Celebrating an Irish master of religious philosophy

Celebrating an Irish master of religious philosophy Patrick Masterson, from a painting by Derek Hill in UCD
Ciphers of Transcendence: Essays in Philosophy of Religion in Honour of Patrick Masterson
Fran O’Rourke (Irish Academic Press, €35)


This is a well-deserved Festschrift. Patrick Masterson was a loyal and valued staff member of University College Dublin for 30 years. Beginning in 1963 he was an assistant lecturer in the philosophy department and in 1980 he was appointed Dean of the faculty. He served as college registrar and was president from 1986 to 1993. Subsequently he was principal of the European University Institute in Florence from 1994 to 2002.

Aided by his meticulous research into and reflection on the most profound issues and themes in metaphysics, he published Atheism and Alienation, The Philosophical Sources of Contemporary Atheism in 1972, The Sense of Creation – Experience and the God Beyond in 2008 and Apprehending God: Between Phenomenology and Theology in 2013.

A collaborative work with Séamus Heaney – Articulations: poetry, philosophy and the shaping of culture – appeared in 2008.

In retirement he wrote an entertaining novel which highlighted the idiosyncrasies of some well-known academics. It generated much amusement, as it featured cameos by some of his former colleagues.

Fran O’Rourke, emeritus professor of philosophy at UCD, deserves the credit for originating and ensuring the appearance of this splendid Festschrift.

He successfully encouraged a number of Masterson’s former students, colleagues and peers to provide essays in their areas of special interest and expertise which reflect Masterson’s focus on the ‘transcendent’.


The essays range across areas of the philosophy of religion and ethics and the history of philosophy in the classical, medieval and modern periods. In so doing they also highlight important issues in contemporary philosophy of religion, metaphysics and ethics.

As O’Rourke notes, the collection is enhanced by the inclusion of an essay by leading contemporary thinker Alasdair MacIntyre and a poem from Séamus Heaney that evokes across the silence of solitude the tender presence of transcendence.

The input from a Thomistic perspective is provided by two former staf members of UCD: Denys Turner and Desmond Connell. Turner writes about two illustrious students of Albert the Great: Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart.

Apart from both having been Dominicans both were charged with having held heretical theological opinions.

By virtue of their differing temperaments, while Aquinas’ writing style was terse and lucid that of Eckhart was rhetorical. Thus, the former was essentially a teacher, the latter a preacher. Turner points out neither drew attention to themselves but to the mystery of the God beyond all speech.

While Connell’s area of main interest was the philosophy of Nicolas Malebranche, he was first and foremost a committed Thomist. He emphasises that the metaphysics of Aquinas was the first original philosophy of the Christian era. It drew from a wide variety of sources mainly Aristotelian, mastered them and emerged as a genuine unity of thought experiencing a new and deeper penetration of the question of being.

The collection is enhanced by the inclusion of an essay by leading contemporary thinker Alasdair MacIntyre and a poem from Séamus Heaney”

In his contribution the ebullient Brendan Purcell crosses swords with self-declared celebrity atheists. Dermot Moran’s ‘Edith Stein’s Philosophical Conversions: From Husserl to Aquinas and Newman’ is a tour de force and one wishes to see it as a stand-alone publication so as to be more generally accessible.

Sadly it contains an item of unbelievable horror. In response to a pastoral letter condemning Nazi anti-Semitism by the Dutch Catholic bishops which was read in all churches on July 26, 1942 the German authorities spitefully ordered the arrest of all non-Aryan Catholics. With her sister Rosa, also a Catholic convert, Edith, the eminent philosopher and then the Carmelite Sister Benedicta, was arrested. They were shipped to Auschwitz in a cattle truck where they arrived on August 7 and two days later were sent to the gas chamber.

In a valedictory piece, Masterson provides a veritable apologia pro vita sua , which involved a life-time of reflection and discussion on how the road to the reality and existence of the ‘transcendent’ can be travelled through metaphysics, phenomenology (human consciousness) or theology.