James R. PETERS, The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009. pp. 304. $32.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-3599-9.
Reviewed by Gerald MCCARTHY, Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts 01609

The Logic of the Heart argues the case for the reasonableness of Christian belief in a postmodern era by appealing to Pascal’s vision of “passionate reason” as “providing a compelling account of human embeddedness and offering a viable middle ground between Enlightenment rational autonomy and mainstream postmodern poetics of self-creation” (16). To develop his argument, Peters draws on the Socratic strategy of dialectical inquiry, which he contrasts with rationalist foundationalism, and the critiques of reason proposed by the agnostic Hume and the believer Pascal whom he situates within the Augustinian tradition which emphasizes the necessity of belief for understanding.

A fideist alliance between skepticism and faith is hardly a novelty in Christian apologetics. However, Peters’ point is more nuanced. Contrary to some traditional interpretations, he argues that Pascal’s and Hume’s targets were not reason per se but Descartes’ and Locke’s descriptions of reason as an autonomous arbiter of truth and their failure to recognize the necessary interdependence of reason and the affections.

According to both Hume and Pascal, if reason were our sole faculty, we should all be skeptics. However, they realized what postmodern skeptics and relativists do not, namely, that skepticism is not really an option, since nature “forbids us to be skeptics” (Hume) and “backs up helpless reason and keeps it from going astray” (Pascal). Peters devotes the final chapter of his book to a dialectical exploration of what he sees as the deficiencies of postmodern skepticism. His essential point is that it cannot survive Socratic scrutiny because its anti-realism is performatively inconsistent with the cognitive and moral claims that postmodernists themselves make.

Rejecting both skepticism and the misshapen cognitive psychology of Descartes and Locke, Pascal and Hume searched for a supplement to reason that would guide human efforts to live life wisely in its given natural and social context. Hume found it in natural human instincts and Pascal in the activities of the “heart,” which he variously described as instinct, intuition, and desire. Peters believes that this properly broadened description of “embedded” reason provides an opportunity for a genuine, Socratic discussion of the rationality of Christian beliefs. The difficulty, of course, is that Hume and Pascal differ dramatically in their assessment of the validity and value of those beliefs. As might be expected, Peters sides with Pascal

Peters finds Hume’s arguments that religious beliefs are both unwarranted and unwise wanting on several counts. In his view, Hume’s agnostic “metaphysical minimalism,” restricting rational thought to beliefs that have empirical anchorage and apply to “common life,” is arbitrary and, in fact, supportive of a rational, though not rationalistic, account of faith. In addition, his critique of miracles begs the question since it presupposes the naturalistic view of the world that it is supposed to establish and his pivotal analysis of religious beliefs as psychologically crude and debilitating applies only to a caricature of Christian faith and therefore misses its target.

The hero of Peters’ narrative is Pascal, the “Christian Socrates,” whose rejection of rationalist hopes (pretensions in Peters’ view) mirrors that of Hume and the postmodernists, but whose appeal to the heart’s cognitive passions, desires, and intuitions allows for the objectivity of truth that they deny. It is important to note that, since these passional beliefs are fallible and subject to Socratic rational testing, they should not be confused with the foundational beliefs sought by the Enlightenment and criticized by Hume and Pascal. Peters grants that Pascal’s assessment of faith’s rationality will not be persuasive to all inquirers but denies that this is a liability, since Hume’s and Pascal’s skeptical arguments have shown that all reasoning begins from passional commitments. The Christian faith, according to Pascal, will be rational only to inquirers who examine its evidence in the proper frame of mind, that is, one that is alert to reason’s frailty and to the existential discrepancy between human desires and human capacity to satisfy those desires. Only a person who has felt deeply the need for God’s healing grace will appreciate the evidence for how the Christian faith survives the realistic cognitive demands of Socratic scrutiny by “making sense of’ our existential situation and offering healing for our broken lives.

The Logic of the Heart is representative of Reformed epistemology’s rejection of evidentialism and will generate positive and negative considerations similar to previous arguments. An extended review would engage those arguments. I mention only two considerations here. First, I do not think that Peters subjects Pascal to the same Socratic testing to which he subjects Hume and the postmodernists. In particular, it seems to me that the same accusation of circularity which he levels against Hume is applicable to Pascal, since the heart’s intuitions of the “wretchedness and greatness” of the human condition may well be the product of the Christian narrative that they are designed to support. It seems unlikely that the hearts of disciples of Aristotle or Confucius would share the intuitions of Pascal’s heart. Second, Peters’ thoughts on Socratic dialectic (it “makes sense of our lives”) are vague and undeveloped. Here, I think his argument would benefit from a more serious engagement with the strategy of a dialectical testing of traditions elaborated by Alasdair MacIntyre (to whom he makes passing reference in a footnote). This would also provide him with more adequate tools for a dialectical examination of Pascal and the tradition within which he stands.

This is a serious book, clearly based on years of reflection, thought, and teaching. It handles technical issues straightforwardly and is conversant with the historical and philosophical literature, though some of its interpretations, particularly of Pascal, will be controversial. As such, it is worth reading and suitable for use in an upper-level course in philosophy of religion.


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