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.


Operating expenses for Oct 2006

$  53,590

Balance in General Fund
as at 1st Nov 2006

$  25,751

Funds received to-date (14th Nov)

*This does not include interest-free loan of $100K received.

$  19,888

Balance to raise for Nov 2006

$    7,951

Total Budgetted Operating Expenses

for Nov to Dec 2006



Balance to raise for the rest of 2006


Chapel Notes

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'.

News Bits 

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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 contributed.

(Interim Semester, Term 1, 2007)

¨     *New Testament Textual Criticism (BG253, 1.5 credits), starting Jan 6, 2-3.30pm, at Bishan campus. Lecturer: Dr Quek Swee Hwa.

¨     The Gospel of Isaiah (Isa 40-55) (OT363, 1.5 credits), starting Jan 5, 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Augustine Pagolu.

¨     New Testament Foundations I (NT101, 3 credits), starting Jan 8, 7.30 - 9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Aquila Lee.

¨      *Biblical Hebrew  Exegesis I (BH 211, 3 credits),  starting Jan 8, 7.30 - 9.30pm. Dr Augustine Pagolu.

¨      *The Counsellor as a Person: Self-Awareness & Maturity in Christ (CO101, 3 credits), starting Jan 10, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Mr Yam Keng Mun.

¨      Old Testament Foundations I (OT101, 3 credits), starting Jan 11, 7.30pm - 9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Philip Satterthwaite.

¨      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 Philip Satterthwaite.

¨     Child Development & Ministry Formation (CE355, 3 credits), starting Jan 16, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Dr Ng Peh Cheng.

¨     *Better Speech for Leadership & Ministry (AT231, 1.5 credits), starting Feb 16, 7.30-10pm. Lecturer: Rev Ng Seng Chuan.

¨     *Masters of the Pulpit (AT241, 1.5 credits), starting Feb 21, 7.30-10pm. Lecturer: Rev Ng Seng Chuan.

¨     Contextual Hermeneutics: Reading the Bible in  the Asian Context (HE210, 1.5 credits), starting Mar 16, 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Augustine Pagolu.

¨      *Modern Hebrew (BH215, 1.5 credits) by Mrs Tsipi (Israel), Dates will be announced.


¨      *Prof 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.

¨      *Prof James Houston; "The Psalms through the History of the Church" (OT214, 3 credits); Dates: Apr 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 7.15-10.15pm.

*Courses marked with an asterisk are not offered on audit basis. Visit our website for the course descriptions.

A Blessed Birthday to…

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

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