Book of the month

Nicholas Turner commends a beautifully written critique of the current atheist orthodoxy


The Gifford Lectures 2010
Roger Scruton

Cambridge University Press, 200pp, hbk
978-1847065247, £18.99

A smile holds warmth, and conveys warmth. It goes beyond words and carries meaning. Some are gentle, transient responses to a courtesy: some are so glorious and radiant, you remember them all your life. We are often fooled by charming charlatans, but still we value smiles as enormously important in our lives. How do you explain or describe a smile? This is the key. We know what a smile is, but can we explain it in modern, scientific terms? No. A smile contains meaning and intention; remove both and you are left with only a grimace.

My disconnected intuitions about the nature of a smile, which I have long valued as supreme symbols of what it means to be human, are here given a solid foundation in Professor Scruton’s understanding of the face. The lectures can be listened to online (the quality is adequate, the delivery slightly diffident) at < listen>. They are, however, so full of material, I found it easier to read them, giving myself time every now and then to catch up.

Scruton has written many excellent books over recent decades, and draws on all his earlier work in these lectures. Such an approach can lead to a sparse, uninspired summary of more complex ideas. Not so here: this is a true distillation of learning. Above all, what makes this book so well worth reading is the quality of the language. It is not so much that he puts forward an argument, as that it carries such confidence and conviction. He does indeed speak as one with authority.

The first three lectures I enjoyed most of all, being a philosophical explanation of why science cannot explain everything, and why therefore scientific atheism is so weak as a vision of the world and our place within it. I suspect the latter three lectures, less abstract, more poetic and rhetorical in character, will have greater appeal for others, as he describes what ‘turning away from God’ can do in personal and social terms.

There is an objective view of the world, ‘a view from nowhere’, a scientific view that speaks in general terms; and there is a subjective view of the world, ‘a view from somewhere’ that involves understanding the three key terms – I, you, why. God, being transcendent, has no place within the scientific, objective world; God is not an object. But he does reveal himself within the world; he comes to us as subject, we encounter him and in that encounter become persons, and discover meaning.

These are awkward terms when discussed metaphysically. It is here that Scruton’s parable of the face – as the point where the subjective is seen in the objective world – is so powerful. In a sense, what he says is nothing new (and this enables one to grasp what he is saying – it’s the ‘that’s what I was thinking’ response), but how he says it is genuinely exciting. I could not help smiling to myself, from the sheer enjoyment of his ideas.

Consider, then, the face. It can be described in objective, scientific terms, but even when such a description is complete, it isn’t. It is nonsense to suppose that one has described someone’s face if one leaves out the subjective – where is the expression, and the meaning of that expression, where is the (face-to-face) contact between a you and an I? The philosophical problem of describing a face, or the triumph of such a description in art, both set before us the mysterious and strictly speaking indescribable duality of the world in which we live.

None of this has much purchase until one understands God’s incarnation in the world, for it is He (yes, some form of personal pronoun is necessary) who makes sense of it all. Only when we can (by his grace) share his transcendent view of creation, can we understand our world and our selves within it. Scruton takes this further with consideration of the face in such areas as landscape and buildings.

You and I might stumble with quasi-poetic, touchy-feely nonsense, and leave ourselves open to ridicule from the self-styled objective scientists. The good professor carries it off. His attack on much contemporary architecture may be a bravura rant, but I found it the most telling analysis in half a dozen pages I have ever read. He knows of what he speaks.

But even if you are not carried along by his analysis, reflect a little on what it is that he is doing, and consider what it is about the face that is so central. It is our contemplation of the face, as the outward image of what is inside, that opens for us the world of persons, and therefore of identity, of meaning and of purpose.

A difficult book at times, but certainly accessible, and immensely rewarding. I would suggest that it is one of the most important texts against the current atheist orthodoxy. Again, I come back to the richness of his language. There is nothing specifically Christian about his approach, and there is no decisive proof nor knock-down argument, but there is a wealth of understanding that carries conviction. By their fruits you will know them. There is wonderful fruit here. ND

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