The Interreligious Disputation, Ramon Llull’s Ingenious Solution

Anthony Bonner

Dean of the Maioricensis Schola Lullistica

In order to understand how Ramon Llull’s solution to the problems of interreligious disputation was ingenious, we must look at what these problems were and the environment in which they emerged. First, however, we must wipe the slate clean of modern concepts which, rather than clarifying, can cause confusion.

Relations between different religions are often discussed under the umbrella of “tolerance”, of the tolerance or non-tolerance of one group towards the “other”, which has some obstacles. The first is the desire to “judge” the past, to point out the goodies and baddies of the film. This has its origin in history seen as a source of lessons for the present, as a series of models of behaviour for society which, therefore, must be taught to the young. The fact of “judging”, of handing out passes or fails, also gives us the comforting feeling of being on the right side. Thus, “judging” the past often tells us more about the present than the past.

The second obstacle is that the very concept of “tolerance” only began to circulate in the 16th century, with the voyages of discovery that made known so many human divergences, with the birth of Protestantism which opened the way to religious divergences, and with the rediscovery of the variability of Greek philosophy that led towards scepticism… At that time, with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the idea of “tolerance” gained full rights in western society. Even today it is more a privilege of advanced societies, imbued with relativised values. “Tolerance” is often combined with another concept, that of “interreligious dialogue”. But this is still more a privilege of these modern societies capable of looking favourably on diverse options, which in other times and other societies simply did not exist as possibilities.

I believe it is better to look at medieval society through another aspect: the problem of violence. The popular images of the Middle Ages, of an armed man dressed in armour sitting on a horse, itself also protected – the clear predecessor of the modern tank –, and living in a fortress conceived more for defence than for comfort, are not far from the reality. Since just before the year 1000, many European landscapes were covered with thousands and thousands of castles, and the societies that best knew how to exploit the new military tactics were the most successful, such as for example the Normans, with their conquests of England, the south of Italy, Sicily and part of the Holy Land. In fact, the best symbol of the new military exploits was the crusades.

Within this panorama of violence, there were bloodier moments, such as – to mention events closer to home – the conquest of Minorca, and others more benevolent, such as that of Valencia. The same happened with the famous “coexistence” between the three religions in the Iberian Peninsula: there were periods when one group tolerated the presence of the “others” without too many objections, and others in which violence broke out. But we must not deceive ourselves; even in times more favourable to coexistence, violence did not completely or permanently disappear, but was always latent as a dormant possibility.

In terms of “interreligious dialogue” in such an environment, with three religions already constructed in identity containers and based on power structures where the least blunder could reactivate the latent violence, such a thing simply was not possible. In a fundamentally theocratic world, it was difficult to accept other beliefs as right. With religions which guaranteed that they held the key to eternal happiness, one of them had to be right; it was not possible for two or three with contrasting dogmas to be right at the same time, or for them to have interchangeable elements in their beliefs, a necessary condition for an “interreligious dialogue”. No, in such a world, the only interreligious contacts possible were through controversy, in the form of disputations, preaching or polemic writings.

In the Mediterranean area, the literature of controversy was highly cultivated, using all the languages present. As an example, suffice it to say that there was a literature of written Christian apologetics in Arabic – especially in the Middle East – and when Llull declared himself christianus arabicus he was consciously introducing himself into that tradition, in order to be able to dispute with Muslims in their own language and translate works into Arabic.

However, within this apologetics there were at least three subspecies. One, the defence of one’s own faith, does not interest us today. Basically it was to reaffirm our faith, to calm us and reassure us that it was not wrong. Another tried to refute the beliefs of the adversary. We find this one, in pure state, in the Pugio fidei by the Catalan Ramon Martí. It is an obsessive attack against Judaism, in which he has followed the trail not only of the Old Testament but also the Talmud, with the end of supporting his arguments against a faith he clearly hates.1 The third subspecies was the attempt to persuade the adversary, to attract him to the truth of our faith. Clearly, this is what Llull wanted to do but had problems as to how.

