Belief or Unbelief? A Dialogue between Umberto Eco
& Cardinal Martini
Translated from the Italian by Minna Proctor
Publisher: Arcade Publishing, Inc, 1997
Review by Pauline Koe
This may seem a strange little offering of a review
to some readers. Yes, it’s Catholic but then as far as I know, at BGST
we do not have a “list of prohibited books” (Index Liborum Prohibito).
So let’s enjoy this fascinating exchange between two great intellectuals
and see how, as Harvey Cox puts it in his introduction, “this
correspondence lifts the possibility of intelligent conversation on
religion to a new level.”
In one corner is Umberto Eco, the agnostic - a renowned scholar in
semiotics (to do with signs and symbols) at the University of Bologna,
celebrated author of The Name of the Rose (never mind if you, like me,
remember only that Sean Connery starred in its movie version) and other
books. And in the other corner is Cardinal Martini, the believer -
Archbishop of Milan, member of the College of Cardinals at the Vatican,
thought at one time to be a pontiff potential. You would think no
ordinary person can possibly understand what they say to each other
because it would be simply too clever and difficult. But, get this,
their correspondence was initiated by an Italian newspaper and their
exchange of views was for the benefit of the man in the street!
I was initially fascinated by the idea that a churchman would be so bold
as to allow fundamental theological positions to be questioned so
publicly by an unbeliever. Did he not fear that his answers might pale
in comparison to the brilliance of his interlocutor? Apparently not. His
answers based on solid theology, good common sense and spiritual
conviction ring out the truth clearly. Harvey Cox, reflecting on this
event, laments the “weakness of serious questioning of religious faith
in America” because it “has had the result of rendering religion’s
intellectual defenders listless and sedentary.” The mutual respect and
empathy shown by Eco and Martini for each other’s positions and their
shared desire to find common ground provide readers with a rare
opportunity to learn, think and make up their own minds on some
fundamental, yet controversial, issues important to both the religious
and secular person.
The first round opens with Eco’s question as to whether there is “a
notion of hope (and of our responsibility to the future) that could be
shared by believers and nonbelievers? (p.25) He asks this because the
new millennium is dawning. We learn that in his view the secularists are
more obsessed with the end of time than believers because the depressing
evidence of ecological disasters rendered by irresponsible consumerism
hangs like “the specter of the apocalypse”. He says other things about
how history is created by the Christian faith and questions how one
should judge history. In reply, Martini clarifies the interpretation of
John’s Revelation, as “not a projection of frustration with the present,
but rather the prolongation of an experience of fullness – in other
words, “salvation”, as it was construed by the early church.” He adds,
“There isn’t now, nor will there be, a power human or satanic that can
challenge the hope of believers.” (p. 30). Then he makes a superlative
point – that believing in an End gives a certain character of value to
the believer’s life, colouring his present endeavours and enabling him
to reflect on the mistakes of the past without pain. He knows he is on a
journey; it is up to him to correct himself and to do better. Martini
ends with a positive note of hope for the new millennium and says they
(the believer and the nonbeliever) have much to do together.
This is a sample of the sort of thing that goes on in the exchange. They
proceed to discuss abortion – “when does human life begin?” and the
exclusion of women from the priesthood – the difficulty of supporting
such a position from a spiritual point of view. There is a lot of
theological reflection of Scripture, some rather esoteric references to
the works of Thomas Aquinas (on which Eco is something of an authority)
and the use of rather academic language. Yet it is all not that terribly
difficult to follow. It just takes careful reading. The writers
themselves remind each other that readers have started complaining they
were getting difficult. But there is much to learn for the patient
reader because each letter contains an extraordinary amount of
information and brilliantly argued points of view. It is clear at the
end of these two issues that what the two men are more concerned with is
to reach an understanding of the other’s interest, whether it is merely
to satisfy a curiosity (as in the case of the priesthood for Eco) or to
address a human problem that has a political and social agenda (as in
the case of abortion).
The final issue is initiated by Martini who asks Eco a question that
many of us believers often wish to ask non-believers: on what basis does
he derive his moral or ethical principles if he does not believe in a
personal God or in some Absolute? Eco’s reply is fascinating. I shall
refrain from spoiling the fun of discovering what it is for yourself.
Read it and find out!
This is a very small book. Only 102 pages. But it displays with
brilliant clarity the power that words have to persuade and convince
when wielded expertly, wisely, humbly and honestly. This review is
offered as an example of how argument about faith can be mutually
enlightening to both sides if the object is seeking to understand and
not merely to be understood. So as Harvey Cox reminds us, Augustine of
Hippo who was baptised in Martini’s Milan, once heard a voice say, “Pick
up, and read”, and it made all the difference to him. So too, you may
want to do the same.
BGST GENERAL FUND UPDATE
Operating expenses for Oct 2006
Balance in General Fund
as at 1st Nov 2006
Funds received to-date (14th Nov)
*This does not include interest-free loan of $100K received.
