A remarkable hunt for The Other

The Face of God: the Gifford Lectures by Roger Scruton (Continuum)

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 (pictured). 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.

By Richard Holloway. His latest book is Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Canongate)

Full review: http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2012/03/face-god-gifford-lectures

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Roger Scruton on himself: www.roger-scruton.com

Roger Scruton on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Scruton

Roger Scruton interview: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304444604577341521643541262.html

Reviewed with Alain de Botton’s latest: http://www.economist.com/node/21549915

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