- Mathematical Theologies: Nicholas of Cusa and the Legacy of Thierry of Chartres by David Albertson
If his first major publication is any indication of his future career, David Albertson will be one of the key figures in late-medieval philosophy and theology for decades to come. Winner of the 2014 Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise, Mathematical Theologies reads like the product of a mature scholar. The overall framework of the book is a response to one of the classic narratives of the origins of modernity, what Albertson calls the mathesis narrative—essentially, the thesis that figures like Galileo and Descartes led the transition to modernity when they rejected medieval notions of the cosmos and replaced them with a cosmology rooted in precise mathematics. While granting that one of the marked features of modernity has been the mathematization of reality, Albertson disputes the widely held assumptions that mathematization was “new” in the seventeenth century and that it necessarily required a rejection of theology (i.e., secularization). The proof for his thesis is the deep fusion of mathematics and theology at the core of the work of two significant medieval theologians, Thierry of Chartres and Nicholas of Cusa. Part 1 of the book is an introduction to classical Pythagorean philosophy, a subcurrent in the Platonic tradition, which saw in mathematics both a reflection of and a means to ascend to the one divine source. Despite the fact that [End Page 921] Platonism deeply influenced the whole Christian theological tradition, the major sources of Platonic thought available in the medieval West (Proclus through Pseudo-Dionysius, and Plotinus through St. Augustine) intentionally suppressed the Pythagorean aspects of the tradition. The one exception to this was the quadrivium of Boethius, which preserved a strong mathematical emphasis, but one clearly separated from his theological writings.
Part 2 focuses on the twelfth-century figure of Thierry of Chartres. Part of a larger revival of the Boethian tradition that was attempting to reconcile the various branches of Greek philosophy found in his writings, Thierry developed a creative synthesis of Pythagorean mathematics and Christian theology, including ideas about the Trinity as the source of number in the cosmos. Although Thierry was himself respected, his form of Christian Pythagoreanism had little wider impact in the wake of the changes underway in the burgeoning universities, as well as an Augustinian legacy that was suspicious of numerology as a potential rival to the deeper wisdom of the incarnate Logos. It was left to the fifteenth-century reformer and theologian Nicholas of Cusa finally to bridge this divide, which is the focus of part 3. Heavily indebted to the Boethian tradition of Thierry and his commentators for many specific theological formulations as well as the larger assumption that mathematics was the best way to contemplate God, Cusanus’s great achievement was the incorporation of a robust Christology into this mathematical theology. Such a project is already in evidence in Cusanus’s first great work of speculative theology, De docta ignorantia, whose third book is entirely devoted to the Christological question. However, Albertson argues that it is only with his late work, De ludo globi, that Cusanus’s mathematical Christology is fully matured. In this work, the Chalcedonian notion of Christ as the conjunction of opposite natures—divine and human—is articulated in terms of opposing mathematical categories such as a simultaneous center and circumference.
As this brief summary makes clear, Albertson’s first book is a major contribution to our understanding of mathematical notions of the cosmos and stands as an important rebuttal to some commonly held assumptions that mathematics and theology are inherently opposed. It is likely to be of great interest to scholars working in the history of philosophy, theology, and cosmology, for whom it is highly recommended.