Traditionally, he had resorted to the arguments about the Bible, of which the Muslims accepted some important parts, and the Old Testament, which was the fundamental text of Judaism. This is why the famous disputation of Barcelona in 1263 was held between the Dominican convert Pau Cristià and the head of the Catalan Jewish community, Nahmanides. However, such a disputation only produced hermeneutic discussions that did not get anywhere. One of the protagonists argued: “Such text shows that […],” to which the other responded: “No, according to our interpretation, it does not mean that, but […]” As Harvey Hames has said, in fact they were not really arguing, for example, about whether the Messiah had already come, but academically about hermeneutic questions. Moreover, they were not talking about the faith or the customs of the people who practised those religions, but about books. Therefore, each side of such a disputation could return home thinking he had won, because he had correctly explained his interpretation.2 Ramon Llull summarised it in an immortal phrase: “There is no end to disputes based on authorities.”3

His solution produced a series of remarkable innovations in the matter of interreligious debate. First, he based his arguments not on texts but on facts, religious or scientific facts that everyone could accept; for example, that there was one God (the three Mediterranean religions were monotheist); that this God necessarily had to have a set of attributes: he had to be good, great, eternal, etc; that seven planets revolved around the Earth; that the world was based on four elements (fire, air, water, earth), and that these last positions were acceptable because the three cultures were inheritors of Greek science.

It was on these bases – and without textual discussions – that Ramon Llull sought to prove the articles of faith. However, with questions of the Divinity he could not do so, in the classic sense of proving the causes that had created it, because there are no causes for God, there is nothing superior or anterior that would have created him. For this reason he decided to do the opposite; that is, to prove the articles not by the causes but rather by what they implied.

He based his arguments not on texts but on facts, religious or scientific facts that everyone could accept; for example, that there was one God and that this God necessarily had to have a set of attributes

The second innovation is how he does it, and for this I will set out a general summary and an explanation of some evidence, both taken from the Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men that Llull wrote as a model of interreligious disputation. It is a work he wrote at the start of his career, which he possibly conceived as a school text book for missionaries in Miramar, and which for practically his whole career he did not tire of recommending to his readers. I will analyse it in some detail because the entire plot is remarkable.

The book begins with the presentation of the protagonist, a gentile who is “very wise in philosophy”, but ignorant of the existence of God and suffers terrible anguish over the idea that after death “there is nothing”. He sets out on a journey “in a foreign land [to see] if by chance he could find a remedy to his sadness,” in the course of which he reaches a magnificent forest. In another part of the same forest three wise men arrive, a Jew, a Christian and a Saracen, who have come from the city to walk together. They arrive at a fountain in the middle of five trees where “a beautiful and nobly dressed lady” is watering her horse. They ask her name and what these five trees, with things surprisingly written on the flowers, represent. She answers that she is called Intelligence, and then offers a description and explanation of the five trees. Abridging greatly, the system of the book is based on the seven attributes of God (goodness, greatness, eternity, etc), the seven virtues (faith, hope, charity, etc) and the seven mortal sins (gluttony, lust, avarice, etc). She then makes them into binary combinations that she writes on the “flowers” of the trees; that is, the first tree combines a divine attribute with another, so that on its first flower is written the two words “goodness” and “greatness”, on the second “goodness” and “eternity”, etc. The second tree combines divine attributes with virtues, so that on the flowers we find “goodness” and “faith”, “goodness” and “hope”, etc. On the third tree we find the divine attributes combined with sins, on the fourth the virtues combined with each other, and on the fifth the virtues combined with the sins.

After describing these binary combinations of the “flowers”, the Lady of Intelligence explains that each one of these five trees has two conditions. Of the first tree, for example, a condition is that we always attribute to God the greatest nobility in essence, in virtues and in works. The second is that the flowers do not contradict each other, and there is the same number of each. The conditions of the other trees give a kind of spiritual and moral classification, in which the positive concepts (here the divine attributes and the virtues) must agree with each other and oppose the negative (the sins). Llull adds that it is necessary to affirm anything that best shows these concordances or contrarieties. Finally, there are two general supplementary conditions, the first of which says that it is necessary for the ten aforementioned conditions to “agree on an end. The other is that they should not oppose that end, [which] is to love and know and fear and serve God.” Making people love, know and remember God was the goal of all Lullian enterprise, as a missionary and reformer of Christian society.

As we can see, here there is nothing that was not acceptable to any monotheist religion. They are not dogmas that must be imposed on the adversary; they are no more than completely neutral rules of the game for the debate to come. And given that – as we will see – the game will consist of comparisons between concepts, those of “concordance” and “contrariety”, which we have already seen in the conditions, they are fundamental tools. Finally, these conditions as rules of the game mean that many quotations from the Book of the Gentile in later works do not refer to the work in general, but specifically to them. Even Llull’s French disciple, Thomas Le Myésier, wrote that: “In these conditions of the trees is all the virtue of all the arts of Ramon.”

The Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men begins with the presentation of the protagonist, a gentile who is “very wise in philosophy”, but ignorant of the existence of God

Next, the Lady of Intelligence leaves, and one of the wise men, after lamenting the rancour and hatred produced by religious differences, says: “Think, gentlemen, of the harm that comes from men not belonging to a single sect, and on the good that would come from everyone being beneath one faith and one religion. This being the case, do you think it would be a good idea for us to sit beneath these trees, beside this lovely fountain, and discuss what we believe, according to what the flowers and the conditions of these flowers signify? And as since we cannot agree by means of authorities, let us try to come to some agreement by means of demonstrative and necessary reasons.”

It is an extremely clear programmatic declaration. In place of authorities, it is necessary to use the system that the Lady had shown them to reach “demonstrative and necessary reasons.”

The others agree, and just when they are about to begin, the poor Gentile appears, quite undone by his existential tribulations. The wise men greet him, saying that “the God of glory, who was Father and Lord of all existing things, and who had created the whole world, and who would resuscitate the righteous and the wicked, would protect, console and help him in his suffering.”

The Gentile is astonished at such a greeting, because he has never heard talk of this God or the resurrection. When the three wise men learn of his need, they offer to provide proof of the existence of God and of the resurrection, something they decide to do according to what the Lady of Intelligence has taught them. All of this is in the Prologue, and then the First Book is devoted to this proof. After listening to them, the Gentile is amazed at how he has been able to spend his life until then in darkness, and even more at how he has now been able to know God and his own salvation. Then his thoughts turn to his parents and the people of his land who, through ignorance, will go to “everlasting fire”, and is seized by a very strong desire to return to his home and preach the faith he has just discovered. He implores the wise men not only to accompany him, but more than anything to instruct him in how he can undertake this conversion of his family and countrymen.

Thus far it is a kind of rose-coloured spiritual novel. Not a word about the differences between religions, not even in all of the speeches of the Prologue and the First Book has Llull bothered to specify which of the three wise men was speaking. Everything has happened in an idealised world of harmony and mutual understanding. But now things take a turn. If it is a question of converting the people so that they are saved, each one of the three wise men insists that it is necessary for the Gentile to first convert to his religion.

The Gentile, frightened, exclaims: “What! Are the three of you not of a single religion and belief?” “No,” respond the wise men, “we differ as to belief and religion, for one of us is a Jew, the other a Christian, and the other a Saracen.” “And which of you,” asks the Gentile, “has the better religion, and which of these religions is true?” “Each of the wise men [says Llull] answered, speaking one against the other, each preaching his own belief and blaming the other for what he believes.”

This confuses the poor Gentile. He says that after the happiness that they had given him, now they had made him return to “ire and grief” much worse than before. After some tears of desolation, he asks if by chance the wise men can dispute between themselves, each one explaining his position as best he can, to determine which of them “was on the path of salvation.” The wise men agree to his request, and decide to do so as in the First Book; that is, according to how the Lady of Intelligence had shown them. Moreover, they decide that the order of the speeches will be by order of age: that is, first the Jew, then the Christian and finally the Saracen. They also make a very important agreement to avoid confrontations: none of the wise men will be able to “oppose” another while he is presenting his religion; the only one who can interrupt with questions would be the Gentile himself in order to ask for clarification.

Llull has constructed the argument not on a doctrinal base that one of the opponents could use against the other two, but based on a technique that all three can use equally

With this begins the body of the book, in three long chapters, in each of which a wise man demonstrates the articles of his faith, with arguments developed according to the conditions that the Lady of Intelligence had shown them. To see how, let us take just one example.

In order to show that the world is not eternal, as the Greek philosophers maintained, but has been created by God, he takes a series of “flowers” to construct diverse arguments with this same end. Let us take only one “flower”, entitled “Greatness Power”, where it says that: “And since that by which God’s greatness and power are more in accord with one another and are best demonstrated to the human understanding should be granted, according to the first condition of the first tree, it is therefore shown that the world was created from nothing and had a beginning.”

What Llull has done here is to take the creation of the world as a hypothesis, and show that it simply coincides more with the two concepts of the flower; that is, the greatness and power of God, and therefore satisfies more the first condition of the first tree than the contrary hypothesis of an eternal world would. He says nothing at all of the causes of creation, but rather only speaks of the implications, which he contrasts with the two concepts of the flower in question, and this according to a condition of the tree. In other cases he shows how the negation of a hypothesis leads to a reductio ad absurdum, or, put another simpler way, he only speaks of what would happen if it were not true.

