Thomas Grüter has always had trouble putting names with faces. But unlike most of us who might have trouble recollecting the name of the man who just said hello, Grüter’s trouble lies in recognizing the face of the man who just said hello—even if it is his own father’s. His condition is called prosopagnosia or “face blindness,” and until recently the disorder was thought to be exceedingly rare. But new research led by a team that included Grüter himself shows the disorder is surprisingly much more common.
Those affected with prosopagnosia are not forgetful or inattentive, nor are they the social snobs they are often accused of being. When it comes to faces—even their own—they see very little that distinguishes one from another. The part of the brain that signals face recognition simply does not respond. As a result, they may greet acquaintances as strangers, struggle to keep up with plots in movies, and have difficulty finding their own children at school pick-up time. “I see faces that are human,” notes one woman of her condition, “but they all look more or less the same. It’s like looking at a bunch of golden retrievers: some may seem a little older or smaller or bigger, but essentially they all look alike.”(1)
The more I think about what it would mean to live unable to recognize faces, the more I am amazed at our ability to do so at all. Human faces are so complex, differing in both great and minute details. Our faces change with expression or circumstance, angle or shift of light; they are transformed by emotions, altered by different situations, and slowly transformed with age. Given the intricacy of the task, it is phenomenal that we should be able to recognize so many faces so effortlessly in the first place.
Yet the face is one of the very first things we learn to respond to as infants. Developmental psychologists speak readily of the importance of the human face in the life of a newborn, particularly the faces of mother and father, which the child quickly comes to recognize. Professor James Loder speaks of the tendency of an infant to smile when one holds the mere configuration of a face on a stick beside the crib. Writes Loder, “[T]he face phenomenon is not strictly something that comes only from the environment; it is also a construct created by the child and developed out of the child’s inherent resources and deep-seated longing. Children seem uniquely endowed with a potential capacity to sum up all the complexity of the nurturing presence in the figure of the face.“(2) For the child, the face plays a central role in their developing sense of the order of their very universe. Thus, when the face of the loving nurturer goes away in any capacity (which is inevitable), the child’s world is upset on some level. For what has gone away is not merely a static face but a much greater presence.
In this, children inherently illustrate a correlation drawn in biblical language. In both Greek and in Hebrew, the word for “face” is also the word for “presence.” Though we do not literally behold the face of God, it is the Father’s greater countenance that we seek, God’s presence that comforts above all. The psalmist’s plea is that the confirming presence of God’s love would remain with him always: “Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior. Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me” (Psalm 27:9-10). Scripture seems to pronounce what is echoed in the skills and longings of a developing child: namely, our years urge us to pursue “a relationship with the One who is the cosmic ordering, self-confirming presence.”(3) That is to say, the enduring pursuit of the faithful is a pursuit of the Face that will, in fact, never go away.
I cannot imagine the hardship of those for whom no face is familiar. But there are times when God’s face certainly seems obscure to me, and it is a painful discomfort. Though evidence of God’s assuring presence may well be around me, I am at times hard-pressed to recognize it. It is in such times when I am remindedby my own longing that God is near. In my most instinctive desire is the imprint of the face I long for. Though recognition is a task that doesn’t always come effortlessly, the longing to know the face of God is a sign placed deeply within us, an assuring mark of God’s very calming, comforting presence. Wherever we are in our stages of recognition, the promise of God, and the vicariously human presence of the Son of God, is extended: For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.