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