He sought a better understanding of Islam. He pushed for reunion with the Greek Orthodox Church. He was an erstwhile Church reformer. And he was a scientist and mathematician.
Nicholas of Cusa can sound very modern—modern, mind you, not in the technical sense of modernism, but in the very generic sense of someone who lives in modern times.
But, for all that, Nicholas of Cusa was also the consummate medievalist. He was a canon lawyer and, despite his earlier conciliarism, become a fierce advocate of the papacy. Later in life, he ran the papal states as vicar for the pope. His homilies breathe out the distinctly rich air of medieval devotion. And Cusanus—his Latin name—could sound thoroughly Thomistic in his theological thought.
In a life that spanned the first two thirds of the 1400s, Nicholas of Cusa bridged two eras. He was born in 1401, a little over a century after the last real crusade and less than a century after the death of Dante. He died in 1464, about half a century before the Protestant Reformation, which definitely shut the door on the Middle Ages.
He lived in times of turbulence. The Black Death had ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s, triggering an economic, political, and spiritual crisis. Then the Hundred Years War gnawed away at the already frayed nerves of panic-stricken continent.
The Church was a mess too. The Great Western Schism divided the Church from 1378 to 1418. At the height of the crisis, there were three men claiming to be pope. Even the saints were split. St. Catherine of Siena was for Urban, whose line of succession was eventually affirmed as the true one. But another great saint, St. Vincent Ferrer, sided with one of the antipopes, Clement.
With the papacy—the institutional backbone of Europe since the fall of Rome—in total disarray, conciliarism, which wants the Church as governed by council rather than the pope, seized the continent like a fever. This was also the time of forerunners of the Protestant heretics like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.
Meanwhile, the great city of Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. With the end of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek Orthodox Church lost much of its power.
Nicholas of Cusa lived through all this. He was, to quote a prominent nineteenth and early twentieth century American jurist, a man who ‘shared in the action and passion of his time.’
At the Council of Basel, beginning in 1431, he negotiated with the followers of Hus in an effort to keep them in the Catholic fold. He was part of a delegation that hashed out a short-lived reunion with the Greek Orthodox in 1439. And, at a time when reform seemed all the rage, he embraced true spiritual reform.
He studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and knew the classics. He was a canon lawyer, theologian, administrator and also a scientists, mathematician, and philosopher. In other words, Nicholas of Cusa was very much a man of the Renaissance, which was blossoming during his lifetime as well.
There was much turmoil and chaos in his time. But Nicholas of Cusa, like the Church he served, was not tossed about in the waves of change. He remained anchored in his deep faith and devotion to God. It’s evident in more than a dozen works of deep theology and philosophy, with titles like On the Hidden God and On Learned Ignorance. And that’s not counting his many homilies.
His theology is strikingly creative—not just because of the new ideas that he put forth, but because these new ideas inhabited what was very much a traditional theological framework.
For example, Nicholas spoke of Christ in new ways, calling Him the ‘maximum man’ and ‘Absolute Obedience’—terms that would have warmed the hearts of twentieth century theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner. But he also remained thoroughly rooted in the classic theology of the Church, using phrases like ‘hypostatic union’ in talking about the two natures of Christ, whereas Balthasar and Rahner would try to move away from such terminology.
Nicholas also blended mysticism and math in absolutely fascinating ways.
For example, there is his concept of the coincidence of opposites. This is best illustrated through geometry. Let’s start with a straight line. We could do two things with this. We could stretch it out to infinity. Or we could connect the ends and create a circle. The line is infinite, the circle is finite. In fact, in math class back in school we learned the formulas for calculating the length of the circumference and the area of the circle.
But we can’t do the same for the line. Because it stretches out to infinity, we can’t measure its length. And there is no fixed area encompassed by the line. So the line and the circle are opposites in the sense that one is infinite and the other is finite.
But Nicholas of Cusa believed that it was possible for these two opposites to coincide. He said that it was possible to imagine a giant circle so large that its circumference would start to look like an infinitely long line.
As improbable as this may seem, it can be illustrated from our everyday world. Earth is a circle in three dimensions—a sphere. But what do you see when you walk out to the beach? The curvature of the earth looks very much like a straight line—what we call the horizon.
Nicholas called this meeting of the infinite and finite the coincidence of opposites. And it became a way he thought of God’s being. Nicholas of Cusa scholar Erich Meuthen explains it this way: “[God’s] infinity is more than the greatest; it is maximum and minimum at the same time. This is the highest possible form of knowing that we can attain, namely the analogous recognition of knowing that we do not know, and this lifts us beyond the boundary of the conceivable.”
In our own time, some scientists, in uncovering the wonder of the natural world, have been led to search for the Wonder behind it all. A fine example of this is the 2004 book The Fire in the Equations: Science Religion and Search For God. Of course, Nicholas did not need math to bring Him to the faith—he already believed in God. But his use of math to better understand God seems very much modern.
And these are but just two of many examples of the lively mingling of the medieval and modern the mind of Nicholas of Cusa.
For Catholics today, Nicholas recommends himself as fresh voice of insight from the past. Ever wonder how a medieval Catholic would respond to the challenges of our time? Chances are you will find an answer in Nicholas.
Of course, this is not to say that we could not find answers to what ails us in other great minds of the Middle Ages, like Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Dante. But, unlike them, Nicholas is distinctive in that he is seems to be asking the same questions that we are. What is the relationship of Christianity to other religions? What about between the Church and other professing Christians? What is the best way to reform the Church? Nicholas wrestled with these issues, much as we do today.
Beyond that, his works are a treasure of creative yet thoroughly traditional theology and spiritual reflection that—outside a small circle of theologians and historians—is waiting to be discovered by the laity.
That said, much of Nicholas’ writing is not necessarily easy going for layman and student alike. On the upside, most of his major works are readily accessible in English and are even available online for free. Some good starting points are listed below.
On the Hidden God is here.
On Seeking God is here.
And The Vision of God is here.