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.
In his illuminating chapter on Hegel, Masterson presents him as responding to the crisis of modernity. In modernity, truth becomes relocated inside the self, in what Masterson calls “the luminous presence of the thinking subject to himself”, found most notably in Descartes. On Masterson’s account, the crisis deepens with Kant, the threat emerges that the rational order of the cosmos that so impressed Aquinas in his demonstrations of the existence of God, might in fact turn out to be constituted by human beings out of their own resources, rather like a spider lives in a web spun out of its own body.
Hegel sought to overcome this crisis by showing that reality is intrinsically rational. The finite depends on the infinite, but on the other hand, the infinite is not fully complete unless it too includes the finite. In a sense, God needs the world as much as the world needs God. Masterson sides with Hegel in his desire to advance reason as far as it will go, but ultimately he agrees with Paul Ricoeur that Hegel’s absolute knowledge eclipses the profound mysteries that can only be expressed through symbol, myth and rite.
To find an adequate way of approaching the divine, Masterson begins with phenomenology, the description of experiences as they are manifest to the subject. Phenomenology attempts to develop a conception of the divine based on the structures of human consciousness. Phenomenology focuses on “givenness” and recognises the “excess of givenness” of certain experiences, which are in the contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion’s phrase, “saturated phenomena” which cannot be conceptualised or objectified.
Masterson then turns to metaphysics, which argues for the existence of God based on an analysis of the structures of being. Finally, there is theology which claims inspiration from the Divine Word, from some kind of revelation.
Masterson appreciates phenomenology for its first person witness to the experience of the divine in its many forms. He is well attuned to the language of the phenomenologists of religion especially in the French tradition, Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Marion, and in the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney. Masterson applauds phenomenology’s recognition of the personal basis of religious experience. But this focus on human experience, can at best give us an immanent sense of the divine, rather than recognising genuine transcendence, the genuinely other. Masterson also criticises phenomenology for rejecting metaphysical reasoning and offers a qualified defense of the validity of traditional metaphysical investigation of the nature of the divine.
In this regard he takes issue with Richard Kearney’s envisaging of a post-metaphysical God, a God beyond being, a God who “may be”, an “eschatological otherness” who is never experienced directly. Kearney’s God is encountered in the eschatological experience, found, as in Emmanuel Levinas, in the face of the stranger. Masterson, on the other hand, argues – following Aquinas – that God can be experienced through contemplation of the being that surrounds us. Metaphysics begins from the recognition of the independence of being; things are independent of our consciousness of them. Quoting Seamus Heaney, Masterson states that consciousness operates “under the grativational pull of the actual”. By recognising the ultimate dependency of everything finite on a first cause, a sense of absolute being can be attained, being that needs nothing outside itself, pure “subsisting being”. Masterson, then, is a defender of the metaphysics of creation, whereas Heidegger, for instance, thinks of creation as a concept completely outside of Greek thought.
Masterson claims that the phenomenological and the metaphysical approaches to the divine are not mutually exclusive, but rather are complimentary. However, Masterson also recognises that acceptance of the metaphysics of being is not a prerequisite for faith although it will enrich faith. Masterson’s book offers a serious challenge to postmodern philosophy – especially phenomenology – and also to postmetaphysical theology. He offers a carefully reasoned defence of the realist metaphysical approach that begins from the apprehension of being. Against Hegel, Masterson maintains we have no uniquely adequate way to approach the topic of God. Masterson charts his course with reference to Aquinas and his modern disciples as well as examining Hegel, Karl Barth, Joseph Marechal, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, John D Caputo, as well as analytic philosophers of religion such as Brian Davies and Anthony Kenny. Masterson’s careful and challenging engagement with Jean-Luc Marion is a particular highlight of the book.
Overall, Masterson offers an important corrective to postmodern philosophy and theology. He strongly defends the values and insights of the Thomist tradition but also welcomes phenomenological explorations of the human experience of the divine. Least explored is the theological approach itself – and perhaps that will be the subject of Masterson’s next intervention.