by Patrick Masterson (The Catholic University of America Press, 224 pp., $35)
Why to believe in God is, in one sense, a simple question. It reduces human experience to its two most basic variables—the self and whatever reality exists beyond that self. But it is simultaneously a tricky question: It assumes that belief is rationally motivated and rationally intelligible. Faith and reason, however, are distinct. Faith means deciding that something is true despite inconclusive evidence; reason relies solely on evidence, deriving its conclusions from true propositions arranged in valid ways. Thus, to insist on the why behind religious belief sounds wrong-headed. Surely any faith that could rationally explain its own existence would cease to be faith.
This tension between faith and reason puts many believers in a bind. On the one hand, no adherent of religion wants to call faith irrational. Christians have historically argued that it is reasonable to believe in God, or at least that we can justify faith retroactively on reasoned grounds. On the other hand, rational arguments for faith feel out of place, like mathematical formulas meant to explain why people love music. Metaphysical proofs reveal little about faith itself; they explain why belief is philosophically viable but not why people actually believe. It’s worth asking whether we must inevitably separate reason and faith. Can we rightly speak of a rational faith or a faithful reason?
Patrick Masterton’s In Reasonable Hope: Philosophical Reflections on Ultimate Meaning answers this last question with an exuberant yes. Masterton asserts that faith and rationality are closely linked: If we trust reason, we necessarily believe that the world has value; conversely, if we believe that life has meaning, then we ought to believe in God, too. Masterton believes that a union of reason and faith will best address his central question: “What, in the final analysis, is the ultimate meaning and value of being in general and of human existence in particular?” He discusses three potential answers to this question, arguing that humanism and scientism satisfy neither our reason nor the beliefs underlying our use of reason, but that theism aligns with both.
According to what Masterton calls the correlationist humanist perspective, everything real exists “relative to human consciousness.” We do not know things as they actually exist; rather, we know the relationship or “correlation” between our minds and the outside world. Masterton’s main objection to correlationism relies on faith: Correlationism, he argues, does not explain our commitment to believing in good and evil. A humanist system of ethics grounds morals in unstable “human wants, desires, or motivations,” which could theoretically change. And yet, Masterton insists, we want to believe that morality is stable, which would suggest that morality has an objective source.
The correlationist could reply, of course, that ethics ultimately depends on human nature, which is relatively stable and (as Rousseau argues) tilts us towards compassion, pity, and “traditional” ethics. Morality is as fixed as our natural moral instincts. But this answer only demonstrates Masterton’s point. People instinctively believe in a certain moral sketch of the universe and refuse to stop believing in it—and Masterton wants to know why. If ethics and the underlying moral notion that life is valuable have no extra-human origin, then why do we care so much about them? Why do we rank our moral sense above other desires? Masterton argues that correlationism can’t answer this question because it makes human opinion the highest source of value. Our moral sense becomes the sole justification for our moral sense. While correlationists acknowledge that we value traditional ethics, they do not explain why this is so, and thus insufficiently account for life’s significance.
Masterton naturally proceeds from these considerations to scientism, which “seeks an intrinsic understanding of the material world in terms of itself rather than an extrinsic understanding in terms of a transcendent creator or any other set of spiritual forces.” Scientism deems metaphysics to be an illusion. All truths are “empirically verifiable,” and life signifies nothing beyond what we discern in various scientific laws.
Masterton’s most serious objection to scientism also invokes faith. In reducing mind to matter, scientism ignores our belief that we are self-conscious and capable of knowing objective logical and moral truths. Physical laws cannot describe how we became intelligent, or what intelligence really is, because intelligence belongs to a higher “level of reality.” Likewise, although we wouldn’t be conscious without our bodies, consciousness implies something beyond the body. As long as human beings believe in intelligence and consciousness, therefore, scientific materialism appears implausible. It fails to explain a central tenet of belief about ourselves. Again, like Masterton’s argument against correlationism, this argument derives from both reason and faith.
Throughout the remainder of the book, Masterton similarly blends reason and faith to defend theism, which stipulates “that the entire universe is dependent for its being, its continued existence, and its activity upon the free benevolent act of a provident and infinitely perfect creator.” From this definition, Masterton unfolds his own epistemology, which combines optimism about human rationality with a steady faith in traditional religious claims.
Reason, Masterton argues, is perfectly compatible with (and even useful to) faith. Believers, in fact, require reason to say anything substantive about God. Spiritual experiences do not “establish” God’s objective existence—only His existence within human consciousness. And even if we could use experience to prove that God exists, we’d still need reason to analyze and express what we’ve learned. Masterton concludes therefore that reason is necessary for any kind of speech about God. As a result, believers who want to discuss God’s existence must seek out metaphysical arguments. Only rationalized discourse will “show how God exists as nonrelative to us, and so exists whether or not we exist.”
Masterton’s own metaphysical arguments are unique. Although they ultimately depend on logic, they add something beyond logic—what he terms our “loving commitment” to certain assumptions about the world. The “order-attaining capacity of our reason and love implies, requires, or is congruent with an affirmation of God as a more fundamental reality than the cosmic tendency to randomness, disorder, and chaos signified by the physical principle of entropy.” Put simply, our love for beauty, order, and the good life implies that God exists.
Masterton’s argument (though suggestive) is difficult to follow: He never clearly defines a “loving commitment.” He seems to be discussing faith, though the litany of reformulations is, at best, vague—he speaks about an “acknowledgement” or “recognition;” about our “conception of an authentic human life,” “a rational concern for meaning and value,” a set of “rational aspirations,” a “loving conception of a desirable state of affairs;” our “committed love of what is perceived to be the highest and most desirable moral good,” and our “loving desire for the greatest good.” In general, such terminological vagueness gives the argument a wishy-washy tone.
But his overall point, if I understand it correctly, is appealing. He starts by assuming that everyone has faith in something. People feel, for example, that a happy and virtuous life must be good, or that a friend’s “inherent goodness and beauty” must outlast his physical death, or that there must exist some “infinite goodness” that satisfies our “seemingly unrestricted love and desire for what is good and lovable.” Such beliefs, Masterton argues, logically imply theism—so, if we wish to retain these beliefs, we have good reason to be theists. As long as we are willing to trust our intuition that beauty and love are real, we gain a “rational hope” that a God of beauty and love is real, too. Faith in the goodness of life entails faith in God.
This argument has a noticeably modern ring. American public discourse increasingly emphasizes feelings over rationality. Today, people define themselves through “lived experiences,” through their emotions and personal “narratives.” Masterton redirects this obsession with what we feel to be true. He carefully updates traditional metaphysical arguments of the form “if x, then God; x; therefore, God” to invoke love as well as reason. Rather than underlining the connection between x and God, Masterton stresses the reality of x itself—our sense that x exists and is important. His entire pitch could be reduced to a line from that old spiritual: I hear music in the air—there must be a God somewhere. Masterton’s line of reasoning acknowledges the full human intellect with its capacious potential for logic, affection, and tenacious belief. As an argumentative strategy, it seems especially suited to young Americans, with our staunch commitment to the things we individually love, find beautiful, and judge to be moral. A little terminological clarity, however, would make Masterton’s point more compelling.
Despite its religious overtones, In Reasonable Hope is not a tract. It is a serious inquiry into questions interesting to people of any philosophical predilection. Readers who wish to retain metaphysics in a postmodern age will find Masterton a wise and engaging interlocutor.
Emeline McClellan is pursuing a Master of Philosophy in Classics at the University of Cambridge.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe