With Unveiled Faces
Nothing in nature is more beautiful, nor more filled with meaning, than the human face.1 For in a face, the dignity, and the unique identity and personality, of a human person is made manifest in the world. As the place where a person and their body most clearly intermesh, the face makes known the human soul in society. In face-to-face encounter, a community of persons, a family and society of mutual respect and love, is made possible and real. The face—and the availability of my face to others, and their faces to me—therefore has a great significance. Without faces, we can have neither fellowship nor fellow feeling, because without faces there could be no fellows we could know. Thus, even the ugliest human face is imbued with dignity, suffused with warmth, and radiates beauty.
A face signifies. It has meaning beyond its particular features and the skin, bone, cartilage and muscle from which it is constructed. A face reveals the person who is, so to speak, ‘behind’—perhaps more accurately, made present in—the face. Therefore a face reveals the true nature of that person and our relation to him or her. A face has force and energy in the social world. The face of another compels us to recognise the presence not of an object of our attention, a mere body in a world of bodies. Rather, we recognise the presence of a person, another subject, one like ourselves.
Encountering another person in her face, I become conscious of myself as also a person. I meet your gaze boldly with my own, or self-consciously avert my eyes. I respond to your emotions, manifest in a smile or frown, a raised eyebrow, a blush, a tear, with emotions and expressions of my own. Sometimes these will be intended; often they emerge unbidden. I discover if you can countenance my presence, or whether I am faced with disapproval. In your eyes, I might lose face, or seek to save face. Sometimes you or I might mask our true feelings from one another, maintaining distance and reserve in our relationship, for faces conceal as well as reveal. But often our faces give away more than we intend. The face therefore draws us out from isolation, to recognise our natural end in a loving community of persons with equal dignity and worth.
Beyond this, the face transcends this world entirely, and directs us to our supernatural end in the vision of God.We shall see him face to face. The face therefore has enormous theological significance. Moreover, in the incarnation, the human face entered theology—the study and knowledge of God—by the front door.2 In the human face of Jesus of Nazareth, the face of God was unveiled. Therefore, we should not be surprised how important the face is in Scripture.
Face to Face
On the Hebrew noun pānîm, and in the NT (and lxx) the Greek noun prosōpon which follows the OT usages, see NIDOTTE, 3.637-39; NIDNTT, 1.585-87. Pānîm is most commonly used, as we shall see, of the human face and especially the face of God. However, occasionally it refers to the ‘faces’ or heads of animals (e.g., Ezek 1:10) or heavenly beings (e.g., Isa 6:2). Interestingly—and suggestively for our present purposes—pānîm can refer to a surface, for example, the surface of the ground or earth (e.g., Gen 1:29; 2:6; 6:1, 7; 7:3, 4, 23; 8:8, 9; 8:13; 11:4, 8, 9; Num 12:3; Deut 6:15; 7:6). Even here reference to the face of the ground might sometimes suggest the openness and hospitality of the ground, we might say its friendliness, to human life and society. The face of the earth produces abundant food to sustain human life. When God removes a whole people from the face of the land, it is a sign of his wrath. When the face of the earth is covered (with floodwaters), life dies.
Pānîm can also refer to the front of a building like a tent (Exod 26:9) or temple (1 Ki 6:3; Ezek 41:14). Here, again, there may be hints of an analogy with human faces. Peter Leithart observes that Solomon’s temple has a face, ribs and shoulders (6:3, 5, 8; 7:39), and draws attention to the use of the noun ‘rib’ (ṣēlā‘) and the verb ‘to build’ (bnh), which connect to the creation of Eve, who is built from the rib of Adam (Gen 2:21f). Thus, the temple (and perhaps also the tabernacle in Exod 26:9; cf. Jn 1:14) is ‘an architectural “body”’, a metaphor that Leithart notes is also ‘pervasive in the Song of Songs’ (1 & 2 Kings [Brazos, 2006], 58).
In chapter 6 of The Face of God (‘The Face of the Earth’) Roger Scruton offers a suggestive exploration of geographical place, architecture, and care for the environment, which relies in part on metaphorical use of ‘face’. He observes that there are right and wrong ways to treat the earth, which turn on personal affection for a place—a love for the face of the earth—rather than a rapacious, instrumental relationship. Places can be ‘defaced’, for example by graffiti or litter. Drawing on the idea of the Temple as a body, Scruton argues that buildings properly have a human proportion and scale so that towns can be homes because ‘their buildings perpetuate the experience of face’. By this he means that with their proportions and mouldings, traditional buildings are endowed with a face, a façade, which makes the streets in which they stand a home. In contrast, Scruton sees contemporary city centres as desecrated by ‘faceless blocks that now intrude’ into formerly humane streets, causing harm to people through ‘a peculiar feeling of desolation’. (The Face of God [Continuum, 2012], 113-52.)
