Tag Archives | dualism

The Divine Comedy | Dante Alighieri

The cover of Dante's The Divine Comedy

I’ve been lost in the forest before. The worst that has ever happened to me was a bit of confusion and a late supper.

When Dante got lost …

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

(Inferno, I:1-6)

Instead of making it home for dinner, he took an epic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. He begins in fear, he ends in love:

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso, XXXIII:145)

I’ve been meaning to read this classic for years. When I saw Barnes & Noble’s beautiful leather-bound edition, I couldn’t resist.

Reading it was a challenge. It’s not every day you read a Nineteenth century English translation of a Fourteenth Century Italian text in verse! With the help of a dictionary app and SparkNotes, I fell into the rhythm of the poem and began to understand it. Reading the text aloud (even muttering the cadence under my breath) helped immensely.

I’m not qualified to comment on the literary merit of this classic, or the translation. I’ll keep my comments to theological issues.

Go to Hell!

Dante wrote his masterpiece in exile. He found himself on the wrong side of political power and was banished from his home in Florence on trumped-up charges (xi).

The Germans have a word, schadenfreude, which refers to the joy taken at someone else’s misfortune. It’s not a very flattering quality, but one Dante seems to enjoy. When he arrived in the sixth circle of hell, he wandered around tombs that held heretics who were tortured.

Upon a sudden issued forth this sound
From out one of the tombs; wherefore I pressed,
Fearing, a little nearer to my Leader.

And unto me he said: “Turn thee; what dost thou?
Behold there Farinata who has risen;
From the waist upwards wholly shalt thous see him.

(Inferno X:28-33)

The character from the crypt was none other than Farinata, his real life political enemy. What do you do with a political enemy from earth? Stick him in your literary hell! This is where an annotated text is very helpful (unless you’re up-to-date with the people of Fourteenth Century Florence).

Unfortunately, Dante’s pattern for dealing with some of his enemies has been followed many times in church history. Instead of doing the hard work of loving your enemy, it’s easier to just demonize him.

Highway to Hell

My edition of The Divine Comedy is filled with illustrations from Gustave Doré. These illustrations taught me something: hell is far more exciting and interesting than heaven. Inferno is far more frequently and graphically illustrated than Paradiso.

This attitude—the idea that heaven is boring and hell is exciting—is still around. Perhaps AC/DC popularized it the best:

Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do
Goin’ down
Party time
My friends are gonna be there too
I’m on the highway to hell

Dante’s hell is full of all sorts of interesting (if sadistic) tortures. Some people are burned alive, some turn into trees whose limbs are pecked at by Harpies, some are boiled alive in a river of blood, some are shat upon. Literally. Poop falls from the sky. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with Dante!

If you squint, you can read this torture as divine justice in the light of God’s holiness. Realistically, it’s another sad example of schadenfreude. Someone needs to go back in time and give him a copy of VanBalthasar’s Dare We Hope?

Disembodied Heaven & the Impassable Deity

I always knew that I disagreed with Dante’s view of hell. I was surprised by how much I disagreed with his heaven—and his Trinity!

Dante’s God is an Aristotelian construct mediated by Aquinas:

O grace abundant, by which I presumed
To fix my sight upon the Light Eternal,
So that the seeing I consumed therein!

Substance, and accident, and their operations,
All infused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.

Withing the deep and luminous substance
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold color and of one dimension,

(Paradiso XXXIII:82-84, 88-90, 115-117)

God, for Dante, is an immovable point of perfect light. Three circles symbolize the Trinity, with three different coloured lights. All manifold colours emanate from this point. The heavenly spheres (the planets), all rotate around this point as do the various levels of heavenly worshipers. There is nothing to do in heaven but to be consumed in contemplation.

That sounds spiritual, but it’s nowhere near biblical. Biblical metaphors include a throne with a blood-stained lamb. Biblical metaphors speak of a river with trees of life lining the banks. Dante’s God is a philosophical idea. I’ll stick with the Holy One of Israel who breathed his breath into this dust and called it good.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a challenging and interesting work to read. Just don’t confuse literature with theology.

—Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008).

Captive to the Word of God | Miroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf perceives the world on a deeper level than most. He has given time and thought to the theological lens through which he understands existence—something self-evident in all of his works.

Captive to the Word of God demonstrates this depth of perception. After an original essay which explains his method (“Reading the Bible Theologically”), this volume collects five essays written over the course of sixteen years. Each essay demonstrates a life and thought process infused with an understanding of God’s Word.

Two essays stood out. In “Peculiar Politics: John’s Gospel, Dualism, and Contemporary Pluralism,” Volf undermines the so-called dualisms implicit in John’s Gospel (dark/light, death/life, etc.) and demonstrates the various shades of grey. For example, What is the salvific status of Nicodemus? How can we hate the world if God loves the world? Volf then applies his understanding of the Gospel of John to our contemporary pluralistic-leaning society with penetrating observations and insight.

“Hunger for Infinity: Christian Faith and the Dynamics of Economic Progress” is another gem. Using the book of Ecclesiastes, Volf torpedoes the myth of process and reveals how our understanding of God has been co-opted to serve the “hamster wheel” of desire:

Masters of subtle religious ideological manipulation engineered a gradual metamorphosis of the God of Jesus Christ into the god of this world. They were shrewd enough not to overdo it, however, The mask of the old God was retained; appearances must be kept up, you know. (170)

Volf is never easy reading, but a deliberate and careful reading pays dividends with this short collection of essays.

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