No Comment — July 10, 2008, 2:38 pm

On the Peace Born of Faith

Max Blumenthal reports last week in The Nation on a hushed meeting convened on June 10 in the plush conference room of a Chicago law firm. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama met with thirty leading figures from the evangelical community. The show was stolen by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son and successor of the evangelical world’s hottest seller, Billy Graham, better known for his highly inflammatory comments about Islam—which he once called a “very evil and wicked religion.” According to Blumenthal, Graham, who sat next to the candidate,

directly confronted Obama about his supposedly Muslim background and Christian authenticity. . . He peppered Obama with pointed questions, repeatedly demanding to know if the senator believed that “Jesus was the way to God or merely a way.”

It appears that Obama impressed many with his depth in Protestant theology, but in the end failed to satisfy his socially conservative, white southern audience with answers about abortion and gay marriage.

The incident serves to highlight one of the most persistent items of background noise from the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror”: the vilification of Islam and presentation of the American military mission in the Middle East in religious terms as a renewal of the crusades. Bush’s own conduct is totally inconsistent. He has employed incendiary rhetoric, likening the mission to the crusades and regularly attaching the word “Islamic” to the “enemy.” On the other hand he has openly acknowledged the foolishness of this perspective, visited Islamic organizations, and called for respect for people of Muslim faith.

The different perspectives can be explained very simply. One reflects the nation’s strategic interests, which require close cooperation and friendly relations with Islamic states, which have numbered among the nation’s allies since its founding. The other reflects a cynical domestic political calculus, namely the view that the “base”—as Karl Rove calls the Religious Right—can be energized by stirring up anger and resentment against Islam and giving the war on terror a mystical religious dimension. Obama’s Chicago meeting shows exactly how viable these perspectives are in parts of the Evangelical community which stand closest to the Republican Party.

Reading of this encounter made me think of another figure who stands as a strong counterpoint to Franklin Graham and reflects a faith firmly rooted in Christian tradition and ethic–Nicolas of Kues, or Cusanus, the fifteenth-century theologian who made Christian ecumenism and reconciliation of faiths the center of his own writing and speaking. Far from being a quixotic outlier, Cusanus was the bishop of Brixen or Bressanone in German-speaking northern Italy, a cardinal of the Catholic Church and one of the most influential spiritual writers of his day. On the continent, he is widely known and recognized as a key figure of the Renaissance. Ernst Cassierer calls him the philosopher of the Renaissance, for instance. But in the English-speaking world his name and his writings remain largely unknown.

The son of a boat builder in the Moselle River town of Kues, Nicolas was sent to be educated in Deventer, in The Netherlands, and then to Heidelberg and the University of Padua. He quickly established himself as a theologian of brilliance and skill in the mold of Albertus Magnus. But his life took a decisive turn in 1437-38, when he was sent as part of a church delegation to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. The mission was to explore, with leaders of the Orthodox Church, the basis for a possible reconciliation of the Christian world then split between the Orthodox and Catholic rites. But in his private writings, Cusanus tells us that while in Constantinople, at the crossroads of East and West, he encountered and was fascinated by other faiths as well. First he encountered Armenian and Chaldean Christians and learned of their equally ancient faiths which had established ecumenical liaisons with the Orthodox Church while standing apart from it. But then he discovered the world of Islam and it appears likely that during his stay in the East he had exchanges with Islamic scholars about their faith.

The Orthodox Church was at this time under great stress due to the encroachment of Islamic realms, most immediately the rise of the Turkish empire which had reduced Byzantium to little more than a shadow of its former self. In the West, hopes were high that this pressure could lead to a softening of the Eastern rite’s religious differences and thus to reconciliation in a process that recognized the supremacy of Rome. For most of the Christian world, Islam was synonymous with tales of barbarism and brutality. Christian communities were put to the sword or forced to convert. The Islamic faith was associated deeply with the horrors of war, and its theology was little understood and little studied. But Cusanus was fascinated by it. He secured a Latin translation of the Quran and spent decades studying it. Many Christian leaders in the West spoke of Islam in tones only of hatred and horror. But that was never the case for Cusanus.

