Belief or Nonbelief? Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

This collection consists of eight letters—four from Umberto Eco, four from Carlo Maria Martini—in which they deal with the following topics: the contemporary secular understanding of the Apocalypse, the question of when human life begins, the role of women in the Catholic Church, and the possibility of ethics without God.

Eco begins with “Secular Obsession with the New Apocalypse,” in which he probes the various cultural visions of the end of the world (imagined as occurring through such means as ecological disasters and diseases) and the sense of history they entail (one of progress, end, and meaning). Eco raises the question of whether a notion of hope exists that could be held in common by both believers and nonbelievers: If we have a sense of history through the idea of its end, we may hope for progress in the future by learning from past events and trying to better society. Martini responds with “Hope Puts an End to ’The End,’” explaining how Christian hope looks beyond this life to the next and how it is precisely this relation to the divine that provides value for human life on earth. Martini does not so much reject Eco’s hope for social progress as point out that the Christian Apocalypse is not merely destructive but also productive: The end is eternal life.

The next topic begins with Eco’s “When Does Human Life Begin?” He raises the bioethical question of when human life begins and asks whether the state should have any say in these mysterious matters. (Eco recognizes the “miraculous” nature of human life and is personally opposed to abortion, though he thinks it improper to limit it through legislation.) Eco argues that since many of Aristotle’s ideas have been rejected, the precise beginning of human life has become a mystery, a threshold with a perhaps unknowable location, and he asks how contemporary theologians understand the question. Martini’s answer, “Human Life Is Part of God’s Life,”...

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Belief or Nonbelief? Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Eco, Umberto. Foucault’s Pendulum. Translated by William Weaver. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989. One of Eco’s best novels, this tale of mystery and the occult works out many of the epistemological musings found in Eco’s letters.

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Eco’s scholarly masterpiece on symbols and communication ranges over a wide variety of signs, how they are produced, and how they are understood culturally.

Gane, Mike, and Nicholas Gane, eds. Umberto Eco. Sage Masters of Modern Social Thought series. London: Sage, 2005. A collection of essays that examines Eco’s works and their impact on society, culture, and philosophy.

Martini, Carlo Maria. Communicating Christ to the World. Translated by Thomas M. Lucas. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed and Ward, 1993. These pastoral letters by Cardinal Martini to the parishioners of his diocese give perspective on Martini’s views of communication in a variety of media.

Martini, Carlo Maria. The Joy of the Gospel: Meditations for Young People. Translated by James McGrath. Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1994. Martini introduces lectio divina (meditative readings of scripture) to a young lay audience, revealing some of Martini’s scholarship and popular outreach.