Scruton elsewhere credits the British architect Quinlan Terry for inspiring some of his thoughts on architecture: ‘He is a passionate, evangelical Christian, who takes very seriously the story that, on Mount Sinai, God gave to Moses not just the Ten Commandments and the law, but also the design for a temple—a temple built with columns and architraves. He has the eccentric but interesting view that the classical idiom is of divine inspiration.’ (Roger Scruton and Mark Dooley, Conversations with Roger Scruton ([Continuum 2016], 91.) Terry’s influence undergirds Scruton’s claim that ‘The new city’, with its architectural forms that are wholly divorced from the classical idiom, ‘is a city in which glazed facades mirror each other’s emptiness across streets that die in their shadow. The facelessness of such a city is also a kind of godlessness.’ (The Aesthetics of Architecture [Princeton University Press, 2013), quoted in Conversations, 90-91.)
If Scruton’s main point in ‘The Face of the Earth’ stands —and I think it does—it should alert us to the possibility that our modern disconnection from a sense of place, our habitual instrumentalising of nature and its resources, and the faceless architecture of many of our towns, all contribute both to a sense of alienation in modern life, and also to desensitising us to the significance of human faces, and so to masking to us the significance of masking our faces.
Turning now to human faces, in Scripture the face reveals the person. To meet someone face to face is to have a personal encounter, with God or another human (Ps 69:17; Jer 32:4; 34:3). To be deprived of this face-to-face encounter is to experience a drastic reduction in intimacy. The Ephesian elders were sorrowful when they learned that they would never see Paul’s face again (Acts 20:25, 38). The apostles longed not merely to write, but to see their churches face to face (2 Thess 2:17; 3:10; 2 Jn 12; 3 Jn 14).
One aspect of this revelation and relationship is the way our faces reveal our emotions. They also help us to express our feelings, and even sometimes alleviate them. Feelings that otherwise might remain hidden are made public as they manifest in our faces: our facial expressions express our hearts to ourselves and to others. Even when we can’t find words, our faces enable us to communicate deeply with others, or sometimes, by hiding our faces, to withdraw from communication.
When Cain was angry, his face fell (Gen 4:5, 6). When Elijah despaired of life, he put his face between his knees (1 Ki 18:42). King Artaxerxes recognised that Nehemiah’s heart was sad because of his sad face (Neh 2:2), but when Hannah found favour in Eli’s eyes, she was no longer sad and so her face was transformed (1 Sam 1:18). Ezra’s shame was revealed in the blushes of his cheeks and his reluctance to lift his face to God (Ezra 9:6). Job urged himself to put off his sad face (Job 9:27), but although he had once revealed his happy confidence in his smile and the light of his face (Job 29:24), in his anguish his face had turned red with weeping and his eyelids darkened (Job 16:16). Yet Qoheleth tells us that, in grief, the heart is made glad by sadness of face (Eccles 7:3): it is in freely expressing grief in our faces that we find comfort.
To set one’s face, or direct one’s face is tied to intention, purpose and direction (Gen 31:21; Ezek 13:17; 14:4; 20:46; 21:2; 21:16; 25:2; 28:21; 29:2; 35:2; 28:2; Dan 11:17-19a; Lk 9:51, 53). The direction of a person’s face is the direction of her life. When someone sets his face, he takes responsibility for the direction of his life.
A covered face can indicate uncontrollable grief (2 Sam 19:4). But more significantly, it can indicate the deceit and shame connected with prostitution and adultery (Gen 38:15; Job 24:15), or the ominous certainty of death by execution (Esth 8:7; Mk 14:65). In these cases, to cover one’s own face is to conceal or depersonalise oneself. When done to the face of another, it communicates that, in the eyes of those with legal authority, they are rightly subject to death, no longer fully a person with the rights that entails. Even in less serious situations, the way we treat someone else’s face reveals what we think of them. To spit in someone’s face is to shame them (Num 12:14; Deut 25:9; Mt 26:67), whereas to stand up before an old man is to honour his face, which is to say his person, out of a right fear of the Lord (Lev 19:32). In this sense, our treatment of someone’s face is a matter of obedience to the fifth commandment. To see someone’s face is to be accepted by them (Gen 32:20; 33:10).In Jacob’s case, to see his brother’s face and be accepted after years of wrestling was, in some sense, like seeing God’s face and being accepted by him as they wrestled (Gen 33:10; cf. 32:30). To fall on someone’s face is to embrace them with overwhelming joy and love (Gen 50:1).