Balance to raise for Nov 2006
Total Budgetted Operating Expenses
for Nov to Dec 2006
Balance to raise for the rest of 2006
Chapel on 22 November, 2006
The speaker Dr Quek spoke on the
theme of 'Christian joy' especially in the context of serving in
ministry. He began with a personal experience when he was dedicated by
his church and was sent to the US to do his theological studies. The
church had no money to support him, but was committed to praying for
him. He went by faith and on the basis of an offer from the college that
he would be given a work bursary. But he considered it all joy as part
of his training for ministry. His aim was to do 'everything that God
gives with all his heart and strength' (Eccles (9: 10). This is his main
text for the day.
Then he recollected many incidents of both joy and pain since the
inception of BGST in 1989. One particular incident he remembered was his
visit to India (Nagaland) as part of his ministry of encouragement to
the alumni of BGST. This time unfortunately, the team he went with met
with a nasty accident in which eleven of them were badly injured, some
of them severely. The whole trip thus ended up being ministered unto by
the alumni and their friends than ministering to them. But that was an
unforgettable experience of learning precious lessons. Do we serve the
Lord with joy only if things go well?
Then he focused on the ministry of BGST among the laity in Singapore and
acknowledged how privileged BGST is for taking up this ministry in which
no other theological training institute was concerned about. It has been
a great experience of joy in training some of most accomplished of the
society in spite of continual shortfalls in finances to sustain the
ministry, but there was never a time when the BGST leaders doubted the
calling given to them. So the ministry continues with joy and even
expands with the new building project, faculty in training, and student
bursaries being on offer. We like all the alumni and churches to join us
in 'serving Jesus with joy'.
Bible Lands Study Tour.
Walking with Jesus: Biblical Sites in Israel & Turkey. The group of
31 participants are on this trip with Dr Quek (Tour leader & guide).
They have left for Israel on Nov 25 and will be back in Singapore on
Dec 8. Do remember them in your prayers.
Away from Office. Serene Woon
(BLST, Nov 25-Dec 8), Ng Peh Cheng (ATA, Korea, Nov 27-Dec 4), Ng
Seng Chuan (Mission trip, Dec 4-31), Leong Kok Weng (Dec 5-8).
BGST Christmas Potluck Lunch.
Join us for Chapel on Dec 20 at 12 noon, followed by a time of
fellowship over a potluck lunch. Kindly RSVP to Kok Wee at 62276815
if you are joining us so that he can coordinate dish items
(Interim Semester, Term 1, 2007)
Testament Textual Criticism
credits), starting Jan 6, 2-3.30pm, at Bishan campus. Lecturer: Dr
Quek Swee Hwa.
Gospel of Isaiah
(Isa 40-55) (OT363, 1.5 credits), starting Jan 5, 7.30-9.30pm.
Lecturer: Dr Augustine Pagolu.
Testament Foundations I
credits), starting Jan 8, 7.30 - 9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Aquila Lee.
Hebrew Exegesis I
(BH 211, 3
credits), starting Jan 8, 7.30 - 9.30pm. Dr Augustine Pagolu.
as a Person: Self-Awareness & Maturity in Christ
(CO101, 3 credits), starting Jan 10, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Mr Yam
credits), starting Jan 11, 7.30pm - 9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Philip
The Books of
Kings: An Anatomy of Religious Decline in Israel & Judah
( OT365, 1.5 credits), starting Jan 16, 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr
Development & Ministry Formation
(CE355, 3 credits), starting Jan 16, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Dr Ng
Speech for Leadership & Ministry (AT231, 1.5 credits), starting
Feb 16, 7.30-10pm. Lecturer: Rev Ng Seng Chuan.
of the Pulpit
(AT241, 1.5 credits), starting Feb 21, 7.30-10pm. Lecturer: Rev Ng
Hermeneutics: Reading the Bible in the Asian Context
credits), starting Mar 16, 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Augustine
Hebrew (BH215, 1.5 credits) by Mrs Tsipi (Israel), Dates will be
COURSES BY OVERSEAS LECTURERS
Paul Stevens; "Spirituality & Work: Journey Inward-Journey
Outwards" (MM254, 3 credits); Dates: Jan 25, 29, 31, Feb 2, 7,
7.15-10.15pm. Jan 27, Feb 3, 10, Sat 2.30-9.30pm.
James Houston; "The Psalms through the History of the Church"
(OT214, 3 credits); Dates: Apr 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13,
with an asterisk are not offered on audit basis. Visit our website
for the course descriptions.
Mr Lai Pak Wah 4/12
Mr Chan Kum Soon 4/12
Mr Leong Kok Weng 5/12
Rev Peter Chng 5/12
Mr Goh Tian Lye 5/12
Mr Daniel Lee 5/12
Mr Paul Ng 5/12
Mr Joe Sim 5/12
Mr Caleb Kang 7/12
Mr Kelvin Chan 7/12
Mr Bernard Chan 10/12
Mr Francis Ng 10/12
Ms Tessie Setiabudi 10/12