“Belief or Nonbelief” is a short but challenging book, an exchange of letters between Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and scholar, and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan. A newspaper in Milan asked the two men to write to each other (and published the results) because they represent the believer and the nonbeliever, the Catholic and the secularist, the one who left the church and the one who stayed. The result, says Harvard theologian Harvey Cox in his introduction, is a “My Dinner With Andre” on paper, a conversation between two amazing minds on which we have the luck to eavesdrop.
Eco is the nonbeliever, an agnostic intellectual who left the church when he was 22, but he is neither angry nor anti-religious. He thinks that a person may not believe in God but “one should not have the arrogance to declare that God does not exist.” He is a man, as Cox says, “marked by a restless incredulity, not a closed skepticism.”
When Martini’s name is mentioned, on the other hand, liberal Catholics cross their fingers: He is among those on at least one list for the next pope. Cox says he once heard Martini tell a large crowd in Milan that when he speaks of “believers” and “nonbelievers,” he does not have two different groups in mind but rather one, a single person, who contains both belief and nonbelief. In fact, this is true, Martini said that day, “of this bishop as well.”
It is clear from context that the two men chose to discuss whatever was foremost in their minds, and this method, so different from focus groups, has about it an old-worldly charm. But there is nothing old-worldly about their choice of topics. The letters were written at the end of 1999, and the issues the men debate are those that worry and divide us on the cusp of the millennium: abortion, the apocalypse, women in the church, ethics without God, violence and intolerance. (Martini’s weakest letter, to this prejudiced reader, is his defense of the church’s stance on women’s ordination.)
The letters express the great dilemma of our age: Having freed ourselves from the dogmas and in many ways the influence of both religion and its close relative, 20th century communism, we find ourselves without moral moorings, at sea in an ocean of global capitalist greed. We are at the end, as Eco says, of both ideology and solidarity.
Eco writes the first letter. His focus is on the apocalypse. “We are living out our own fears about the end,” he writes. “One could even say that we live our fear in the spirit of eat, drink, for tomorrow we die, in a whirlwind of irresponsible consumerism.” He poses the question: “Is there a notion of hope (and our responsibility to the future) that could be shared by believers and nonbelievers?”
Martini replies: “In every apocalypse there is a heavy utopian freight, a massive reserve of hope, but coupled with a woeful resignation to the present.” Rejecting this point of view, Martini says that both believers and nonbelievers can agree that “history has meaning,” and that the “road ahead of us calls for our mutual intelligence and courage.”
Citing Jesus in the gospel of Mark, Martini says Jesus does not appeal to philosophical theories or disputes between various schools of thought but “to the intelligence given each of us to orient ourselves and to understand the meaning of events.” Finally, he says that any notion of the end must be the idea of a true End, an ultimate value against which we measure our actions in the present.
“If the present has meaning in relation to a recognizable and estimable value, which I can anticipate with acts of intelligence and responsible choice, this allows me to reflect on the mistakes of the past without pain,” Martini writes. “I know I am on a journey.” He ends with the wonderful lines: “No, it’s not yet time to intoxicate oneself on electronic images while waiting for an end. We still have much to do together.”
These two men are civilized, in the best sense of the word: educated, well-intentioned, humbled. Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and the best-selling author of “The Name of the Rose.” Martini also studied philosophy and theology and writes books (both scholarly texts and spiritual books for laypeople). He was ordained in 1952 and is a Jesuit. He was rector of Gregorian University in Rome before becoming cardinal of Milan.
They are relentless in a search for common ground but also more than willing to respectfully disagree. In the end, this is the gift of this slim book, that two people can disagree with each other, tolerate the other’s point of view (without watering down his own) and remain coherent. In an age of talk radio’s ugly rejoinders and the weak-kneed compromise we all tend toward in order to get along, this robust exchange is a joy to read.
Nora Gallagher is the author of “Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith.”