In sum: human faces are at the centre of our personal-relational interactions, for good or ill.
Among creatures, animals have eyes, ears, mouths, but only humans have faces in a fully personal sense. This seems to relate to our creation as God’s image bearers (note again Gen 32:20, 30; 33:10; and most obviously 2 Cor 3:17-4:6), because the most prominent and most important face in Scripture is the face of God.
Seek His Face
In the face of wickedness, God, who is of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong (Hab 1:13), hides his face (Gen 4:14). God’s face hidden is a catastrophe for an individual believer (Ps 88:14). For individuals, and for his people as a whole, God’s hidden face signifies and is experienced as spurning and wrath. When God hides his face, he brings devastating evils and troubles upon us (Deut 31:17-18; 32:20; cf. Ps 27:9). Therefore, David pleads with God not to hide his face from his servant (Ps 69:17), but rather to hide his face from his servant’s sins by blotting out his iniquities (Ps 51:9).
In contrast, the Aaronic blessing puts the Lord’s threefold name—which we know as his one Name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19)—upon his people. God blesses by making his face shine upon us and be gracious to us, and lifting up his face upon us and giving us peace (Num 6:24-27). The shining light of God’s face is inseparable from covenant grace because it is inseparable from the gracious gift of the covenant name of God to his people. For us to bear God’s Triune name is for God’s face to be turned towards us as our God who has claimed us as his people. Baptism in the Triune name is the gift of access to God’s face.
To know God’s name and see his face means knowing him as the only Lord, who has life in and of himself (Exod 3:14). And it means knowing him as God for us: the one who from the fulness of his life freely meets us as merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, who does not acquit the guilty but who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin to thousands of generations (Exod 34:4-7). God’s face is his gracious covenant presence as the Lord, our light and our salvation (cf. Ps 27:1, 8-9).
Therefore, in the midst of many trials, David had a single unwavering prayer: to dwell secure in the house of the Lord, to gaze upon his beauty, to contemplate his glory (Ps 27:4). In other words, to seek God’s face (Ps 27:2; cf. 2 Sam 21:1; 2 Chron 7:14; Ps 24:6; 105:4; Hos 5:15).
Salvation in the name of the Lord simply is the glorious, radiant face of God, turned towards us, for our loving contemplation.
It is therefore no surprise that, when God’s covenant purposes reach their climax, he shows his face. What is staggering is where we find his name, his glory, his covenant, his face. We find them in the face of a man from Nazareth. A face before which God sent his messenger to prepare the way (Matt 11:10). A face without beauty, from which we hid our faces (Isa 53:2-3), and yet a face in which the glory of the eternal God shone on the mountain (Matt 17:2). A face he set towards Jerusalem (Lk 9:51, 53). A face on which he fell in agony (Matt 26:39), on which we spat (26:39), and which we crowned with thorns and covered as we beat him (Mk 14:65). The face of God.
As God’s Son breathed his last, the veil in God’s house was torn in two, and the face of God turned outwards towards the world. Those who recognise his glory in the face of the dying Christ are welcomed to seek God’s face in his temple, gaze upon his beauty and contemplate his glory. And although the face of God’s Son was briefly hidden, wrapped in cloths and laid in a tomb, on the morning of the first day of the week, his tomb was empty, and the burial cloth that had covered his face was folded up. Later, his mouth breathed out the Holy Spirit, and his disciples recognised the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (Jn 20:6-7, 16-18, 22, 28).
That God has a face means that God can be known. That God took on flesh in his Son means that he is known in the face of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. In the light of Jesus’ face is covenant mercy, glory, comfort, peace, salvation. And we, with unveiled faces behold the unveiled glory of God in his face. Now we know in part and see in part. Now we live by faith and not by sight. But we do so in the hope of the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. For when he comes, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. Our eyes will behold the King in his glory. His name will be upon us. And we shall see him face to face.
