Approaching God: Between Phenomenology and Theology, By Patrick Masterson
In his new book, the philosopher of religion explores three ways of approaching the divine
Patrick Masterson admires Hegel’s spirit of reconciliation and especially the reconciliation of philosophy and theology
Approaching God: Between Phenomenology and Theology
Philosophy has always been in tension with religion and theology. Already in the Second Century CE, the African bishop and Christian theologian Tertullian asked: what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has philosophy to do with faith? He proclaimed: “We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.”
In the 20th century, the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger concurred, saying that a rational faith would be like a “wooden iron”, ie a contradiction in terms. There can be, for Tertullian and Heidegger, no reasoning about faith. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, faith involves a leap beyond reason. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, is, on the human face of it, completely irrational, even pathological, yet it represents the supreme act of religious faith.
The German Protestant theologian Karl Barth agreed with Kierkegaard. For Barth, God communicates to us not through reason but through faith. Indeed, Barth insists, faith “grips reason by the throat and strangles the beast”. Reason is useful at best only for articulating the truths of faith.
On the other hand, there have always been philosophers and theologians – from St Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to GW Hegel – who have argued that religious belief is not irrational or arational but in fact embodies the deepest form of reason. Patrick Masterson belongs to this tradition; he is a defender of what in the past was called “natural theology”. God can be known through his effects, ie through creation. Furthermore, for Masterson, philosophy does not threaten or contaminate Christian faith but allows us to explore its depths.
Masterson, former president of UCD and now professor emeritus, is known for his work in the philosophy of religion, especially Atheism and Alienation and The Sense of Creation: Experience and the God Beyond. His latest book takes an ambitious step further. Masterson wants to mediate between the three powerful and competing contemporary approaches to the divine – the phenomenological, metaphysical and theological – seeking to find a way to continue talking about God in our bleak, post-confessional landscapes.
To pursue this mediation Masterson engages in a dialogue with the German philosopher Hegel. Masterson admires Hegel’s spirit of reconciliation and especially the reconciliation of philosophy and theology. For Hegel, human thought reached its highest and most absolute form in art, religion and philosophy. These three forms express the same absolute truth in different ways. Art expresses the Absolute in its sensuous immediacy; religion expresses it in a form of pictorial representation, but philosophy conceptualises the Absolute and in so doing brings humans to self-knowledge of their own role in the Absolute.