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About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary

Paradiso Canto 15: Decline or Improvement?

As he ascends to the sphere of Mars, Dante encounters his great-great-grandfather. The only historical information about Cacciaguida comes to us in this canto. Dante tells us that his forebear had been baptized and that he had died in the Holy Land during an ill-fated crusade. He also tells us that his venerated relative lives now in paradise with other sainted souls. Dante also provides in this canto some reflections on the degradation in Florence that has taken place between the time of Cacciaguida and himself.

Would it not be a remarkable thing to encounter and have conversation with one’s great-great grandfather or grandmother? While a few of us might have known one of our great grandparents, I doubt that any of us have known or talked with any of our relatives older than a great grandparent. Talking to a great-great-grandparent would mean interacting with someone we had never met, who had lived a hundred or more years earlier, and who might have had a shaping influence on our lives. What would we discuss with such a relative? Inevitably, we would engage in comparison and contrast between our era and that of our now departed forebear.

It seems likely that a narrative of decline would feature prominently in such a discussion. To be sure, the astounding array of technological developments would take up the first part of the conversation. After a time, however, the question of human spiritual, moral, and cultural progress would arise. On that score, I doubt that the present state of human functioning would gain high marks. Most likely, we would lament how things have gotten worse in terms of religious adherence, civility, personal morality, and corporate ethics over the course of a century or more. People today seem more self-oriented, more secular, more impatient, less considerate of others, less willing to serve rather than be served, and less committed to delayed gratification in service to a higher good than they did at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. America ascendant now seems in many ways like America in decline.

Is it true, though? Does the narrative of decline actually match the facts? In asking this question, I am reminded of an observation by E. Brooks Holifield in his recent book God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Eerdmans, 2007) that in every era of American history there has been a narrative of decline about the pastoral role. I also call to mind the recognition that while the tenor of national political discourse seems to have reached an all time low, our American forebears made similar claims—and in several cases, with good reason. Many of us have a tendency to see the times in which we live as a fall from an earlier grace. Reading Dante in this canto, we can see that such a tendency has been around for a long time.

If we wish to make the opposite argument—that human morals and spirituality have actually progressed or improved from a hundred years ago—what evidence would martial in support? We would probably want to point to the changing role of women toward equality with men, the Civil Rights movement, democratic movements like the Arab Spring (powered by the widespread availability and use of social media), and stunning advancements in the quality of life brought about by breakthroughs in medicine and science. More people are free, live longer and better than at any other point in human history.

What criteria should we use to gauge human progress or regress with respect to morality and spirituality? I am sure that Dante would approve the use of Jesus’ teaching about the double love commandment for this task. Individually and collectively, do we love God and our neighbor more now than people did a hundred years ago? Five years ago? Last month? Perhaps the criterion of love would be our best bet to gauge the state of humanity today versus a hundred years ago.

How would you answer the question of our current situation in light of where things were in society a hundred years ago in light of the double love commandment? Have we declined or have we improved?


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 3: Blessedness in the Lowest Sphere of Paradise

I am Piccarda, and I am placed here

Among these other souls of blessedness

To find my blessedness in the lowest sphere.

 

Our wishes, which can have no wish to be

But in the pleasure of the Holy Ghost,

Rejoicing in being formed to his decree.

(3.49-57)

 

In the sphere of the moon—the lowest of the heavenly spheres—Dante encounters the blessed soul of a nun who had been forced to break her sacred vows and to marry through her brother’s political machinations. Piccarda apparently died of despondency soon after her wedding. Though her brother and her husband used her body as a pawn in a game of political power, she remained married to Christ in her heart. She now spends eternity in communion with the Lord and oriented to Him. No one shall misuse her or wrench her body from her soul ever again. The desires of her heart find perpetual fulfillment in devotion to Christ as inspired and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. A truly blessed state!

