In his book The Face of God,
Christian philosopher Roger Scruton explores a fascinating problem. In what sense, he asks, can we say that God is present among us? Theologians for centuries have argued that, because God cannot be reduced to physical phenomena, His existence cannot be proven or dismissed by scientific or empirical observation. As science became the dominate way in which humankind comprehended the universe, the faithful were forced to defend God against the new objectivity and certainty provided by the scientific method. As a result, Scruton argues, the Christian theological tradition adopted a theory of God that stressed His physical absence from our lives.
God, Scruton writes, “is not an empirical but a transcendental being; one whose nature and being place him outside the world of empirical particulars, sustaining that world in some way, but not in the way that a pillar holds up a beam or in the way that a mother supports her child.” The problem then becomes that we seem “to be forever and irremediably cut off from him – he becomes the deus absconditus, the hidden God, as Aquinas described him. And how can we relate to such a God: how can we love him or know that he loves us in return?”
Scruton attempts to resolve the problem by demonstrating that God is still present among us through our relation to others, especially the body of believers. “I shall argue,” he writes, “that we can reconcile the God of the philosophers with the God who is worshiped and prayed to by the ordinary believer, provided we see that this God is understood not through metaphysical speculations concerning the ground of being, but through communication with our fellow humans.”
Developing upon a theme explored extensively by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in works such as Totality and Infinity, Scruton argues that the face of the Other, of our human companions, opens us up to transcendence by exposing us to accountability and the possibility of love. “The face is therefore not just an object among objects,” he writes. Instead it is emblematic of all that is uniquely human and therefore imposes moral duties upon us who perceive in the Other’s face a connection to the infinite.
“So what and where is the face of God for the ones who believe in his real presence among us?” Scruton asks. The answer, he concludes, “is that we encounter this presence everywhere, in all that suffers and renounces for another’s sake.” Altruism can only be properly understood as an acknowledgment of the eternal significance of the Other’s face, of a connection between the created and the Creator that compels selfless sacrifice. “In the moment of sacrifice” Scruton claims, “people come face to face with God, who is present too in those places where sorrow has left its mark or ‘prayer has been valid.’” The face of the human is a vista opening out to God’s love for us and a reminder that we are created in His image.
Whatever you may think of Scruton’s suggestion that God is, strictly speaking, physically absent from us here on Earth, his arguments supporting the importance of fellowship and ethical accountability to the Other are helpful in clarifying our relation to God, I think, and conform to my experience. I am perhaps most aware of God when I witness sacrificial acts of love and compassion, selfless behavior that is inexplicable unless we accept that the human animal is unique and bears the imprint of the Creator. Our love for one another is echoed in Christ’s love for us and constitutes a physical reminder of His divinity.