In 1464, not long after Easter, the secretary to Nicolas of Cusa, a Catholic cardinal, noticed a marked change in the demeanor of his superior. Cusa’s health had been fragile for a while. But now his face was beaming with joy. After being absorbed in meditation for weeks around the time of Easter, Cusa was ready to reveal what he had just discovered. Peter of Erkelenz, his secretary, wondered what Cusa could add to his already impressive body of theological work.
Cusa had come up with a new name for God: Can-Is (Posse-Est, or Possest, in Latin). Now, for him, God was both being and the potential for being. As one scholar summarizes Cusa’s thought, “God is the Posse, the Possibility, the “Can” before, behind, and present in all that “is”.” (H. Lawrence Bond, “Nicolas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings”, Paulist Press 1997) This understanding was a shift from Cusa’s “via negativa” – finding God by peeling away all that obscures the experience of the divine – to a “via positiva” – finding God by embracing the divine presence as it manifests. “One knows that which one thinks one knows less than that which one knows one does not know,” he had written in 1444-45 in his “Dialogue on the Hidden God”. Then, he was focused on the knowledge of God through keen awareness of the utter otherness and mystery of God. Now, he saw a way to apprehend God more directly. “The posse to choose enfolds in itself the posse to be, the posse to live, and the posse to understand…. and thus we experience that Posse Itself appears powerfully and incorruptibly in the posse of the mind and has a being separate from the body…” (“On the Summit of Contemplation”, 1464)
A few months later, Nicolas of Cusa died, resting in the peace of a life-long quest fulfilled. His was a mind that pressed ever onward toward understanding of the essence of all things. He intuited that the concepts of infinity in mathematics, a subject he studied deeply, were logical expressions of God’s infinite qualities. He was fascinated by science, such as it was at the time. Cusa appears to ended his mortal days with a strong sense of having brushed “arbitrarily closely” (a term from calculus) to the divine Can-Is. In many ways, his thought was hundreds of years ahead of his time. In his construct of Posse-Est, we can hear a strong hint of what is now called “process theology”, as expressed by the 20th century mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, and his intellectual descendants. Whitehead’s project was to integrate philosophy, theology, and the recent discoveries in quantum mechanics. In process thought, God is the process of creativity and choice inherent in every level of the universe: the possibility and potential in every “event” of nature.
Cusa’s fifteenth-century ruminations aim toward the potential, in our time, for the integration of science and spirituality. It gives me the hope that we can put the universe back in our universities, and find a way to integrate all forms of knowledge into visions of the cosmos as a whole.
In my last year as a university undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside, I was reading a lot of poetry, philosophy, and theology while I was studying for my degree in social psychology. I decided that I could not claim to be an educated person unless I took calculus, even though it wasn’t required for my major. One day in calculus class, the professor – an excellent teacher – explained the concept of the limit. I was already enthralled with the elegance of calculus. It made sense of all the math I had disliked in high school. What had been a cacophony of jumbled numbers suddenly became a symphony of graceful logic. Upon understanding the concept of the limit – approached “arbitrarily closely” without actually arriving at it – I got goosebumps. This was exactly what I felt in contemplative prayer. I was arbitrarily close to God – virtually one with God – and yet distinct from God’s ultimate otherness.
At the root of so much dis-ease, depression, and obsession in our culture is an unfulfilled longing for a sense of the whole, for deep knowledge of our place in a cosmos. We are born with a longing for connection – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually – with the universe. Our universities sometimes make this connection harder to achieve, since really they’re “multiversities” where disparate subjects are studied in narrow detail. I like to think that my job at our Office of Religious Life at the University of Southern California is to facilitate the experience of goosebumps, when students discover how all things fit together into the Holy Whole. Sometimes, of course, religion itself gets in the way of this experience. Denial of science and common sense by dogmatic theology is a sure way to dull the kind of glow that illuminated Nicolas of Cusa’s face in 1464, and prevent the kind of tingle that went up my back in calculus class in 1975. Happily, within religion there are cures to be found for religion’s diseases.
I suspect that more than one universe can animate a university. There may be more than one credible vision of the cosmos that can give our hearts the divine joy of brushing up against Ultimate Reality. It’s not about the final, single answer to all questions. Cusa intuited that by knowing well what we don’t know, we have divine knowledge. By having a felt sense of the nature of Nature, without being able to explain it all, we are humbled into readiness for further discovery.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California