Piccarda has no interest in moving to a higher sphere in paradise. She communicates absolute contentment and pure fulfillment. What she desires most, she receives. Inclined toward the Lord, she finds blessedness and joy without end. Rank, status, and privilege matter not one whit to her. She is free from calculating ambition and the slavery of unfulfilled desire. Piccarda serves as a worthy guide to heavenly bliss.

Piccarda can function as a spiritual model for the Lenten reader of the Paradisio. She loves the Lord with all of her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She finds her joy and fulfillment solely in the Lord. As a result, she finds contentment right where she is and does not long for anything beyond intimate fellowship with the Lord in the Spirit. In this regard, Piccarda can serve as an ideal guide for Lenten pilgrims. She would seem to ask us what it would take for us to find contentment and joy in the midst of our current station in life? She seems to teach us that the secret to a blessed life here and now consists of finding fulfillment in intimate fellowship with the Lord. If we heed the call to turn away from all sources of ignorant craving and all efforts at chasing after wind, Piccarda holds out the promise of a contentment and joy hitherto unimaginable.

One wonders why Piccarda’s bliss does not suffice for Dante. Why must there be other heavenly spheres that are higher than that in which Piccarda dwells? Did Dante not take Piccarda seriously? If true blessedness comes from orienting one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength toward Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, why would there need to be any higher levels of heavenly joy? The notion of ranked levels of paradise would seem to undermine the very notion of the true character of heavenly bliss as we find it exemplified in Piccarda. Because Dante has proven a worthy guide through hell and purgatory, we shall press onward and upward…even if a bit puzzled as to why we need to do so.

 

 


Canto 33: The End That Is a New Beginning

Our Lenten journey with Dante through purgatory comes to an end with this canto. It seems odd, though, to call it an “end” as it is, in reality, yet another major transition. After journeying upward through the terraces and trials of the mountain of purgatory, the end of the second part of the Divine Comedy sets the stage for heavenly journeying in the Paradisio. Before embarking upon the final stage of his trek, Dante has one more thing he must do. Before ascending further, Dante must be washed in the waters of the Lethe. In so doing, he will cease to focus on his sins and will henceforth focus on matters divine.

We end our Lenten travels with Dante instructed by this final canto. As with Dante’s final canto here, Lent is not a destination so much as a transitional space. During this season, we focus on our sins and work at repentance. Such things can never be the destination; to allow them to be so would miss the whole point. Lenten observance and penitential practices only prepare the way for us to enter into experience of and contemplation upon matters divine in an appropriate manner. The destination, however, lies yet ahead. Our encounter with matters divine begins on Palm Sunday and culminates in the profound mysteries of the death of Jesus on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As with Dante, we must pass through the waters in order to ascend to that which is most beautiful, sublime, and holy. Lent was originally established by the ancient church as a time of learning and penitential preparation for the celebration of baptism during the celebration of Easter (a complex rite that began on Holy Saturday and continued until dawn on Easter Sunday morning). The early church teachers believed that divine illumination came through baptism. Some things-the most important things-about Christian belief and practice could only be known on the basis of the illumination provided by the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of baptism. For those already baptized, the culmination of the Lenten journey with the celebration of baptism for new converts provided an opportunity for baptismal renewal. So it was and so it continues to be. Renewal of the gift of baptism-passing symbolically again through the waters-prepares us for ascent to the most holy of all mysteries.

May the last sentence of Dante’s Purgatorio be ours as we move into Holy Week: “I came forth from the most holy waves, renovated even as new trees renewed with new foliage, pure and ready to rise to the stars” (Canto 33.145).

Onward and upward into heavenly grace!

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary


Canto 27. Moving Beyond One’s Mentor

Dante enters into yet another liminal space in this canto. He passes through the boundary of purging fire that guards the way to earthly Eden (Genesis 3). In so doing, his soul receives its final purification. As a result of passing through the purging wall of fire, he can now move forward into blessedness and he will see God because he has obtained a pure heart (Matthew 5). Before he can ascend yet higher, Virgil informs him that his work as guide has come to an end. In this canto, Dante loses his mentor. Virgil advises Dante to follow the (purified) desires of his heart from this point forward. In so doing, he will no longer need the wise, rational counsel that has guided Dante through the fires of hell and upward through the levels of purgatory.

