Monthly Archives: March 2012

Paradiso Canto 10: Of Faith and Reason in an ICU

Down in adoration falling,
This great sacrament we hail;
Over ancient forms of worship
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith tells us that Christ is present
When our human senses fail.

– St. Thomas Aquinas
(Sing, My Tongue, The Savior’s Glory)

As I sit here writing this blog, in my ninety-eight year old father-in-law’s room, in a brand new ICU in New Jersey, it seems appropriate that my topic for consideration today is the Tenth Canto of Dante’s “Paradiso.”

In two more days, the family will face major decisions concerning my Father’s (my father-in-law’s) future.

His small, but strong, body lies dwarfed in a large hospital bed, hooked up to “who-knows-how-many” life-support systems; marvels of modern science.

Marvels, but not miracles.

The penultimate scene from the French film masterpiece “Of Gods and Men,” confronts me, as the waltz from “Swan Lake” sweeps over the me.

Some eight harried Cistercian monks in Algeria partake of their “Last Supper” and prepare for what is to come … Faith and Reason. Reason and Faith. What to do? How to accept? Why? Because.

An event of some twenty months ago also comes into focus.
Pope Benedict XVI is commenting upon the importance of both Faith and Reason, and on Thomas Aquinas in particular:
“When natural law and the responsibility … are denied, the way is thrown … open to ethical relativism at an individual level, and to totalitarianism at a political level.” A frightening thought, indeed. … “The great contribution of the ‘Angelic Doctor,’ was to underline the essential interaction between faith and reason; between theology and philosophy. … The trust St. Thomas places in these two instruments of knowledge can be explained by his conviction that both come from a single wellspring of truth, the divine Logos, which works in the area of both creation and redemption.” (Pope Benedict XVI on the Contribution of Thomas Aquinas to the world – NY Times, June 16, 2010)

I believe Dante would have concurred.

The medieval theologian Aquinas had, perhaps, the most influence on Dante’s Weltanschauung (worldview). Aquinas put the teachings of rational philosophy in the service of religious faith and doctrine. He called the natural law “the human participation in God’s eternal law.” He wrote about faith and reason, the “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth. “ Through faith we accept Divine Revelation, and through reason we can understand basic practical principles (the ‘primary principles of natural law.’) ”

When Dante and Beatrice first arrive in the sphere of the Sun, a circle of spirits surrounds them in a dance of circling song and light. Aquinas is the spokesman for this first circle, the circle of the “twelve wise spirits.” Among these spirits we encounter many of the history’s great minds: Thomas’ teacher, Albertus Magnus of Cologne, King Solomon, (author of “Song of Songs”), Boethius (“Consolation of Philosophy”), Peter Lombard (“Sentences”), Gratian, Dionysius the Areopagite, Paulus Orosius; Isidore of Seville (“Etymologies”), the Venerable Bede, Richard of St. Victor, and a twelfth-century mystic opposed to Aquinas, called Siger of Brabant.

And, so at last, I come to the question frequently raised by many.

“Can science and religion be successfully remarried? Can a reunion of these old lovers infuse new vitality to the whole of western culture?” as Teilhard passionately asserted it would, or, as his critics suggest, does “Teilhard accomplish the reconciliation of science and religion at the expense of both partners to the marriage?” Does he fatally compromise both sides in forcing an alliance which should never have been attempted in the first place? See Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

Where does science (reason) begin and end? Where, and how, does it interact with, and lead to, and from, Faith? Can they be harmonized?

For Dante, all is harmonized in Heaven.

What say you? ????????


Paradiso Canto 9: Looking for Love in the Right Place

This canto highlights those inhabitants of paradise who had moved from a life of sexual license to a life of devoted faith in Jesus Christ. How appropriate that Dante locates this theme and its inhabitants in the sphere of Venus. Former prostitutes and those who acted out sexually make up the characters we encounter here. None other than Rahab the prostitute (see Joshua 2 and 6) serves as the chief exemplar of those who inhabit this zone of heavenly bliss. We could well imagine Mary Magdalene and several other biblical characters as residents of this region. Dante might well have made St. Augustine—a noted “player” in his early life who became one of the greatest of all followers of Jesus Christ—the patron saint of this band of redeemed sinners.

Drawing deeply from the Neo-Platonist anthropology that portrays human beings as fundamentally desiring or erotic creatures (the Greek word eros means “desire”—often, though not exclusively with a sexual connotation), Augustine powerfully explicated the Christian doctrine of sin. We are created as beings insufficient unto ourselves; we are hard wired for relationships of love with God, others, and ourselves. The structure of human existence is such that we find our center and our meaning outside of ourselves: first and foremost in God and secondarily in relationships with other humans. The root problem of human life arises when we turn away from God and make a creature (other humans, ourselves, or another created thing) the object of our highest desire. Augustine called this underlying disease “disordered love” or “disordered desire.” Turning away from desire for God as our highest good results in worshipping creatures or creaturely experiences and (attempting) to use God for our own purposes. In short, when we misdirect our desire to creatures rather than to the Creator, all hell breaks loose.

