A Narrative Phenomenology of Religion

A Narrative Phenomenology of Religion

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November 11, 2021

On May 29, 1453, Sultan Mahomet II, leading an army of 160,000 men and equipped with the most advanced technology of the time, conquered Constantinople, bringing to an end a political and cultural situation that had lasted more than 1100 years. News of Constantinople’s fall spread rapidly in the West and caused a severe shock to political leaders and the general population. A real clash of civilizations was in sight. Immediately Pope Nicholas V, and also Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pius II, called for a crusade against the infidels. In September of that same year, 1453, Nicholas of Cusa, a German theologian, philosopher, cardinal at the papal court and close friend of Pius II, wrote De pace fidei (On the Peace of Faith). This is not his best-known book. His vocation for peace was present in his work long before. In 1433 Pope Eugene IV had already called him to integrate a commission into the newly established Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence. Here Nicholas of Cusa distinguished himself for his efforts in rapprochement between the Christians of East and West.

But it was in 1440, at the height of the Council, that his most important work, De docta ignorantia, was written because, as he rightly argues, one cannot be tolerant if one claims at the same time to have a complete understanding of God and truth. Excessive attachment to truth is not a virtue but a highly dangerous attitude because it easily becomes destructive. True knowledge is actually a knowing of not knowing. The position of "learned ignorance” (Doctaignorantia) is the only one that can be taken in the face of God, as a perfect and infinite Being. Perfect knowledge is not possible for imperfect and finite beings. Thus we can speak of his theology being a "negative theology" or "apophatic theology," since Nicholas of Cusa affirms that the wise man is not the one who possesses the truth but the one who knows his own ignorance and is therefore aware of his own limits. Indeed, one cannot even be aware of one's own ignorance without having already glimpsed what it is that one does not know. The absolutely ignorant person is not even aware of his own ignorance.

The De pace fidei is not only important for what it says, in underlining the common elements among religious faiths, but also because it will create a civil conscience in the West, attentive to tolerance. In fact, while G. E. Lessing was working on his famous play Nathan the Wise (1779), a true treatise on tolerance, he himself worked on a re-edition of Nicholas of Cusa's work. What is important, however, is not only this vocation to tolerance, which Nicholas probably inherited from his own family; his mother, Catherina Roemer, was of Jewish origin. Equally important is his capacity for dissent. The fact of being a cardinal in the papal court did not condition him to the point of submitting and surrendering to the logic of the system. Faced with an explicit personal invitation from his friend Pope Pius II to go to war against the Turks, he responded with his De pace fidei. A noble tradition is one that manages to accept dissent and create internal alternatives. This is as true of fifteenth century Catholicism as it must be of Adventism today.

Compared to De pace fidei, Ellen White’s The Great Controversy looks like a real document of war. And it becomes even more so in the hands of compulsive, ill-informed apocalyptics who unilaterally measure the Adventist faith from the standpoint of militancy. Yes, militancy, conviction, and religious consistency are certainly important values in the faith, but they can easily become aberrations in isolation. The calling for any healthy and noble church is not for physical or ideological warfare against others but in permanent compromise for peace.

Why mention this text by Nicholas of Cusa in relation to the book The Great Controversy? Essentially for two reasons. First, because we find, in De pace fidei, an analysis of religions similar and parallel to what we find in The Great ControversyThe Great Controversy is, to all intents and purposes, a book of phenomenology of religions. In De pace fidei, there is an analysis only of pre-modern religions. It could not be otherwise. He writes in the fifteenth century. In The Great Controversy we find instead an analysis of pre-modern religions, modern ones, and also post-modern ones. Secondly, because while The Great Controversy analyzes religions, starting from their anomalies and the points that divide them, De pace fidei has a completely different outlook. It instead stops to consider the elements that religions have in common.

The phenomenology of religion that The Great Controversy articulates in its first three chapters—describing Judaism (Chapter I), Christianity (Chapter II), and the Papacy (Chapter III)—introduces three important elements in its description of the religions.

First, no kind of religion, White implicitly asserts, is above critical analysis. Religions, by nature, tend to flee critical analysis precisely by virtue of their claim to an absolute truth that cannot be criticized by lower entities. Only by example does White elaborate a critical analysis of these three religions. But implicitly she suggests that every religion can and must submit to such an analysis. Even Adventism. It belongs, therefore, to the spirit of The Great Controversy that a critical analysis of Adventism should also be drawn up. However, this is not what happens in either the communal or the institutional reading that Adventism makes of the book, thus contradicting its spirit. According to the narrative phenomenology that White elaborates, religions—especially one's own religion—must always be monitored. And the double criterion she introduces to evaluate religions is, on the one hand, fidelity to the Bible and, on the other hand, a relevant connection with history. The Great Controversy is nothing more than the defense and description of this double criterion in the arc of history. While the first is a criterion of "coherence" within the churches, the second is a criterion of "correspondence" of the churches with outside historical reality.

