Who Is Nicholas of Cusa and Why Is He Coming to Gettysburg?

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) was one of the leading intellectual figures of the fifteenth century. Born at Kues (in Latin, Cusa) in Germany and often known by the Latin name Cusanus, he was a philosopher, theologian, and eventually a cardinal of the Catholic Church. An exemplary Renaissance man, he also made contributions in mathematics, natural science, and political theory. His best-known works are On Learned Ignorance (1440), a philosophical treatise, The Vision of God (1453), a work of mystical theology, and The Peace of Faith (1453), a work arguing for the underlying harmony of all religions. He is often seen as a forerunner of modern philosophy as well as a pioneer of interreligious dialogue.

Nicholas will not put in a personal appearance in Gettysburg, but he will be present in spirit through the American Cusanus Society. A scholarly society founded in 1983, the society seeks to promote the study of Nicholas of Cusa and his times. While the majority of its members are historians, philosophers, and theologians, the membership extends as far afield as mathematics, architecture, and political science, representing the range of Nicholas’s interests.

Since 1986, the Cusanus Society has met in Gettysburg, more or less every two years. The connection between Nicholas and Gettysburg is largely the work of Dr. Gerald (Jerry) Christianson, Professor (now Professor Emeritus) of Church History at the Lutheran Seminary and a founding member of the Cusanus Society. According to Christianson, “The Gettysburg Conference was created to bridge the ironic gap between a provincial Lutheran seminary and a highly specialized society focused on a medieval Catholic cardinal.” Christianson notes that among the distinctive features of the Gettysburg conferences “are the working sessions that allow intense exploration of a specific Cusan [or related] text using an English translation, often rendered especially for the conference.”

This year the Society continues its partnership with United Lutheran Seminary with its nineteenth biennial conference, which will take place from Friday, September 29, to Sunday, October 1, preceded by a public lecture on Thursday, September 28. The conference title is “War and Peace in the Late Middle Ages.” According to conference co-chair Dr. Christopher Belitto, Professor of History at Kean University, New Jersey, “We seem to be living in a country and a world tottering between war and peace. These are the times where history is a good teacher.” At the conference, Bellitto says, “We’ll take our lessons mostly from the Middle Ages to see how Christians fought each other and how Muslims and Christians tried to negotiate peace, though there was extreme violence too, of course. Our medieval friends wondered whether peace was the only alternative or whether there were times when throwing a punch could be justified. We’ll ask, too, what people think about justified violence today–or whether it’s a path to nowhere.”

While the conference is open to registrants only, several lectures are open to the general public, free of charge. The first takes us almost to the present time. On Thursday, September 28, at 7:30 p.m., Dr. Jill Ogline Titus, Associate Director of the Civil War Institute, Gettysburg College, will deliver a pre-conference presentation titled “A New Birth of Freedom?: Civil Rights and Black History in 20th Century Gettysburg.” This lecture is co-sponsored by the American Cusanus Society and the Seminary Ridge Museum and Education Center. There will be two public events on Friday, September 29. At 3:00 p.m., Dr. Anne Marie Wolf, Professor of History at the University of Maine-Farmington, will deliver the Kyomi Koizumi Watanabe Lecture, “Learning about Peace from the Middle Ages: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Insights.” At 7:45 p.m., Dr. Phillip Stump, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Lynchburg, will deliver the Morimichi Watanabe Lecture, “The Intersection of Peace and Unity at the Council of Constance and Beyond.” All of these lectures will take place in Valentine Hall Auditorium at the United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg.

Parking is available behind Valentine Hall off Springs Avenue or on the west side of Seminary Ridge, next to the United Lutheran Seminary Library. For further information about the conference, please contact Dr. Vincent Evener at VincentEvener@MissouriState.edu.

Featured image caption:This portrait of Nicholas of Cusa, dating around 1460, belongs to the triptych altarpiece in the chapel of the St.-Nikolaus-Hospital that he founded in Kues (Cusa). From www.americancusanussociety.org.

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William Collinge is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University and a member of the American Cusanus Society.

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Bill Collinge
Bill Collinge
7 months ago

Well then!

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