Belief or Nonbelief

Belief or Nonbelief?

Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.
Translated by Minna Proctor. Introduction by Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinty, Harvard University.

1. Arcade Publishing 1999, ISBN 1559704977; Hardcover $17.95. [Browse/Purchase for $14.36]

2. Arcade Publishing 2001, ISBN 1559705736; Paperback $9.95. [Browse/Purchase for $8.95]

Review by Allen B. Ruch

In 1995, the Milan newspaper Corriere della sera decided to run an unusual feature, an attempt to edify their readers through a frank exchange between two Italian intellectuals: Novelist and professor of semiotics Umberto Eco, and Carlo Maria Martini, the Cardinal of Milan. The purpose of this exchange would be a mutual exploration of issues important to the modern world, but issues open to philosophical dissent between the "believer and the nonbeliever," or more specifically, the Catholic and the secular humanist. The dialogue would take place in a series of four letters, each letter and its subsequent response touching upon a single topic.
Given the nature of human expectations and the fact that the collected letters are billed as "A Confrontation," one wonders if the paper was expecting something more sensational. What resulted, however, was not so much a confrontation as it was a conversation: Eco and Martini proved to be perfectly matched thinkers, gentlemen scholars with a genuine interested in what the other had to say. Shortly after the exchange ended on the topic of secular morality, the letters were collected into a volume entitled In cosa crede chi non crede? The book at hand, Belief of Nonbelief, is the English translation of this collection.
Taken as a whole, the letters are respectful, thoughtful, and filled with curiosity and even warmth. Umberto Eco displays his usual charm and humor along with his unfailing acumen, and Cardinal Martini emerges as a scholar and an intellectual, a prelate and a theologian who is nevertheless sympathetic to humanism and doubt.
Eco opens the dialogue with a polite salutation and a desire to engage each other as fellow scholars rather than as symbols, as a professor and a cardinal. He also makes a request to "aim high" regarding the tenor of their conversations. The rest of the initial letter is taken up by speculations on the "secular obsession with the new apocalypse." Along with some comments on the Book of Revelation and possible ecological catastrophe, Eco speculates on our Christian-derived perception of history as a progression. This teleological notion that history has a purpose and a possible end seems to engender two types of response: the Christian "signpost of Hope," where we may judge history to essentially better our nature, or the "desperate millenialism" of cults attempting to redirect its teleology towards their own tribal goals. To close, Eco asks Martini whether or not there is a "notion of hope (and our responsibility to the future) that could be shared by believers and nonbelievers," and whether or not the idea of a secular end gives us a "critical function" which may motivate us to improve our condition.
Martini opens his reply by agreeing to a discussion conducted without titles and taking place on an intellectual plane. He then makes some clarifications on Revelation, including an insightful critique on the nature of apocalyptic literature. Indeed, Martini quickly shows himself to be a very sharp observer, making his points in an elegant prose illuminated by a logical clarity. However, the first dialogue suffers a bit from a topic that does not lend itself well to a brief first exchange, and Martini's answers are not very different than some of Eco's own observations: Yes, there is a notion of universal hope, grounded in simple humanity and proven every day by the practice of countless believers and nonbelievers alike; and no, the notion of an immanent end serves more to motivate people to fear, dread, and escapism than to serve a positive critical function. Martini contends that positive reflection arises only from the notion of a spiritual End, one that implies "an ultimate declaration in value, illuminating our endeavors in the present and endowing them with a significance." One gets the sense of two academics amiably discussing theology, and though the tone is indeed lofty, and the points made are interesting, it is less satisfying than the following three exchanges, which take place on a more polarized field.
Indeed, the second topic is the most controversial of the four, and the one most likely to have the greatest social impact and relevance to general readers: Where does life begin? Again, Eco starts the dialogue, and his letter is one of the more personal ones in the collection. He acknowledges life as a "miracle," but also expresses his very real confusion on where establish the locus
of that miracle. He also states his opinion that in the absence of such a self-evident threshold, a woman should retain her right to decide for herself -- a personal decision made in a "terrible moment" that places her beyond the ethical projections of her society. To close, he asks Martini not for a pronouncement of doctrine, but for his own thoughts.
This is a difficult thing to ask of a prelate regarding this crucial issue, and Martini does his best, always conscious that his own thoughts are reflective of doctrine itself. He shows a great sensitivity to the complex moral issues of the question, but he is also firm in his reply -- in fact, he gently points out some of Eco's broad statements and potential contradictions. In the end, Martini delivers an excellent account of the rationale behind Catholic doctrine, and his compassion and sensibility are quite refreshing to this particular reader. Unsurprisingly, he avows that life should begin at conception, the first manifestation of "divine calling," where "a person is called upon to participate in the life of God himself." It is the duty of the Church, he contends, to reduce the "conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending" that occurs when this life is violated, as in abortion. In fact, Martini sees the Church's stance against abortion as one of compassionate protection of the mother, in whom is trusted "that being which is most fragile and most noble in the world." Although Martini recognizes that "averting this rending" in the civic world is problematic, he declines to offer his opinion on the political role of the church, if any.
The third topic is again offered by Eco, who admits in going first he is beginning to "feel like a nag." Despite this misgiving, however, he poses a fairly confrontational and very tightly constructed question: Why does the church not ordain women? He enumerates many of the standard reasons, then points out contradictions or philosophical advances that would seem to place those reasons in doubt. Although the question is a good one, and is quite direct, Eco wisely asks it only as a "curious layman" -- he takes great care in establishing that it is not the position of an outsider to judge or condemn the policies of an organization of which he is not a member.
Martini's reply is the most disappointing of the Cardinal's four letters, and more or less amounts to saying, "Because it's a 2000 year old tradition." He pads this out by discussing of some of Eco's points and interpretations, but in the end, he claims that something so "profoundly rooted in tradition" simply maintains its own mystery, and should just be accepted and "celebrated." In fact, he closes by claiming that only by not deviating "from the practice or example of Jesus Christ" and "only by remaining completely faithful to him in exemplary fashion" will the church comprehend the "liberation of man as manifested in both sexes." It's a rather unsatisfying answer, especially given Eco's logical deconstruction of more tangible rationales, and one can almost sense Martini's frustration behind his uncharacteristic glibness.
In the last exchange Martini is finally allowed to pose a question, and he asks something that was on his mind as far back as the first letter: On what basis does a non-believer found an ethical system, if he cannot turn to a personal God or even an Absolute? He emphasizes that his goal is not to "upset anyone's conscience," but to bring believers and nonbelievers closer, the goal of a more humane world being at the forefront of his thoughts. As usual, Martini frames his words without any sense of judgment or superiority, and it is very obvious he has a genuine desire to understand secular humanism at its root level.
Eco's answer is a small lesson in the evolution of morality, starting from a reduction of the basis of ethics down to the need for freedom of movement. After a lucid detour into semantics and postmodern thought, he constructs an ethical being who has learned his morality in the "presence of the other." He relocates Martini's sense of Absolutism to its most primal level, claiming that this humanitarian grounding is even the basis of a religious rationale. He compellingly argues that just as many atrocities have been committed by believers as nonbelievers, that the true moral center rests with the recognition of the other, not in the belief of a higher authority. He also points out that, positing an agnostic universe, even the creation of the Christ story itself shows the redemptive force inherent in mankind. In the end, a fundamental ethic and a religious ethic have the same common ground, and "in the conflicts of faith kindness and Prudence should prevail."
Fitting words to end the exchange; though I have to agree with Harvey Cox in his introduction, when he comments that "reading this book left me wanting more." Not only does there seem to be much fertile ground for further discussions, but nowhere are the two men allowed to offer counter-replies, and it would have been very satisfying to know how content each correspondent was with the other's responses. But those are small concerns, given the extraordinary nature of this dialogue -- would all works of religious and philosophical debate leave you wanting more, rather than inflaming the emotions with judgmental rhetoric or numbing the mind with platitudes! My only real concern regards the book itself -- although the worth of the letters are surely beyond dispute, it is a rather small book, a slim harcover with large type. I assume Arcade is relying on Eco's name to justify the $17.95 price tag. The cover, too, is a bit misleading, displaying five topics -- "Violence and Intolerance" does not actually appear in the book itself, leaving one wondering if there was indeed a final exchange, or if there was just a breakdown between the editor and the designer.


--Allen B. Ruch
17 March 2000

Additional Information

Arcade Publishing -- This is the publisher's page on Belief of Nonbelief?

Back to Eco Collaborations
Back to Reviews
Back to the Main Page