Augustine’s own life story illustrates this quite vividly. In his Confessions—the first spiritual autobiography or memoire—Augustine recounts an early adult life marked by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (but without the rock ‘n’ roll). He sought pleasure and fulfillment through endless sexual encounters. Eventually, he comes to realize that he has been “looking for love in all the wrong places.” His sexual escapades were really nothing but a desperate search for the fulfillment that can only come from a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. His sexual acting out only covered over his longing for a love that would not fade or slip away. Augustine captures the essence of his journey from sex addict and power seeker to faithful obedience to Jesus Christ by saying in the opening lines of the book that “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O God.” More profound words outside of the Bible have hardly ever been written! Underneath all our “ignorant craving” (to borrow an apt phrase from the Buddhists) lies our profound desire or hunger for God.

Augustine and Dante shed real light on contemporary American culture. We are a sex-saturated people. Everywhere we look—in the media, in popular culture, in politics—we see sexuality as a dominant theme. Sexuality promises fulfillment of our deepest desires and holds out the hope of perpetual happiness. And it sells billions of dollars with or products every year…but I digress. Augustine and Dante help me to see that our obsession with sexuality points to a much deeper desire for ultimate fulfillment and loving intimacy. No created thing, no matter how beautiful or alluring, will ever be able to meet the most burning of all our desires. That fulfillment only comes from giving ourselves—heart, soul, mind, body, strength—to God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. True blessedness, whether in the heavenly spheres or on earth, comes from intimate knowledge and love of God. Rahab knew this. So did Augustine. So can we.


Paradiso Canto 8: We’re Mixed Up, and That’s Good

Dante’s questions continue as he ascends the spheres of heaven. Again and again, his questions are absolutely understandable – but again and again, the answers suggest that he has momentarily forgotten the pervasive role of the Creator in directing all things. He is learning, brick by brick, that things have to be the way they are, and that’s good, because it embodies the cohering light of Intelligence, flowing through all, characterizing all, ensouling all.

There’s an undertone, perhaps unconscious, to Dante’s questions: Why are things the way they are? Why do they work this way and not another? Constantly, we feel the ramping, vibrant human mind kicking at its stall, wanting to blow down its limits, wanting to know, to know. Dante’s interrogation isn’t profane or irreligious, but its energy is nevertheless questing and profound. And being in heaven doesn’t quench the thirst of the search.

The sphere of Venus, eh? We’d expect a look at sexual desire and love, but no. (Maybe because, in the end, the belief in Venus and the star was a pagan holdover?) Instead, we find ourselves in a discussion with Charles Martel about a topic that has puzzled and horrified many parents: why do children turn out so differently? Why are people so diverse? What is the origin of that diversity, which admittedly makes human society so rich, and so is inarguably necessary to human life (as Aristotle pointed out), but also leads to such trouble? “How is it,” asks Dante, “sweet seed can bear bitter fruit?”

That question bespeaks human insecurity and frustration at unpredictability – in the world in general, but especially in human affairs. We can’t tell how people will turn out, and we can’t control the ways their differences will combine. We can’t foresee or catch up all the consequences. All parents know this tremulous, balked feeling in regard to their children. We just can’t see the future. Charles, now in heaven, is worried about the choices of his brother Robert. (Although I must say, he needn’t have worried: Robert turned out to be a good king, a peacemaker and defender of the Italian peninsula against foreign invaders.)

Charles, evidently for a while an admired acquaintance of Dante’s, is a good authority, because (as Dante sees it) he was very different from his brother, who may be on a perilous path. Charles says that had he not died so young, things might have been different. As in both Inferno and Purgatorio, the affairs of the world, and the worries of the world, go on, and those in these various postlife realms are aware of them and share them — even those, like Charles Martel, who are in perpetual bliss.

Dante had begun by calling the belief in Venus a relic of pagan times – but Martel’s explanation of human diversity is a mixture of the pagan (astrology) and the Christian (the informing divine Intelligence). The stars exert different influences on us as each of us are born; this astral individuation takes place within the plan of Providence. Martel reminds Dante of “The Good, which turns and gladdens the entire Kingdom you’re climbing,” and which “makes Providence a power” in the stars. “And in Mind, which is itself perfect, there is provision” for both the natures of men and for their well-being.

Dante and Martel agree that nature can never “tire of doing what is necessary,” because that’s what nature is. And, following Aristotle, Dante also agrees we’re a naturally gregarious, social animal, and that it would be awful if we were all the same. We need to live in society, and we need to be different and diverse and divergent. God has done a good thing in making it so.

But how, then, does human diversity lead to so much trouble? As usual, it’s us and our fallenness. We mess up the plan of Providence. Human beings misinterpret the plan, or they try to force others or themselves into talents, lives, or positions for which they aren’t cut out. People don’t pay attention to the groundwork laid by Nature, and humankind gets off on to the wrong road.

Suppose we substituted the term genetic material for the term stars. We’d have a rather moving notion. Thanks to sexual recombination of genes, it’s exceedingly, vastly unlikely that any two people are identical. In human terms, it’s all but impossible. Our genes are what recombine, take different mixes and forms, at our formation. What results is my and your and his and her unrepeatable identity.

Can we see genetics, that outplaying braid of human diversity, as nestling within the plan of Providence?