We rarely think about what our faces mean, or why it matters what we do with them. But the ethical meaning of the human face is not a trivial matter. The face lies close to the heart of the gospel, and a theological understanding of human personhood and community. In Dante’s lovely phrase, the eyes and mouth are ‘balconies of the soul’. The face is the public and personal presence of the creature who has been created in God’s image in order to have face to face fellowship with others, and ultimately, in Christ, to see God face to face.
Till We Have Faces
Over the past two years, we have experienced extraordinary reversals of commonly accepted patterns of social behaviour. This has happened throughout the world, by government compulsion, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The imposition of mask mandates—and the apparent willingness of populations around the world to wear facemasks in a variety of settings—is just one of these changes. On the surface, mandatory masking appears relatively trivial, not least in comparison with measures like lockdowns, school closures, and now in some countries compulsory vaccinations. We have been assured that these measures are temporary, though quite how temporary has never been clear. The reasons offered have, to many, seemed straightforward enough, even if the details of plans and rationales have shifted greatly over time. There have been dissenting voices, though often these have seemed quite marginal. But what is perhaps most striking about our current situation is the widespread acceptance of extreme emergency measures that would have been inconceivable prior to 2020. And not just acceptance. Sometimes there has been a desire for even greater restrictions than our governments would countenance.
It is not my intention to examine the wisdom of these wider responses, nor their consequences, nor the broader meaning of what we have experienced and continue to experience. Rather, I simply wish to ask a pair of focused but rather pointed questions: What kind of society would obscure the faces of its members? And what will become of a society, over time, where effacing its members is deemed acceptable and where faces are routinely lost from public view? It seems that many would think the answer to the first question somewhat obvious, and the answer to the second somewhat trivial.
In answer to the first question, the consensus seems to be that it is a loving society that requires its members to wear masks for the protection of their neighbours, and those who dissent without good medical reasons are selfish, foolish and reckless. Bruce Hindmarsh offers the following insightful summary of the social and communicative aspects of masking:
Here was a means by which ordinary people could gain control, fend off helplessness, and feel a little more safe. It is reasonable to expect that there must be some obvious droplet containment with a mask, like coughing into your sleeve. There is also, however, a strong anthropological and semiotic dynamic in a practice that touches our humanity so deeply: to cover up one’s face in the presence of another. This is a potent ritual, a public liturgy that communicates a message. It is a way to announce, ‘I recognize with you that this is happening,’ and ‘We are all in this together’. In public spaces, this ritual signals danger, provides comfort, offers reassurance, evokes solidarity, recognizes authority, and resists powerlessness. It is a sign of virtuous compliance with the deemed public good. As always, rituals satisfy a psychological and not just a medical need.3
With regard to the second question, it seems widely accepted that facemasks have no great significance, and will have no ongoing social effects.
Given what I have already argued, it is reasonable to doubt both these answers. Leaving aside for a moment the question of any medical benefits, the effect of masking in public places has been little noticed, but nevertheless enormous. Faces make bodies personal. They reveal the soul in the visible and social world. And they make personal—face to face—relationships both possible and real. An unveiled face, open to the world, ready to meet the gaze of another, grounds the potential for social existence. This is true in any society, but it is perhaps especially true in societies where high levels of population mobility and fragmented communities render social ties thinner and more fragile.
To state the matter sharply: when we meet a masked person, to the extent that their face is concealed, what we meet is precisely not a person, but a person effaced, reduced to an object in a world of objects, a body—understood in its most crudely reductive way—in a world of bodies. This denial is no doubt overstated, for nothing can erase the Creator’s loving design that men and women bear his image as persons to be loved and served, rather than objects to be used. Nevertheless, when we are confronted by a human body with a masked face, we encounter a person only in an attenuated sense. In the absence of a countenance, a personal encounter is all but impossible. In spending months behind masks in public, persons have been defaced and our communities therefore effaced.
One striking illustration of this is a study published in September 2021 on the effects of wearing masks on the ability to recognise facial expressions in people wearing facemasks.4 The study indicates that wearing a mask decreases the ability to recognise facial expression of six common emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and neutrality. Further, the emotions were perceived as less expressive when wearing a mask. In addition, participants with autistic traits—those who scored higher on the Autistic Spectrum Quotient—struggled to identify the emotions of people wearing masks.
When we move among masked people, we do not encounter persons open to others, and to the kinds of communicative relationships in which robust, just and trusting communities are possible. Instead, a masked face communicates distance and distrust. It implies that every person you meet, rather than a potential friend and neighbour, is a potential threat; less a person, more a vector of transmission.