Even more important is the fact that Llull has constructed the text without saying a word about who is right or who is wrong, and without citing any text or authority. He has presented a purely abstract argument which stands or falls under its own weight. So abstract that it does not even occur to us to ask which of the three wise men is presenting it. It is the Jew, and we find that Ramon Llull has done something very surprising in the interreligious discussion of the Middle Ages, and possibly of all time. He has constructed the argument not on a doctrinal base that one of the opponents could use against the other two, but based on a technique that all three can use equally. And this technique was his Art, of which the Book of the Gentile offers a toned-down version. This explains the importance that Llull attributed to it, given that it provides a tool of discussion that the adversaries cannot undervalue.

This is the nature of all the argumentation of the Book of the Gentile, sometimes with simpler reasoning and, sometimes, far more complicated (as in the case, for example, of the Trinitarian arguments of the Christian), until all three wise men have offered proof of their respective articles of faith.

When they have finished, the Gentile summarises all that the wise men have explained to him, and they are very happy to see that he has really understood them. Then, with tears in his eyes, the Gentile makes an excited (and exciting) prayer to the Lord that they have taught him, a remarkable text because it is completely interreligious, something infrequent in the period.

A technique which it would be necessary to continue practising in order to perfect its use, in the same way that at the end of many works Llull recommends that the reader should continue to use and adapt what he has just learned for other purposes

At the end, just when the Gentile wants to announce which of the faiths he has chosen, comes perhaps the biggest surprise of an already surprising book: the wise men do not want to know! They say that this is “in order for each to think that his was the religion chosen.” And they add: “And all the more so since this is a question we could discuss among ourselves to see, by force of reason and by means of our intellects, which religion it must be that you will choose.” The Gentile, as one might suppose, is frightened, but they part amiably, and the three wise men agree to return to the place every day to debate, according to the trees and the conditions of the Lady of Intelligence, in order to see if they could agree that “all three of us have one faith, one religion, and until we can find some way to honour and serve one another… For war, turmoil, ill will, injury and shame prevent men from agreeing on one belief.”

This ending has provoked many comments. It is clear that Llull intends to surprise and give an impression of impartiality, to strengthen the idea of a technique that in itself is not imposed on any of the three sides. A technique, moreover, which it would be necessary to continue practising in order to perfect its use, in the same way that at the end of many works Llull recommends that the reader should continue to use and adapt what he has just learned for other purposes.

Perhaps he also does so because until now the three have worked to convince an outsider, the Gentile. Now it would be necessary to undertake a slightly different task: to persuade each other, a task more appropriate for the Lullian mission itself.

The key question, however, which has been discussed at length in the literature on Llull, is how, although the work has an open end, given that he does not seem to incline towards any of the three religions, the Majorcan can declare in later works that this book shows that the Christian is right? How can he justify a passage like that of the Book of the Beloved and the Lover, where he says: “Tell me, fool, how you know that the Catholic faith is true and the beliefs of Jews and Saracens are false and erroneous?” He responds: “In the ten conditions of the Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men“.4 Is there some trick we have not seen?

The answer is yes, and that the trick is precisely in those ten conditions which he always cites when he cites the Book of the Gentile. In order to understand how this works, it is enough to look at one of them, the first condition of the first tree. As we have seen, it says “that God is always attributed with the greatest nobility in essence, in virtues and in works.” This allows Llull to argue that a God without internal and external activity, or “idle” as he says, would be a lesser God, and that a God whose activity produces the Trinity (internally) and the Incarnation (externally) would have “greater nobility in essence, in virtues and in works.” And with proof of these two dogmas, we have the key, as Eusebi Colomer has said, both to Lullian theology and to his writings of religious persuasion.

With this we have seen how Ramon Llull has constructed an ingenious and highly innovative edifice, and how he has operated a kind of short circuit in all the problems of the interreligious controversy and of the hostile attitudes of one group against another. He has found a dirty slate of insulting graffiti, of defences and attacks, of hermeneutic discussions that can never end, and with a masterful stroke he has made it clean, with a methodological proposal to which it was difficult not to pay attention. Instead of wanting to deny the problems of lack of understanding or of violence, he has said simply, let us “enter through another door”, which was the door of his Art. It was not the door of another dogma but simply of a new tactic.


[1] For a more detailed analysis of this work in the framework of apologetics, see my study “L’apologètica de Ramon Martí i Ramon Llull davant de l’islam i del judaisme”, in Marcel Salleras (ed.), El debat intercultural als segles XIII i XIV. Actes de les Primeres Jornades de Filosofia Catalana, Girona, Col·legi Universitari, 1989, pp. 175-176.

[2] Harvey Hames, “Review Essay – On the Polemics of Polemic: Conceptions of Medieval Jewish-Christian Disputation”, SL, 37, 1997, pp. 131-136.

[3] ORL, XIV, p. 271.

[4] ENC, B13, p. 163