December 2016 Pulse
In August 2015, injured volunteer firefighter Patrick Hardison received a face transplant in a 26-hour surgery performed by plastic surgeon Dr Eduardo Roderiguez and his team, a procedure which cost US$1 million (S$1.36 million). The donor was David Rodenbaugh, who had died in a cycling accident.
The first person to receive a full face transplant was a French woman called Isabelle Dinoire, who sustained multiple severe facial injuries after being mauled by a dog in 2005. Since then, more than 20 patients across the globe have received partial or full face transplants.
Although serious ethical and social issues surround face transplants, they will not be the focus of this article. Instead, the question that will occupy us has to do with the significance and meaning of the human face.
This question is of special currency and relevance in our ‘pornified’ culture in which different parts of the body – often divorced from the face – are de-personalised and perceived hedonistically as mere instruments of pleasure.
Yet, as the authors of the 2004 Royal College of Surgeons report rightly saw, “The face is central to our understanding of our identity. Faces help us understand who we are and where we come from.”
Drawing from the rich theological anthropology of the Old Testament, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could say that the human face is “in and of itself visitation and transcendence”.
By this Levinas means that the face comes into our shared world from beyond it while at the same time always remaining beyond it. It is a presence that cannot be contained, a revelation that is also always shrouded in mystery.
Unlike humans, animals have no concept of the face and are therefore said to be face-blind, that is, they are unable to recognise faces as faces. Some scientists and philosophers tell us that only sophisticated language users (i.e., humans) have this ability.
For humans, then, to see a human face is to see more than just the physical features of another human – nose, eyes, lips, mouth, etc. It is to see something of the whole person. It is to encounter the other as “visitation and transcendence”, to recall Levinas’ extraordinary expression.
My face is the part of my body to which others direct their attention when they wish to engage me because they somehow intuitively know that I am behind my face, so to speak.
As the inimitable British philosopher Roger Scruton has put so memorably: “My face is a boundary, a threshold, the place I appear as the monarch appears on the balcony of the palace.”
Furthermore, although I am present in my face and I speak and look through it at the world (and at other faces), I do not see my own face unless I deliberately choose to by looking in a mirror. In looking at my face in the mirror – and in seeing my self in it – I get the sense of who I am in relation to others, and who they are as others.
Thus, as a symbol of individuality, my face identifies me – Roland Chia – as this particular person, and distinguishes me from others who are not me.
In our fallen world, however, the human face is shrouded with an inherent ambiguity in that it not only reveals, but it also conceals and sometimes even deceives. The face can become a mask that deliberately misdirects by hiding or disguising the true self.
Yet, despite the fact that sin has disfigured the human face, it still has the potential to reflect and reveal the Face of faces, that is, the Face of God, about which the Bible speaks about so frequently and eloquently (see Psalm 13:1; Psalm 17:15; 1 Corinthians 13:12).
Hence, the great medieval theologian Nicholas of Cusa could write: “In all faces is seen the Face of faces, veiled and in a riddle.”
Such is the mystery of man, created as he is in the image and likeness of God, with the capacity to ‘mirror’ his Creator, however faintly and imperfectly.
But most importantly, the Bible tells us that the invisible God has revealed himself supremely and perfectly in a particular human face, that of Jesus of Nazareth. “Whoever has seen me,” declares the incarnate Son, “has seen the Father.” (John 14:9, ESV)
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.