By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary
In this canto, Dante encounters his former teacher Brunetto Latini. In the touching conversation between former teacher and former student, Dante recalls “…It was you who showed the way man makes himself eternal…” There is great irony in this statement. Dante’s teacher does live eternally, but in hell. It is hard to tell whether Dante places him there for his teaching of hubris or for his homosexuality (the major encoded theme of this canto). For the sake of conversation, I suggest we go down the hubris track.
The biblical allusions involved in human beings attempting to make themselves eternal go all the way back to the Tower of Babel and to the Garden of Eden in the first chapters of Genesis. The human endeavor to make ourselves eternal always ends badly. This tragic impulse brought about the Fall. It also brought about divine wrath which destroyed the first ziggurut and the confusion of languages (or the condemnation to perpetual misunderstanding). With a little help from John Calvin and Karl Barth, we can even say that all “religion” – inasmuch as it is a thoroughly human attempt to make ourselves eternal – can be accounted for in relation to the tragic impulse to stave off the inevitability of death.
Why stop with “religion”? It does not take much analytical insight to see that much of what we occupy ourselves with in culture involves the attempt to make ourselves eternal. I would certainly include acquiring wealth and expensive symbols (cars, homes, clothing, jewelry, exclusive memberships, and the like) in the category of attempting to make ourselves eternal. Certainly, the twin American obsessions with youth and sexual gratification begin to make sense as tragic grasps at eternal life. After a while, it becomes easier to list the aspects of life and culture that are not about the quixotic quest to make ourselves eternal. Even the key strategy for a certain American political party revolves around the twin strategy of activating the fear of death and then promising a perpetual extension of life if elected (Oh, yes. I just went there).
My vocation has taken me into the realm of higher education. The quest to make oneself eternal through scholarship (especially publication) is alive and well in academia. We academics want to make a name for ourselves. We want to make a difference through our publications and our teaching. We are not immune from the same sin as Dante’s teacher: attempting to make ourselves eternal through our scholarly endeavors.
Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Dante. He would teach us that there is something higher and more reliable than attempting to make ourselves eternal. He seems to say to us that we cannot save ourselves. The attempt to do so may well be the height of selfishness or self-assertion. Instead, we are called to let God save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only the free gift of God on Good Friday and Easter can make us eternal. The truth of our existence is that we cannot save ourselves nor can we make ourselves eternal; salvation and eternal life comes to us as a gift from Another. Once we see the truth about misguided attempts at auto-salvation and have ears to hear the Good News of the Gospel that comes to us from outside (extra nos), we can begin to reorder our lives according to the gracious and life-giving will of God. We can cease to live tragically for ourselves and begin to live creatively for God and others.
Dante’s encounter with his former teacher seems to be a perfect Lenten moment. It brings into bold relief the sad irony involved in our multifaceted attempts to save ourselves and it points us to the higher truth of the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, whose body was broken and whose blood was spilled for us and for our salvation.