Of Learned Ignorance

by Nicholas Kryfts

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Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

Christianity has always taken a somewhat skeptical approach to “the wisdom of men” as compared with “the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5). Indeed, Jesus occasionally showed the same distrust of professional teachers when confronted by Pharisees as Socrates did when faced with Sophists. Writing at a time when university classes in divinity had become sophisticated at least, and occasionally sophistic, Nicholas found it appropriate to mention Socrates at the outset. “Socrates believed he knew nothing except that he did not know,” he wrote, quoting Plato’s Apologia Skratous (399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675). Christian scholars can do no better than to learn their own ignorance and its consequence: their absolute reliance on God.

Nicholas realizes that the world looks different when viewed sub species aeternitatis (from the vantage of eternity). No one on earth would think that a triangle could become a line or that the Earth could move around the Sun, but Christianity allows one to think anagogically and to try to find the spiritual sense in God’s word. The same sort of thinking can lead to a new vision of the Creation and an enhanced appreciation of the Creator.

Nicholas’s doctrine of the coincidence of opposites seemed sophistical to some contemporaries. It may remind a modern reader of Parmenides on the lack of difference between being and nonbeing. However, it was meant as a means to resolve contradictions. As he ends the discussion of the heavens in book 2, Nicholas quotes Colossians 1:16: “. . . all things were created by him [God], and for him.” He might have extended the quotation to note that Christ served “to reconcile all things unto himself” (1:20). When the world is viewed in the context of its creation and salvation, some petty disagreements disappear.

During his lifetime, Nicholas worked hard to achieve church unity, both north-south across the Alps and east-west across the Mediterranean. Born during the Great Schism in the Western or Roman Church, he wrote an important tract, De concordantia catholica (1433; The Catholic Concordance, 1991). He knew that the usual tendency is to dichotomize, sending the best to heaven and the others elsewhere. He wanted the sort of eccumenicity that later officials of his church would foster. After being made a cardinal in 1448, he wrote a final work calling for peace among the world religions: De pace fidei (1453; On Interreligious Harmony: Text, Concordance, and Translation of “De pace fidei,” 1990). One key to mutual understanding, he suggested, was awareness of one’s own ignorance.

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