On his return trip from Constantinople, Cusanus says he experienced a mystical revelation which subsequently became the focus of his writing and teaching. Cusanus’s writings are philosophical, complex and often not easy to summarize. But here I want to note his relationship with Islam and it requires some context. Cusanus was throughout his life a powerful reconciler. He worked hard to surmount the differences that had erupted between the Pope and the council within the church, and between the Pope and the Emperor. He clamored for reform of the church, identifying specific abuses in a fashion and in tones that are strikingly similar to the Protestant reformers who followed one century later—which has caused some to call Cusanus a “proto-Protestant.” He was also one of the strongest voices within church circles calling for reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. Hence, one of the hallmarks of Cusanus’s thought was an aggressive ecumenism that stressed the importance of shared values over the distinguishing features of custom and rite.

But Cusanus’s drive for reconciliation did not stop with Christianity. He pushed for closer relations with Jews and Muslims as well and worked very hard to identify the religious elements which were common to all the Abrahamic faiths.

His key writing in this regard is De pace fidei (On the Peace Born of Faith) from 1453. It is fairly clear that specific news caused him to pause, put aside other work, and write this book. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople finally fell to the Turks and Byzantium came to an end. The news was greeted with horror and dread throughout the Latin world. Here is what Æneus Sylvius Piccolomini (later Pius II) wrote as the news reached Rome in July:

My hand is shaking and my soul is paralysed by shock. But my disgust doesn’t allow me to be silent and I can’t speak because of pain. Oh, miserable Christianity!… Along with your sorrow, I have to mourn the downfall of Christianity. I mourn the destruction and desecration of the temple of Hagia Sophia, whose fame reaches around the world. I mourn for the many holy churches which were wonderful buildings: now they are subject to destruction and the dirt of Mohammed. Shall I talk about the books which existed in large numbers and which were unknown to the Latin West? Oh, how many names of great men are lost forever? This is Homer’s second death and a second dying for Plato. Where shall we find the spirit of philosophers and poets?… I see faith and culture go down together.

pius-ii-piccolomini-br

How fear and the threats of war distort perception, then as now. The conqueror of Constantinople, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, certainly put many Christians to the sword (as they did many Muslims), and forced conversions. But he has become known to posterity as a great patron of the arts and sciences and a man strongly committed to the preservation of the rich legacy of Byzantium, and a man who evidenced more tolerance for Christians and their faith than the Orthodox rulers ever did for his. In 1463, he issued his firman for the protection of Bosnian Catholics, which the United Nations has named one of the oldest and most important documents of official religious tolerance.

Still, leaders throughout Christendom clamored for war, for a new crusade to defeat the Muslims and drive them from Constantinople. Cusanus raised a strong voice against this, arguing the accusations against the Turks were overblown. Where for Piccolomini the Muslims obliterated the culture of classical antiquity, for Cusanus they were a bridge to understanding Aristotle and the preservers of the lost texts. Cusanus questioned the war party; he called instead for reason, restraint and tolerance. And the vehicle for his appeal was an amazing tractate, De pace fidei. It is an extraordinary work, beginning to end.

Here’s the beginning:

News of the atrocities, which have recently been perpetrated by the Turkish king in Constantinople and have now been divulged, has so inflamed a man who once saw that region, with zeal for God, that among many sighs he asked the Creator of All if in His kindness He might moderate the persecution, which raged more than usual on account of the diverse religious rites. Then it occurred that after several days—indeed on account of a lengthy, continuous meditation—a vision was manifested to the zealous man, from which he concluded that it would be possible, through the experience of a few wise men who are well acquainted with all the diverse practices which are observed in religions across the world, to find a unique and propitious concordance, and through this to constitute a perpetual peace in religion upon the appropriate and true course.

