Paradiso Canto 19: Undersea seeing

Reading the beginning of this Canto reminds me of a scene from Finding Nemo. Remember? The school of fish scene – all acting together and speaking with one voice (of John Ratzenberger, he of Cheers fame)?

And it reminds me too about Dante’s poetic strategy in each Canto: Dante doesn’t begin the scene this way just because it’s cool. Well, it is cool: A whole bunch of individual souls (the spirits of the Just and Temperate Rulers, hanging out in the Temperate Zone of Jupiter) who form the image of an Eagle, representing Divine Justice. Though individuals, they speak as if with one voice. What an interesting way to put it:

For I saw and heard the beak move and declare
in its own voice the pronouns “I” and “mine”
when “we” and “our” were what conceived it there. (19:10-12)

It’s a very interesting image with which to begin what is a meditation on divine justice, and its relationship to the kind of justice we practice here on earth. Indeed, the kind of justice that we can conceive of with our human minds.

That last nuance is, I think, rather critical here. We can indeed conceive of justice, which is a quality that emanates unadulterated from the Divine Mind, but we conceive of it in a way that is clouded by the limits of our individual, human and by nature self-bound reason. And the metaphor that Dante uses is a pretty apt one, I think.

Ever try to swim underwater and open your eyes to see where you’re going? We all know that doing so – especially if in the deep ocean – we can see a few feet in front of us, even if the water’s clear. But soon, our vision gets even blurrier in the irritation of water and eye. And we know there’s something down there that is deep, and visible. We just can’t see it with this equipment.

The idea is that God created us, and in particular our ability to see; but the equipment doesn’t match the power of the one who made it. There’s an “infinite qualitative difference,” to quote my good pal Karl Barth, between us and Him (or Her), and so our ability to see is a facsimile of that divine ability, but an infinitely lesser one.

But there’s aspect to this thing that impedes our ability to see, in this case the true nature of divine justice, which has to do with our very damaged nature itself. We can’t see, because we’re unwilling to wait for the thing that enables us to see: that “Prideful Power” (i.e. Satan, the first sinner to fall from heaven) “would not wait/the power of the ripening sun, [and thus] fell green and sour.” If that angel had waited for the power that illumines, he too would be able to see as the angels. Perhaps so would we.

It’s our self-ishness (like your “hit-ish”, Leigh!) nature that impedes our vision. We can’t see, because we’re solitary. Individuals. We glimpse a tiny part of the elephant, and can’t see the whole. We’re just one pixel in a huge picture, viewable only by the Viewer who created it.

Indeed:

And thus we see that every lesser creature
is much too small a vessel to hold the Good
that has no end; Itself is Its one measure. (19:49-51)

It’s here then where we can see Dante’s metaphor in its brilliance: these souls can see with a power so much greater than our own. Why? Because they are acting and seeing as solitary souls, lonely lights; but the difference is they see together. The power of their speech, and the power of their vision, is made greater by their cooperation, by their common mind and will. The “I” is given vision in the “we”. Just as the “glow of many living coals/issues a single heat, so from that image/one sound declared the love of many souls.” (19:19-21)

I think this is also a brilliant and subtle way of showing the very nature of divine justice as it meets the limited capacities of our human abilities to understand and practice it. What is justice for? It’s about a right ordering of things among people. Justice is that power that enables people to function together, to create something whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. A city, a civitas, is powerful not because of the quality of the individuals who live in it – that’s important. But its true power and quality lie in those individuals’ ability to form a cooperative whole that is grater than the individuals within it it. That is indeed one of the reasons Dante is so concerned about good government, good rulership: because it mirrors a divine capacity to order life together. Such communality is a keystone value in heaven.

But, by the same token, this ability – to function together in order to create something greater than any of us individually can create or access – also has limits.

Dante, in speaking to the collective being that is the Eagle of divine justice, believes that it can see as God sees – that it can explain the mysteries of divine justice that have so perplexed him.

I know that if God’s justice has constructed
its holy mirror in some other realm,
your Kingdom’s view of it is not obstructed. (19:28-30)

Not so, says the Eagle. We are of limited vision, just like you. Even though we create something greater together as a whole than we could as individuals, doesn’t mean we can see as God sees. S/He (pronouns…so awkward) is the only one who gets the full picture. It’s as if the “We” of the eagle is still constrained by the “I’s” (the “Eyes”) of its constituent members.

(A little aside: Is it possible that the opposite is also true? Could one argue that a collective can never be moral and truly “just”, whereas individuals can indeed function with a morality that is impossible for the society? Ala Reinhold Niebuhr in his famous Moral Man and Immoral Society? Interesting to ponder….)

So it’s no surprise when Dante lifts up one of the most vexing questions of justice in Dante’s time – and a relief that such questions are as live then as they are now: why are folks who have never heard of Jesus – say the virtuous people living in India – subject to a divine justice that requires people to “make a choice for Christ.”

The answer: We can’t see it. It’s there, but it doesn’t make sense to our human minds. The answer from the Eagle sounds curiously similar to the answer to Job from the whirlwind: “Who are you to take the judgment seat/and pass on things a thousand miles away/who cannot see the ground before your feet?”

Our only hope? Trust. Trust that there is justice, it’s God’s justice, we read of it in the scriptures, and it seems damn strange to us at times. That’s the way it is.

But it doesn’t mean we don’t try. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek to reflect, and see, how that justice can be applied on earth. Dante’s examples in the negative show just how disastrous can be the consequence of “bad justice”.

Or, maybe Dory’s advice is apt too. (Dory? Remember? Short-term-memory-challenged Dory from Finding Nemo?)

“Just keep swimming…just keep swimming…just keep swimming.”

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About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: http://pclawrenceville.blogspot.com/ View all posts by jeffvamos

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