By Joshua Orsi, The Catholic University of America
Nicholas of Cusa was one of the most brilliant and most unappreciated theologians in the history of the Catholic Church, belonging to that great pantheon whose members, including luminaries such as Origen, Eriugena, and Pascal, were either ignored or condemned by the tradition of their times. Now, however, the ressourcement which precipitated the Second Vatican Council and the New Evangelization has rediscovered the works of Cusa, whose tract De Pace Fidei concerns the fundamental resemblances of all religions and their essential summation in the Catholic faith. Written shortly after the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks, the tract takes an irenic tone toward Islam (which, though veiled, is the chief interlocutor of the text) and attempts to demonstrate that a Christian reading of the Quran reveals that Muslims affirm the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Cusa also addresses the question of justification and the methods by which various rites might be brought into conformity, but for the sake of space I will limit the bulk of my discussion to his theological prolegomena and his arguments concerning the Trinity and Incarnation.
Cusa’s discussion begins with the assertion that all religions worship the same God. One must wonder how a number of modern Christians would take this argument, especially since Cusa extends it beyond the monotheistic faiths to polytheism as well: “All who have ever worshiped a plurality of gods have presupposed there to be deity.” And deity, Cusa writes, must be understood as eternal and unchanging perfection. Since all rational persons already believe this, the first duty of interreligious dialogue is to recognize the fundamental identity of the worship and end of religion.
Such a statement is highly controversial today, even outside the Church. Cusa’s knowledge of the world seems to stop in India, although he assuredly knew there were lands beyond, so he does not address the question of the world’s great “atheistic” religion, Buddhism. While I do not doubt he would maintain that their rejection of the idea of God is more a matter of semantics than metaphysics, postmodern scholarship would deny that religions all really aim at the same goal by questioning the methods by which we claim to have such knowledge. Cusa, writing in a world where Christian, Muslims, and Jews all employed Greek philosophy, did not face such objections. He does, however, point out that the Jewish people look forward to temporal pleasures and that Muslims anticipate a sensual, even erotic paradise. Cusa responds to the latter by saying that “that life is the fulfillment of our desires” and cites Avicenna in his defense, who understood the Quran to be speaking metaphorically. Cusa summarizes with “For we will say that that [future] happiness is above everything that can be written of or spoken of, since [it is] the fulfillment of every desire and is the attainment of the good in its own Fount and the attainment of life in immortality.” The Jews, by their willingness to die for the Law, evince a belief in life after death, viz. the resurrection of the dead.
Most of Cusa’s treatise is concerned with the two great doctrines of Christianity, the Trinity and Incarnation. Far from calling for some religious syncretism, as might be supposed by the line early on urging the recognition of “one religion in a variety of rites,” Cusa understands the great religions of the world to all point toward their fulfillment in orthodox Christianity. While Cusa does not directly state that he is addressing Islam, Islamic thought is his principal interlocutor, and “the Jews are few in number and will not be able to trouble the world through force of arms.”
Cusa appears to argue that the Trinity is a necessary consequence of the existence of God. He spells this out by maintaining that there are traces of the Trinity in all creatures, namely, the principal of Oneness or Existence, Equality or Form, and Unity. Cusa’s concept is fundamentally hylomorphic: in any creature, existence is ontologically first, followed by form, which is united to the existing matter and establishes a single being. Thus, “Equality is present in Oneness and Oneness is present in Equality, and both Oneness and Equality are present in Union,” and this intercommunion shows that difference in the Trinity, understood as the necessary Origin of this trine existence, is one of relationship and not essence. For in positing any of these three principles, the other two are immediately consequent: existence necessitates essence and vice versa, and both necessitate unity. It is worth an aside that Cusa’s philosophy underwrites St. Augustine’s understanding of the filioque.
Applied to interreligious relations, this understanding of the Trinity is found acceptable by Muslims and Jews alike for guarding the absolute Oneness of God. Cusa points out that the Quran itself speaks of God possessing both Word and Spirit, which he argues ought to be understood in the Christian sense in the light of this newly universal philosophy. Cusa also asserts that now that Muslims accept the divinity of the Word, they ought logically to accept the divinity of Christ. This is not something that can be proven philosophically, but since the Quran affirms that Jesus is the Word, Cusa maintains that Muslims are bound to believe it by their own holy texts. Against the assertion that the union of the Word and human nature is one of grace, Cusa declares that in order for that union to be perfect, in order for it to be qualitatively superior to that of the prophets who merely spoke the Word of God, as the Quran says, the soul and the Word must be “elevated into personal and hypostatic union.” This is a union of grace, because humanity is ontologically distinct from God, but this union is so perfect that “it terminates immediately in nature.”
This was one of the more puzzling arguments in the text. Cusa proposes that if Christ the man is truly, as the Quran asserts, the most perfect of all creatures, then he must be inseparably united to God (as iron filings are to a magnet), for were he in the same ontological order as humans, he would only be finitely perfect and could always be conceived as more holy, wise, etc. Instead, he is “God-and-man…the loftiest man and the Word of God.” Briefly summarized, Cusa’s argument goes like this: 1) Christ is the perfect human, 2) the various aspects of perfection all converge, and 3) among creatures, one can always be more or less perfect. Christ’s unity with divinity follows from these premises.
Space does not permit a fuller treatment of Cusa’s other ideas. I will pause to briefly address his words on justification, which he explicitly affirms comes by “faith alone” and “grace alone.” Though the phrases were politicized by the Reformation, it appears in sources dating back to the Fathers, and it is clear that Cusa employs them in a Catholic sense, since “without works faith is dead,” these works being “the commandments of God.” “Faith has to be formed faith.”
As I stated at the beginning of this essay, Nicholas of Cusa was one of the brightest and most underappreciated theologians in the history of the Catholic Church. His doctrines in De Pace Fidei combine a great charity of spirit toward other religions with a firm insistence on the absolute necessity of Christ, and though he died centuries before Vatican II, I have no doubt that his spirit, and certainly his ideas, were present at the Council.