed to an enormous act of faith in his belief that the universe created itself.
The second half of the book is more problematical. Does God have a “face”? From time immemorial mankind has been attributing human qualities to God, at least in terms of imagery, which is a very understandable method of enabling us to “see” God.
Thus we are all familiar with the image of God as an old man with a beard, an image for instance that forms the centrepiece of Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
But the limitations of trying to “fix” human qualities onto the Divine are obvious. Is God a person at all in our everyday understanding of personhood? Christian doctrine teaches that the Godhead consists of three divine persons — but are these persons in the way that you and I are persons? Obviously not.
It seems to me that Scruton’s use of the “face” as an analytical tool causes more difficulties for the reader than what it provides by way of illumination. The seeming paradox is that belief in God is necessarily belief in an unknowable God.
*TP O’Mahony is the author of Has God Logged Off? The Columba Press.
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