The book is worth reading for its philosophical insights and the beauty of its prose alone, but the very fact that a correspondence like this can take place is also meritous and powerful. In these times of fundamentalist ignorance and intolerance, it is only by thoughtful, respectful and reasoned conversation that we move forward, away from fear, prejudice and racism.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Belief or Non-Belief: A Confrontation
by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Martini
Translated from the Italian by Minna Proctor
July 2001, Hardback
It is a wonderful concept. Invite two of the modern world’s most eloquent thinkers, each from opposing perspectives in their life’s work, to a written debate, and publish the results. This is the origin of Belief or Non-Belief, a slim but thought provoking book which journals the staged correspondence which initially took place between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlos Maria Martini in the Italian newslpaper La Correra de la Serra. Most of the questions are raised by Eco, and answered by Martini, although the once exception is perhaps the most striking exchange in the book. In all instances, both Eco and Martini are respectful to one another, thoughtful, intelligent and above all, extremely clear in their attempts to illuminate deep and often complex and difficult concept of ethics, faith and a modern morality.
The topics are wide reaching and relevant, beginning with the impending apocalypse, which takes its cue from the Millennium but also looks more broadly at whether there is a notion of hope and responsibility for both believers and non-believers in the concept of an end of the world, end of time or end of the universe. Martini’s answer to this question is beautifully phrased, in a way that makes sense both within and outside of religion, and is equally applicable to how we come to terms with our own individual impending deaths.
For the notion of an end to make use as aware of the future as we are of the past, as something to be reflected on in a critical way, the end must be an end, with the characters of an ultimate declaration of value, illuminating our endeavours in the present and endowing them with significance. (39)
There is no hedging from controversial topics either, and for his second question, Eco asks, in reference to the Church’s stand on abortion, “when does life begin?” Again, the questions are framed and explored in the broadest perspective, with prose as rich as poetry:
I do want to say that at the very core of Christian theology lies the question of the threshold (a paper-thin threshold) beyond which what was a hypothesis, a gem – a dark articulation of life still tied to the mother body, a marvellous desire for the light, not unlike a seed deep in the earth struggling to flower – at a certain point is recognized as a rational animal, a mortal.(38)
Eco’s third question is the least powerful in the book, partly because Eco himself remains unengaged with it: “clearly this is not a personal issue for me.” The issue of women’s role in the Church, specifically in reference to ordination seems drier and more theoretical than the other issues, and although it may well be of profound interest to a Churchgoer, to a secular thinker, it seems trivial in comparison with the weight of the other issues. Martini’s answer to this question also seems, for once only, to avoid the issue. This one shallow exchange is more than made up for however in the final question, which brings the book full circle. Posed by Martini, the question asks where the layman finds illumination or a basic ethical foundation. This is an important question and Eco rises to the challenge providing a lucid and powerful answer which evokes Martini’s on hope in the first question:
Yet even the vision of a great and unique cosmic Substance into which we will one da be reabsorbed can generate a vision of tolerance and of benevolence, precisely because we are all invested in maintaining the equilibrium and harmony of the only Substance think it impossible that this Substance is not somehow enriched or deformed by what we have done through the millenia – that is why we care. (95)
Eco’s philosophical arguments are as strong as his writing and the only negative thing about this book is that it is too short. It would have been wonderful to see Martini’s reply to Eco’s final argument, and indeed to see the questions and answers to more of life’s big mysteries.
The book is worth reading for its philosophical insights and the beauty of its prose alone, but the very fact that a correspondence like this can take place is also meritous and powerful. In these times of fundamentalist ignorance and intolerance, it is only by thoughtful, respectful and reasoned conversation that we move forward, away from fear, prejudice and racism. As a precedent, it doesn’t get any better than this book. That two intellectuals of this calibre from such opposite walks of life can converse on such a powerful plane is cause for great hope. Of course fanatics are unlikely to be reading books like this, but nevertheless, both Martini’s and Eco’s interest in “frank and unfettered dialogue” is vitally important. Reasoned debate, thoughtful discourse and even good dinner conversations are becoming rarities in our overly “busy” world. This book is cause for celebration, conceptually, spiritually and practically.
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Belief or Non-Belief?: A Confrontation