Over at Slate, Robert Baird suggests that one of the reasons The Inferno captivates our imagination is its portrayal of ironic justice. “Dante’s hell flatters us”, he rightly notes. Standing at a safe distance from the place, we become the judgers of the judged, relieved to know that we will never be that far gone.
The problem with Paradiso, Baird argues, is that it turns the judgment back on us: “Previously we judged hell; now heaven judges us.”
There is no better Canto than XXIV to illustrate Baid’s argument. Here the poet encounters a literal test of faith. St. Peter stands as the honored Herr Professor Doktor testing the Poet Candidate for entry into the realm. He has only to answer one simple question: what is faith?
Of course Peter is the examiner of faith! He to whom the Lord gave the keys now bestows the key to the Poet. And the Poet begins rightly with the Scripture, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11). Ah, but we’re not quite done yet. Herr Doktor must know why substance precedes evidence—is not the substance of our knowledge determined first by evidence? We do not believe and then see! We see and then believe.
Dante, surely after a long thoughtful breath, continues: the stuff of the Divine is deep below our sensual perception. The stuff of faith is “so hidden to eyes below that there their existence is in belief alone”. Faith is hope materialized.
And so it is that Dante suggests that the stuff of God cannot be reasoned upward, but only revealed. Syllogisms lose their ground in matters of theology (though, as we will see a new syllogism, one based in Scripture, grows freely). Knowledge as related to God is rather simple—We cannot think ourselves or, for that matter, see ourselves to the Divine.
Peter is pleased, but he’s not done. If not by natural knowledge, whence has faith come? Why, of course, it comes through the Spirit’s work in the Word. It has come in the new syllogism, the Old and New Testaments. The intellect, that which sees, becomes subordinate, then, to faith revealed in Scripture. And how can we know that Scripture is divine? Why, because it tells us so.
I’m proud of Peter here, and I stand in his tradition. Circular logic won’t get us anywhere. Herr Doktor won’t be won with the Scripture’s own self-affirmation.
So Dante points to the spread of Christianity, a miracle, he thinks, far greater than the miracles recounted in the Word. It’s here that I most profoundly disagree with Dante. The spread of Christianity is 99 parts Empire. At best that leaves one part miracle. And that’s not a thing of Pride.
But does Empire lessen Christianity’s value?
Perhaps not. Perhaps the miracle is not the spread of the faith but the power of the message, even if it has been co-opted throughout history for decidedly ungodly ends. Perhaps the miracle is the faithful activity of the self-revealing God who works in, around and under the Empire. Perhaps the miracle is, as Christian Moevs notes, that Truth validates itself. Perhaps the miracle is that our ontological grounding is not what can be seen, but what the Revelator reveals.
For Dante and for us there is left but one question: “declare what you believe.”
We might rattle off the Apostles Creed or some other piece of Christendom. It’s not a bad strategy, but you might not always have Dante’s assurance. I certainly don’t.
Or we might remember that the inquisitor is he who thrice denied our Lord yet still bears the Keys.
Dante thought of God like a clock. Not like the clocks and clockmakers of our Deistic Founding Fathers, but rather as a harmonious unit compelled in its functioning toward one end. In life we are pushed toward God. Our faith and belief certainly matter, but they cannot be the end. The end is the three Eternal Persons who call the cosmos to its motion—who are not, as Dante and Aristotle may believe, unmoved movers, but rather condescend to move among us, to die for us, and to defeat death for us.
Revelation comes not by sight or sense but through the “spark which then dilates to a living flame and like a star in heaven shines within me”. Faith is not about creed. It is about hope. And as much as Lent is a season of penitence, it must also be one of hope—a season of Springtime Awakenings to new life, to the light which shines on the Revealed if only we have the joy to see it. We may not always have faith. Peter didn’t. But all is not lost. The Lord is far more faithful than we.