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Fugue or feud

So many people tried to download Stephen King's new e-book last week that the computers at major online booksellers shut down. Unfortunately, they were quickly repaired.

"Belief or Nonbelief?" by Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, was published with somewhat less fanfare last week. In the forest of e-pulp, World Wrestling, and attack talk shows, discovering this little book of letters about the nature of faith is like spotting a jack-in-the-pulpit among rotting leaves.

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Mr. Eco, a self-declared secularist, is a world-renowned novelist of dazzlingly complex books. Cardinal Martini, the archbishop of Milan, is a respected scholar of the New Testament and possible successor to the pope.

In 1997, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera invited Eco and Martini to exchange public letters about major religious issues. The resulting collection of eight epistles, less than 100 pages long, is subtitled, "A confrontation," but it's anything but.

There's no loud clashing between these brilliant men as they debate the morality of abortion, the role of women, the persistence of faith, and the foundation of ethics. This is more fugue than feud. Eco and Martini respect each other too much to promote some false ecumenism or endure a violent harmonizing of their differences. The result is a model in the wilderness, a kind of religious debate not heard much in America. Eco honestly wants to grasp the dimensions of his partner's faith; Martini struggles sincerely to understand the function of ethics in those who don't appeal to a transcendent absolute.

Today's religion book section, a quarterly feature, aims to create that same arena of critical respect and exploration.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ideas@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society