The Face of God: the Gifford Lectures

The Face of God: the Gifford Lectures
Roger Scruton
Continuum, 256pp, £18.99

When this book arrived for review, I was already well into J A Baker's almost miraculous book The Peregrine - a coincidence, if you believe in coincidences - so I decided to read them together. Almost immediately, they were performing a mysterious descant, which is hardly surprising since both writers are on a hunt to discern the face of the Other. In his introduction to The Peregrine, Robert Macfarlane says the book is not about watching a bird, it is about becoming a bird. As Baker tells it:

Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.

Substitute God for the peregrine and Baker's words could be sung by Scruton. He, too, is on a hunt: "Any attempts to see the world as a whole . . . is doomed to failure . . . It could succeed only if we could . . . attain to the 'transcendental' perspective that is God's." Yet that is what he is trying to do in this book, as he trudges through fen and field, seeking to discern the "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding", to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, another compulsive pursuer of the possibility of God.

Central to Scruton's search is an attempt to observe the mystery of human consciousness and save it from those who would reduce it to biology. He tells us that people can be conceptualised in two ways: as organisms and as objects of personal interaction. "The first way employs the concept 'human being' (a natural kind); it divides our actions at the joints of explanation, and derives our behaviour from a biological science of man." But the other way of understanding employs the concept of person and sees us as beings that mysteriously transcend the merely biological.

In spite of the materialist determinism of some scientists, this is certainly how it feels to be human. We know that our brains can be scanned and our emotional lives translated into neurological code but many of us find it hard to believe that that is all that can be said about us. We know that the mind and the brain are dynamically interfused but we do not believe that the former can simply be subsumed into the latter. This is what keeps many of us poised on the edge of transcendence.

The leap Scruton makes over that edge towards God is one that many people will not be able to follow but his move cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, unless we are also prepared to abandon anything other than the materialist interpretation of human consciousness. He argues that, just as the human person disappears from the world when we look for the neurological explanation of his acts, so God disappears from the world when we hunt only for the cause and never for the reason of things: "So maybe God is a person like us, whose identity and will are bound up with his nature as subject."

That would suggest that, just because science can't find him, it does not follow that he is not there to be found; anymore than it follows that because neurology can't find us we do not exist either. Though far from conclusive, that approach is suggestive, and suggestions from thoughtful people are worth listening to.

His next move is one that many will find even more problematic but he disarms us by acknowledging the difficulties, even if he does not resolve them for us. He suggests that the hunt for God will inevitably take us into religious communities, the fields over which Hopkins's "windhover" ranges. And that, indeed, is what keeps many of us fellow God-hunters uncomfortably involved in religious institutions.

Unfortunately, the institutions in question bristle with difficulties, only one of which I shall remark on here. Organised religious communities make exorbitant truth claims for themselves, on the basis of which they have a proven tendency to persecute those who cannot accept them. Scruton is well aware of the danger, though he does not seem to offer a way of avoiding it: "[W]hen a system of beliefs begins to persecute those who do not accept it, we know that it is only a pseudo-science" - which is precisely the problem.

In religious discourse, we too quickly move from the illuminating suggestions of parable, metaphor and myth into quasi-scientific claims about the nature of the mystery that we are hunting. The irony here is that religions end up doing to the elusive person of God what biological determinism does to the elusive person of the human: they void it of mystery. This is why intransigents on both sides of the current debate about God increasingly sound like each other.

Scruton won't resolve these issues for you but if you want a handy pocket guide to humanity's perennial search for God, one that will take you safely round the edges of the current religious battlefield, this elegant and gracious book is the one to buy.

Richard Holloway's latest book is "Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt" (Canongate, £17.99)

Richard Holloway is a Scottish writer and broadcaster and was formerly Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis