An Address to the Aquinas Institute, University of Oxford 4/12/09
By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
In the early fifteenth century the German cardinal, mystic and mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa, had journeyed to Constantinople, learning first hand not only about the Christian tradition of the East, but also about Islam. For Cusa, The Fall of Constantinople would serve as a catalyst for the West to begin to perceive Islam, in a new light. Christianity and Islam had fought over the Holy Land, for centuries; and to Cusa all that could eventuate from such continued warfare, and mutual misunderstanding was the self-destruction of “The People of the Book”. Cusa was to articulate his vision of a new order of co-existence in his work, “The Peace of Faith”, a work significantly influenced by the 14th Century Catalan mystic, Ramon Llull.
To Cusa the crux of the conflict between the three religions lay in a failure to understand that what seemed to be a disparity in religion, was in fact, a diversity of rite – for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all swore a singular devotion to the same God – and all claimed descent from the same father of the Faith – Abraham. “The Peace of Faith” opens with Cusa explaining the rationale behind the writing of the tract: “After the brutal deeds recently committed by the Turkish ruler at Constantinople were reported to a certain man, who had once seen the sites of those regions, he was inflamed by a zeal for God; with many sighs he implored the Creator of all things that in his mercy he restrain the persecution, raging more than ever because of different religious rites. It happened that after several days–perhaps because of long continued meditation–a vision was revealed to this zealous man. From it he concluded that of a few wise men familiar from their own experience with all such differences which are observed in religions throughout the world, a single easy harmony could be found and through it a lasting peace established by appropriate and true means. And so in order for this vision eventually to come to the notice of those who have the decisive word in these great matters, he has written down his vision plainly below, as far as his memory recalled it.” (The Peace of Faith, 2000, trans. H. Lawrence Bond, Ch. I).
Moreover, Cusa, far from diluting the Truth of his own Christian Faith, would write that the inability of both the Jew and the Muslim to understand the sublime and salvific role of Christ, was not caused by recalcitrance, but by a failure to understand the language, and theology of the Gospels – and especially the theological teaching of the hypostatic union. To Cusa it is only through Christ that the Truth is fully revealed – but the Truth can also exist, at least in part, in other religious dimensions and traditions. Cusa’s analysis is radical for he is willing to conclude that it is out of love for the one true God that there is this passionate defence from each of the Peoples of the Book for their particular religion: “Therefore, come to our aid you who alone are able. For this rivalry exists for sake of you, whom alone they revere in everything that all seem to worship. For each one desires in all that he seems to desire only the good which you are; no one is seeking with all his intellectual searching for anything else than the truth which you are. For what does the living seek except to live? What does the existing seek except to exist? Therefore, it is you, the giver of life and being, who seem to be sought in the different rites by different ways and are named with different names, because as you are you remain unknown and ineffable to all. For you who are infinite power are none of those things which you have created, nor can a creature grasp the concept of your infinity since there is no proportion between the finite and the infinite. But you, almighty God, who are invisible to every mind, are able to show yourself as visible to whom you will and in the way in which you can be grasped. Therefore, do not hide yourself any longer, O Lord; be merciful and show your face, and all peoples will be saved who are no longer able to forsake the source of life and its sweetness when they have had even a little foretaste of them. For no one withdraws from you unless he does not know you.” (The Peace of Faith, 2000, trans. H. Lawrence Bond, Ch. I).
Striking to the modern reader is Cardinal Cusa’s ability to read The Qur’an with an understanding that the holiest writ in Islam: “contains fundamental truths of the gospel and that the teaching of Mohamed is implicitly trinitarian and christological”. (Biechler, 2004, p. 285). True, Cusa’s later work, “Sifting of the Qur’an” contains passages far less conciliatory than the “Peace of Faith”, however even when at his most critical – Cusa is of the belief that it is ignorance and not malice, that is at the heart of the failure of Islam to understand Christianity. (cf. Biechler, 2004, p. 286). Cusa’s “The Peace of Faith” serves as a prophetic voice – hearkening forth the Declaration, Nostra Aetate of the twentieth century, and Nostra Aetate’s call, that: “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” (Paul VI, 1965, par. 3).