Academic journal article Theological Studies

After the Fall: Riccoldo Da Montecroce and Nicholas of Cusa on Religious Diversity

Academic journal article Theological Studies

After the Fall: Riccoldo Da Montecroce and Nicholas of Cusa on Religious Diversity

Article excerpt

Part of me was urged to sadness over the slaughter and servitude of the Christian people and their degradation after the lamentable loss of Acre, when I saw Saracens prosperous and flourishing and Christians squalid and dismayed.

--Riccoldo da Montecroce, on the fall of Acre, 1291 (1)

There was a certain man who ... was inflamed with zeal for God as a result of those deeds that were reported to have been perpetrated at Constantinople most recently and most cruelly by the King of the Turks.

--Nicholas of Cusa, on the fall of Constantinople, 1453 (2)

ALTHOUGH PRODUCTS OF DIFFERENT CENTURIES, the Florentine Dominican Riccoldo da Montecroce (d. 1320) and the German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464) were both deeply affected by a similar "fall": the definitive conquest of a Christian capital by Muslim forces. Soon after the Crusader stronghold of Acre fell to the Mamluks in 1291, Riccoldo was compelled to write Epistolae ad ecclesiam triumphantem, while a century and a half later Nicholas penned De pace fidei in response to Constantinople's 1453 capture by the Ottomans. As the two quotations above demonstrate, the historical events and the authors' emotional responses to them are remarkably similar. Furthermore, both men turn to the very same place for assistance in the wake of such tragedy: heaven. Riccoldo writes five letters to the church triumphant begging for help, while Nicholas dreams of a celestial interfaith dialogue with God presiding. Both men are so concerned about the perilous state of global interreligious relations that they believe heaven alone can provide a solution. Several other parallels can be seen in their responses: for example, both admit a personal connection to the fallen city, and both were so deeply affected that they felt compelled to write very soon after the fact, when emotions were running high. And finally, their written reflections address a problem only aggravated by the events of 1291 and 1453: the presence of religious diversity in the world.

But there are also differences. While Riccoldo chooses a rare form of medieval epistolary, "letters to heaven," to express his dismay, Nicholas writes a theological dialogue describing a heavenly council. Riccoldo's letters are full of questions from beginning to end; Nicholas begins not with questions but with a solution: he envisions an international assembly of 17 different religious leaders, including a Jew, several Muslims, an Indian, a Tartar, and a variety of Christians, all of whom declare via a single spokesperson that the only way to achieve interfaith harmony is for God to create "a single religion in a diversity of rites." (3) Riccoldo expresses a deep dismay that seems on the verge of panic, while Nicholas exudes a cool confidence and approaches the problem rationally.

The striking similarities between Riccoldo's and Nicholas's historical circumstances and their initial responses to those circumstances are what first suggest a joint reading. (4) But the differences that emerge upon further analysis make their "dialogue" across the centuries even more intriguing. My article examines Epistolae ad ecclesiarn triumphantem and De pace fidei in light of each other, focusing on one similarity (reflection on the problem of religious plurality spurred by the fall of a Christian capital) and two differences (genre and solution). When read together, these two texts illustrate the diversity of medieval Christian responses to religious plurality. Riccoldo's attitude is characterized by the ability to accept tension and uncertainty in the face of the "other," while Nicholas's is characterized by the confidence that a peaceful solution to interfaith strife is achievable. Despite such opposite attitudes, Riccoldo and Nicholas are similar in one way: both reject more traditional (i.e., purely polemical) approaches to non-Christians.

The unorthodox attitudes toward religious diversity found in Epistolae and De pace fidei are all the more striking when compared to most medieval literature on the subject, and even when compared to Riccoldo's and Nicholas's other writings. …

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