Moving beyond one’s mentor may be as painful as it is necessary. Many of us have come a long way in life by depending on the wise counsel of some key figure who showed us where to go and who warned us of dangers en route. For such mentors, we have great and abiding affection. Without them, we likely would not have reached our long desired destinations. In many ways, mentors function for many of us as signs of divine grace.

There comes a time, however, in our lives when we have to move beyond our mentors in order to continue our upward journey. To cling desperately to a mentor can mean stagnation, and lack of further progress. In order to climb higher, we eventually have to leave our mentors behind. Such a move does not mean ingratitude; it only means that mentors can only take us so far. Ultimately, we have to travel the rest of the way in life according to our own instincts, perspectives, and reflective experience. Paul the Apostle and Immanuel Kant both come to mind in this connection. When speaking of the role of the Mosaic Law in the Christian life, Paul describes it as a pedagogue or mentor. It has a very important role to play in guiding, inspiring, and correcting. At the point of encounter with Jesus Christ and the Gospel, we cease to need the kind of mentoring provided by the Law. In order to climb higher, we must leave the mentor behind. Similarly, Kant, when asked about the meaning of the term “Enlightenment,” said that it is to move beyond our self-enforced mental minority. Enlightenment means to “dare to think” on our own without being subject to external authorities like mentors and other authorities who would do our thinking for us. At some point, we must dare to stand up on our own two legs and think for ourselves. Kant’s call to move beyond all mentors foreshadowed and set the stage for Existentialism and its similar call to dare to make and own one’s choices in life.

I am profoundly grateful to the four main mentors that I have had in my life. They have enriched me and guided me in ways that I can hardly enumerate. I will always love and respect them. Yet, in order to continue my journey of faith, I have had to move beyond each of them intellectually and spiritually. In the end, I have to travel the rest of the journey on my own. I only hope that I have learned their lessons well enough and that I have matured enough that I, like Dante, can trust my own desires and instincts.

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary


How long, O Lord? Canto 21

According to Plato, we are erotic beings (from the Greek word eros, meaning desire). We are beings who are insufficient in and of ourselves. We are hungry for things outside of ourselves: the world, one another, beauty, God. We are open to and dependent upon these objects of desire for the the sustenance of our lives. We can understand much about our lives and what makes the world go around by thinking in terms of desire and the varied attempts to satisfy desire. For Plato and for the Bible, all of our desires are interrelated and they find their proper coordination when we are oriented toward the ultimate object of human desire: God. When our deepest desire is for God, all other desires fall into their proper place.

Things go badly awry, however, when our deepest desire is for something other than the Highest Good (Summum Bonum or God). Disordered desire is problematic, catastrophic even, in terms of the object of desire and the process of desire. When our deepest desire becomes some part of the created order, we inevitably fall headlong into chaos, brokenness, and despair. Looking for love in all the wrong places always has tragic consequences. Even the process of desire becomes distorted and diseased. Such is the fate of us all.

Canto 21 opens by invoking the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. The Samaritan woman provides an exemplar of disordered desire and its painful consequences as well as the healing and fulfillment of right desire. Having several husbands and living with a partner outside of the bounds of marriage is only a symptom of a much deeper erotic disease. Jesus, the master physician of the soul, begins with a discussion of the presenting symptoms. An avoidance or deflection move on the part of the woman points to the deeper cause of her disease. Her desire for God has been displaced…and she knows it when in the presence of Jesus. Rather than scolding her for her sexual morals, Jesus addresses the root cause of her deep spiritual disorder and offers a cure: making the Lord the object of her highest desire. This move transforms the woman and she runs to tell others and to invite them to come to the great Physician.