The man, is, of course, Cusanus himself. And the vision he presents is extraordinary. Wise men (though “in truth they are not men, but mentalities,” he says) assemble from around the world—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and a Hindu—and plead with God to resolve the differences that divide them. All seek Truth and recognize and accept one God, who must indeed be the same God. Who, they demand to know, has charted the best course? The subtext to their argument is religious harmony and how may it be achieved, but it springs from a realization that religious faith has given rise not simply to war, but to a particularly virulent and inhumane form of warfare. The wise men do not aim to end war, which they recognize is a constant of the human experience, but they do aim to bring an end to religiously motivated warfare. Their conversations search the faiths they represent for their common threads and express skepticism about the importance of the elements of ritual and custom that divide them. Humankind can achieve one true religion with diverse rituals (una religio in rituum diversitate), Cusanus writes.

What Cusanus therefore proposes is tolerance. However, it is not the insulting sort of tolerance, which proposes official indifference. Rather it is a tolerance that has its roots in a philosophical commitment to the search for truth and a recognition that human frailties and imperfections will always lead to mistakes. “For it is a condition of the earthly human estate to mistake for truth that which is merely long-adhered-to custom, indeed, even to mistake this for a part of nature,” Cusanus writes (habet autem hoc humana terrena condicio quod longa consuetudo, quæ in naturam transisse accipitur, pro veritate defenditur.)

But how to reconcile faiths so disparate? For Muslims, polygamy is an accepted practice; for Christians, it is a crime. Christians embrace the notion of a trinity, which Jews and Muslims deride as a vestige of a primitive polytheistic past. For Muslims, paradise is unfolded as a place for carnal pleasures with dark-skinned maidens granted to soldiers who have died in battle, a prospect he says would be unappealing to the sober Christian who aspires to leave behind the life of the flesh. Cusanus gives the answer through the Apostle Paul: man achieves salvation on the basis of faith, not works; these faiths are united in the tradition of Abraham, and their common grounding provides a basis to surmount their differences. The just spirit will achieve eternal life (anima justi hæreditabit vitam æternam). He also adopts an anthropological perspective with regards to customs and rites. They are instituted for important purposes, perhaps, but their ultimate spiritual significance can well be doubted, and their importance can become outlived. Thus a diversity of rites presents no obstacle to the recognition of a common fundamentally shared religion, particularly among the Abrahamic faiths.

Surely, however, the author, a prince of the Roman Catholic church and arguably the greatest theologian it produced in his era, does not distance himself from the sacraments and their importance, and advocates Jesus Christ as a personal intermediator and savior. But with equal clarity, he has answered Rev. Graham’s question to Barack Obama, and the answer he gives is identical to the one that Obama gave Graham (“Jesus is the only way for me. I’m not in a position to judge other people.”)

Cusanus’s vision may be the wild musings of a prelate at the end of an era; they may even be driven by political practicalities—a recognition of the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the short-term futility of efforts to roll it back. But they seem filled with wisdom of immediate relevance to our difficult times. They teach that humanity will always have differing visions of the divine, because the visions will reflect the position and perspective of the human communities that shape them. Cusanus teaches that those who would live their lives with genuine commitment to religious truth must never make religious differences the pretext for war and human suffering. Moreover, the cardinal admonishes us that the very diversity of faith, properly studied and understood, can lead us to better know ourselves and the Divine, and thus lay the foundation for a more lasting peace. This is the meaning of de pace fidei.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chances that an American pediatrician has treated a child for a gunshot wound in the last year:

1 in 6

Researchers found that young teens who witness gun violence are more than twice as likely to commit a violent crime themselves.

Brailsford’s lawyer said Shaver was “not a bad person” but that “his actions” had gotten him killed, referring in part to the defendant’s claim that a hand movement of Shaver’s while he was on his knees made it appear as if he might have been reaching for a weapon in the waistband of his basketball shorts, which at that point had fallen down.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today