It might be objected that overwhelming public health reasons made it necessary to bear these costs. The risk of transmitting a deadly virus is simply too great to warrant idealistic philosophising about putting a piece of cloth over your mouth and nose. What are we to make of this objection?
First, I must confess to a lack of expertise in statistics and virology. Nevertheless, drawing on the work of experts in the relevant fields, I do not find the evidence adduced in favour of the health benefits of masking to be compelling.5 Rather, it seems that mask mandates make little or no difference to viral transmission. Their use has been dictated by fear rather than accepted through sober reflection on reality.
Secondly, we should note that widespread imposition of masking has neverbeen part of a public health response to a virus until summer 2020. And there is evidence that the World Health Organisation introduced the recommendation not for evidence-based scientific reasons, but due to political pressure.6
Thirdly, even as mask mandates were lifted in England in July 2021, and again in January 2022, the ongoing mask wearing of large numbers of people suggests a serious danger of populations becoming habituated to masking. Rather than treating masking as an extreme emergency measure required by unique, short-term circumstances, people have chosen to continue, even outdoors where it has never been compulsory, and where it has always been clear that there are no medical benefits to so doing. Professor Susan Michie, a member of SAGE, has explicitly stated that mask-wearing and social distancing should be maintained, as a normal part of life long-term.
Fourthly, even if I am wrong on the (lack of) benefits of masking, I still think masking is a mistake. Although this has rarely been recognised, the decision to mask or not to mask is not purely about whether it would reduce the risk of infection. While it is right to be aware of risks, and to think carefully about how to mitigate them in a reasonable manner, doing so always involves assessing competing risks. It is simply impossible to live a risk-free life; whatever actions we choose always involve assessing competing risks and deciding which we are willing to tolerate. I am convinced that the social and societal risks of wearing masks are simply too great. We have lost the immeasurable enrichment of seeing people’s individuality, of being able to converse easily and freely with people in shops, of seeing an encouraging smile, of living in a way that is open to one another. And we have replaced it with a potent social symbol that communicates fear: fear of the situation in which we find ourselves; fear of social interaction; fear of other people. We have trained ourselves to view one another as potential threats far more than potential friends. And this has been the reality in which our children and young people have been formed for two crucial years of their development: in school, with friends, at church, in shops, with siblings and parents and grandparents.
Finally, I imagine that this piece will be met with some resistance. However, even if readers cannot follow me in my conclusions, or in portions of my argument, I hope that I have prompted more careful reflection on just what we have lost by masking. Even if one believes that lives (perhaps many lives) have been saved by masking, it has nevertheless also caused significant damage. With very little public or personal deliberation, we have accepted a situation where our humanity, and the humanity of those we encounter, has been diminished and where our relational bonds have been weakened. Prior to 2020, many of us already lived in fragmented, transient and relationally thin communities. Moved by fear, we have complied with unnatural, government-mandated behaviour that further threatens those already fragile bonds. We have entered, apparently willingly, into in a massive social experiment; and we are likely to spend years coming to terms with its true consequences for how we view and relate to one another.
Even if our societies were right to mask, we should never have acquiesced so readily, without careful corporate deliberation, with dissenting voices heard and arguments weighed. And, given the meaning of our faces, Christians and churches—no matter how well-intentioned— were wrong to do so in such an un-theological and pragmatically-driven way. We must now give much closer and more careful attention to what we can do to recover.
1 On the meaning of the face see Julián Marías, Metaphysical Anthropology: The Empirical Structure of Human Life (The Pennsylvania University Press, 1971), 143-51; Roger Scruton, The Face of God (Continuum, 2012).
2 To paraphrase John Paul II’s comment on the body in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 23:4.
3 Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘Till We Have Faces’, 23; online at https://www.canadiancovidcarealliance.org/media-resources/tag/bruce-hindmarsh/.
4 Farid Pazhoohi, Leilani Forby, and Alan Kingstone, ‘Facial Masks Affect Emotion Recognition in the General Population and Individuals with Autistic Traits’, ed. Marina A. Pavlova, PLOS ONE 16, no. 9 (30 September 2021): e0257740, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257740.
5 See the studies cited by Hindmarsh, ‘Till We Have Faces’, 21-22, n. 124-129.
6 Hindmarsh, ‘Till We Have Faces’, 23.