One wonders how long this woman lived in a state of internal disorder arising from diseased desire. Multiple marriages and a current relationship are mentioned. Fifteen, twenty, thirty years? It is not entirely clear, but it does seem like a big chunk of this woman’s life. St. Augustine in his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, recounts decades of his life lived in the living hell of disordered desire. We can readily see examples of people we know who lived for years, decades, even a whole lifetime subject to the chaos and pain that comes with disordered desire. If we demythologize Dante’s Purgatorio a bit, it might be possible to imagine that Dante is asking a similar question. Statius, the great poet of Rome’s “silver age”, tells Dante and Virgil that he has been in this level of purgatory for 500 years. That is a very long time to suffer before something clicks and he is able to move forward and to ascend to blessedness. Many of us dwell in the living hell of disordered desire with all of its wretched consequences for what seems like centuries. At some point, though, many of us “come to ourselves” like the younger of the two prodigal sons (Luke 15) and reorient our desires toward the one thing that can truly satisfy our deepest desire as human beings: God.

During this Lenten season, Dante lifts up before us the woman at the well and Statius. He seems to ask us about our desires. He invites us to reflect deeply in order to determine that which is our highest desire. He invites us to repent and to make “the main thing” the main thing.

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary

 


Canto 15 – Visions of Gentleness

In Canto 15, we find Dante and Virgil at the third terrace of Purgatory. Here, Dante must address the deadly sin of wrath or uncontrollable, destructive rage. Due to our fallen state, it is inevitable that wrongs of various kinds will be committed against us during the course of our lives. The natural (dare I say “normal”?) response to the wrongful actions of others is anger, sometimes to the point of destructive rage. When painfully wronged, anger and a desire for restitution or even punishment flares up within. When acted upon, wrathful anger inflicts pain on the offending party which, in turn, evokes anger and a desire for revenge on their part. What could be more familiar to us all than the destructive dialectic of pain-driven anger that begets more of the same until both parties are engulfed in wrathful action aimed at the destruction of one another. In every age, we see and experience this deadly dance of destruction at the micr0, meso, and macro levels of human society. Sadly, wrath seems to make the world go around.

Breaking the cycle of pain turned to anger which escalates into wrath requires intervention. Left to its own devices, this cycle spins out of control until a kind of insanity of ire leaves destruction of lives and relationships in its bloody wake. This cyle, familiar though it may be, is not inevitable; it can be interrupted or broken. Drawing from the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Dante lifts of mercy or gentleness as the chief antidote to wrath. “Blessed are the merciful” is the key that unlocks the purgative meaning of this canto. Because spiritual principles, true as they may be, are usually not sufficient to change behavior, the canto points to the possibility and even the necessity of divine intervention. Dante is given three visions, each of which emphasizes mercy or gentleness that turns away wrath. The first vision poetically recalls the story from Luke’s Gospel in which the middle school aged Jesus goes off by himself to the Temple for three days without telling his parents where he was. When they finally reunite, Mary’s response to Jesus speaks honestly of the pain that his actions have caused her, but without falling into anger or wrath. The second vision comes from Greek literature: an exchange between Pisistratus (tyrant of Athens) and his wife. In the face of his wife’s demand that Pisistratus execute a young Athenian man who dared spontaneously and without permission to kiss the princess, Pisistratus turns away wrath with a wise and gentle word that reframes the meaning of the event in question. The third vision recalls the stoning of Stephen the deacon as recounted in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. While being stoned to death, Stephen prays that the Lord would have mercy on those whose wrath will momentarily lead to his painful and bloody martyrdom. These three brief visionary narratives – two biblical and one pagan – are the instruments of divine intervention. Their aim is to help Dante to see the possibility of gentleness as an antidote to wrath.

It may be worth noting that the three merciful characters supplied by the visions refuse to omit themselves from the articulated responses. They refer to themselves and their pain when responding to wrath. They do not simply focus on the morally problematic behavior of the one who has caused pain. They do not turn the offending person into a demon nor do they dehumanize them. Subtly, there seems to be here a call to own one’s pain and to deal with it in a way that frames it. Perhaps owning one’s pain and putting it into some sort of larger frame of meaning is one of the keys that makes mercy or gentleness possible.

