Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review: The Logic of the Heart (James R Peters)

James Peters' The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal and the Rationality of Faith is a profound exploration of what it means to believe in God. I've been struggling with the tension between reason and faith for many years and have found few answers that were satisfying. Enlightenment rationalism which refuses to accept the legitimacy of any belief without empirical evidence, radical postmodernist relativism which promotes the idea that all truth is merely the construction of human culture(s) and the rejection of any form of meta-narrative (other than its own), and the blind faith of the fundamentalist theist who firmly shoves their head in the sand and denies the legitimacy of modern scientific understandings of the cosmos - all of these just don't stand up to rigorous scrutiny - at least not for me. What a breath of fresh air, then, to come across James Peters' thorough, in-depth, nuanced discussion of these matters.

The book is essentially a Socratic "dialogue" between the ideas of Augustine, Pascal and Hume. Intriguingly, Peters describes the similarities between Hume (one of the most famous a-theists) and Augustine's and Pascal's critique of the possibility of human rationalism/empiricism in the pursuit of truth. There is a deep desire in humans to inquire and discover with a paradoxical human limitation in succeeding at that pursuit. So Peters passionately affirms the legitimacy of much that Hume writes about the limits of reason.

Just as passionately, Peters shows how Hume, when he comes to discuss Christianity, seems to argue inconsistently with his own understanding. Peters ultimately shows how an Augustinian and, in particular, Pascalian approach to reason and faith is more holistic than Hume's.

One of the strongest features of this book is a sustained analysis of radical postmodernism and, in particular, a great analysis of Richard Rorty's thinking - a telling critique highlighting the self-referentially undermining nature of his approach.

So, what is the essential point of The Logic of the Heart? I hesitate because I know I'm not going to do justice to the ideas and argument in this book. It is that there are some things we need to commit to in order to know the truth of them. One example is trust in another person. When we first meet someone we need to commit ourselves to trusting them before we can enter into a relationship to test their trustworthiness. For Peters, it is the same with belief in God. In order to know of God's existence it is necessary to take a leap of faith in order to know of God's existence through direct experience.

Now this is a paltry statement of the essential point of the book. Peters has a broad and deep knowledge of philosophical literature and demonstrates the rationality of such a position though extended discussion, argument and dialogue with a host of "interlocutors" past and present. His perspective offers a midway between Enlightenment "worship" of reason and postmodernist emphasis on freedom and self-rule.

Who should read this book? The first criteria is that the reader needs to be familiar with general philosophical concepts related to epistemology and, in particular, the debates that arise from the dialogue between empiricists and postmodernists over epistemology. Apart from that, you need to be prepared for a dense, challenging read. Peters' argument is sustained and rich and it's most definitely not a book you can read in a few hours. There is much to chew over. In my opinion, every well educated Christian and atheist would benefit from this book. Peters provides a view worth considering for those who are unhappy with so-called new atheist perspectives and naive fundamentalist evangelicalism. And for Christians who are constantly berated for believing in in the irrational it is a rigorous argument demonstrating that faith can be a rational act of believing.

To finish: a quote from the book (p 22):

I have written this book out of the conviction that the basic Augustinian and Pascalian position on faith and understanding is well suited for a post-modern age disillusioned with the idols of hard facts, passionless reason, absolute foundations,mand the amoral rhetoric of consumerism and materialism. Augusrine’s and Pascal’s conception of a situated and dialectical reason, of a reason dependent on the heart, of a reason nurtured and transformed by God’s love, provides a viable middle ground between the Enlightenment idolatry of reason and the radical postmodernist’s idolatry of autonomy and its call for the end of traditional philosophy and theology as unwarranted and oppressive metanarratives. Both Hume and Pascal tried in their own ways to caution us against the pretensions of philosophers who insist that we live by reason alone. I shall attempt in what follows to place these two dialectical opponents against each other. In the end, whether we opt for Hume’s or Pascal’s position on the merits of Christian faith depends on a question at the core of our human nature: “What are people for?"

For a refreshingly challenging read go get this book!

Book details: James R Peters (2009), The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith. Baker Academic.


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