Second, every religion has structural limits. There are no absolute religions. So Adventism is not absolute either. It is a religion, like Catholicism or Protestantism, that privileges some aspects over others, emphasizing some dimensions while leaving in the shade that which it considers less central to its own project. Absolute religions, those bulimic with a total sense of life and history, are an offense to God because they tend to replace God with the pretended completeness of their own system. Now, the structural unilateralism of every religion is not as bad as people think. Rather it is the guarantee of every religion’s pertinence. But a religion that wants to be ipso facto complete becomes idolatrous. The beneficial unilateralism must be monitored because it easily becomes an anomaly and even an aberration over time. So it is necessary to demythologize the romantic but idolatrous thought that believes the validity of a religion is proportional to the devotion, conviction, and sincerity of its founders and followers. In this sense every religion is already born with potential errors, due to this structural unilateralism, that will only become real and visible later on. No religion can be identified with God himself. And to also think that New Testament Christianity was completely sound at the beginning and that the anomalies came only later is a thought that, besides being simplistic, is also idolatrous. Believers must follow God in their religion, not follow their religion in spite of God. No religion is God, not even Christianity. Yet religions have their own validity. In fact, notwithstanding these structural or derived limitations, God uses them to reveal himself to man and offer him salvation. This does not mean, however, that God legitimizes these anomalies. He does not legitimize them in Catholicism, or Protestantism, or Adventism. None of these religions is a concentration of purity.

Third, religions tend to fail not so much because of their vices but because of their uncontrolled virtues. This seems paradoxical, but let's take a couple of examples to see how this works in human history.

Judaism, the subject of White's Chapter One analysis, is described paradoxically. In its long history, the people of Israel failed to observe the law that God revealed to them. But when, after so many centuries of suffering and disappointment, the people finally learned to respect God's law (after the exile), that same virtue prevented them from welcoming the Messiah, thus committing the greatest mistake of their history. Their attachment to God's law, learned with great difficulty, paradoxically became an obstacle to their own spiritual growth. White writes:

These words faithfully described the corrupt and self-righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem. While claiming to rigidly observe the precepts of God's law, they were transgressing all its principles. (GC, ch. I, p. 28)

The great sin of the Jews was their rejection of Christ. (GC, ch. I, p. 24)

The same thing happened with early Christianity. Unlike Judaism, Christianity was destined to break down every barrier, every particularism, to become truly universal. Its destiny was centrifugal, to reach as many peoples, as many languages, as many ethnic groups as possible. In other words, its strength was not in preservation but in evangelization. Inculturation is the essence of Christianity. And the church that has best understood and implemented this central Christian principle is precisely Catholicism. It is Catholicism that has compellingly spread Christianity throughout the known world and subsequently to all latitudes. The paradox is found, Ellen White points out, in the fact that in fulfilling its most sacred, authentic vocation of bringing the gospel into every culture, Catholicism has unfortunately created its greatest anomaly. Legitimate Christian inculturation has become an a-critical, accommodating, and manipulative syncretism. White writes:

The great adversary now endeavored to gain by artifice what he had failed to secure by force. Persecution ceased, and in its stead were substituted the dangerous allurements of temporal prosperity and worldly honor. Idolaters were led to receive a part of the Christian faith, while they rejected other essential truths … Most of the Christians at last consented to lower their standard, and a union was formed between Christianity and paganism. (GC, ch. II, p. 41-42)

But beyond the introduction of these various innovative elements in a phenomenological analysis of religions, The Great Controversy evidences some limits. Consider three of them.

The first is its Eurocentrism. Following Jeppe Sinding Jensen[1] and his revisitation of the classic division between religions, The Great Controversy stops at considering only the "historical religions," completely leaving out the "cosmic religions" and their socio-cultural context, which cannot be neglected today.

The second is its tendency to delegitimize the described religions. The fact that a religion is born from an anomaly in the past does not delegitimize its right to exist in the present, just as an illegitimate child born out of wedlock has no fewer rights than a legitimate child. Franz Rosenzweig’s phenomenology of religion is more balanced in his book The Star of Redemption, in which he describes and compares Christianity and Judaism, in their successes and their limitations, but without delegitimizing them at any time.[2]

The third is the too static and linear nature of its descriptions. In their inevitable historical evolution, religions do not always get worse. They can also get better. The phenomenology implicit in The Great Controversy tends instead to be pessimistic. Different and more attentive to this particular element is the document Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council. Not only does this “Declaration” consider the historical religions but also the cosmic ones. In addition, it succeeds in correcting the traditional theologically cancerous anti-Semitism present for centuries in the Catholic Church, thus opening a new era in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The Great Controversy is certainly not a novel critical investigation of world religions past and present. It introduces invaluable and unique elements, but it is also unilateral and limited. Consequently, an Adventist analysis of our contemporary world religious situation can start here but should not be limited to it.


Notes & References

[1]Jeppe Sinding Jensen,The Study of Religion in a New Key: Theoretical and Philosophical Soundings in the Comparative and General Study of Religion, (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2010)

[2]Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985)


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Rich Hannon, Spectrum Magazine


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