The visions given to Dante suggest that story and narrative may also be key in funding gentleness in the face of wrath. Perhaps destructive anger is, in the end, a failure of imagination.

 

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary

 


Purgatorio, Canto 3: The way that leads to blessedness

At the foot of the mountain of purgation, a fundamental issue pertaining to salvation surfaces. How far can unaided human reason take us toward the blessed life? The answer provided is that it can only take us so far, perhaps only to the base of the penitential mountain. The blessed life cannot finally be attained by reason alone. To obtain forgiveness and reconciliation with God, one must ascend by faith and hope.

The problem with Plato, Aristotle, and the all the other ancient and modern pagan philosophers is that they can only take us so far. They cannot lead us to knowledge of the mystery of God the Holy Trinity. They cannot lead us to the atoning death of Jesus and his life-giving resurrection. For that knowledge, we need the revelation of God made known in the incarnation. Only this heavenly Wisdom born of Mary’s womb can lead us to the higher and more weighty matters pertaining to our existential condition. Reason has to be completed by revelation if we are to attain that for which all of us deeply long: saving knowledge of divine Love.

The way that leads to life is less a way of reason than a way of penitence, faith, forgiveness, and hope. Moreover, this way is not the way of disembodied contemplation of eternal verities so much as it is the way of embodied practice. We cannot think our way from heaven to hell. We must practice in faith and hope, relying on the promise of the love of God to forgive sinners.

Even if through penitence and faith we ascend to the blessed life, we will still never comprehend the ultimate mystery of the all things. No matter how pure and blessed, we will never be able to comprehend the full mystery of the Holy Trinity. It is enough for us to accept that the One God is Three, not to know how that is so. The way we come to know that this mystery is Love itself is by taking up our cross and following the Incarnate One on the way to the top of mount Calvary.


Canto 33: Anti-Eucharist

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Surprisingly, the lowest level of hell is icy cold. Those who have committed the worst sins of all – the treacherous – must suffer in bitter, barren cold for eternity. Who knew that there is something worse than unquenchable fires?

In the midst of this canto Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolin0 della Gherardesca. He pauses from chewing on the head and brains of his archenemy Archbishop Ruggieri  in order to share with the visitors the account of his death and that of his children (and grandchildren, actually). Ironically, Ugolino spends more time describing the horrible circumstances of his death than in owning up to his own treachery and double dealings. Is there anything worse than a victimizer who portrays himself as a victim?

Ugolino relates how he and his younger family members were shut up in a tower and left to starve to death. His children offer their very own flesh and blood to him as a way to sustain his less than meritorious life. At first, he refused to engage in cannibalism of his own children. Eventually, he succumbed to the power of hunger and ate the flesh and blood of his own progeny. Now, in hell he perpetually cannibalizes the brain of his enemy.

When reading about Ugolin0’s ugly end, it is hard not to think of Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist in John 6. There, Jesus spoke of giving of his very own life to sustain the life and faith of his disciples. He went so far as to say that his followers would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Jesus Christ, the meritorious one, willingly gave his embodied life for the lives of others. On the very first Maundy Thursday (during the institution of the Eucharist), Jesus connected the broken bread with his broken body and the common cup with his shed blood. The powerful pours himself out for the weak and vulnerable. This feasting on another shows forth and concretely communicates life-giving love born of integrity, uprightness, and commitment to the truth. What a contrast to the circumstances of Ugolino and his horrible tale.

I find it fascinating that Dante entered hell by passing through the waters of a river and at the final destination of his journey he encounters one who eats the flesh of another. It seems fitting, somehow, that the journey to hell ends up being a counter-narrative to Christian initiation through participation in baptism and the Eucharist. Whereas baptism is the entrance into the church and Eucharistic participation is proleptic fulfillment of the eschatological messianic banquet in warm fellowship, hell is the exact inverse of this pattern (passing through water leads to the death of all hope and the end of the journey involves savagely devouring both one’s loved ones and one’s enemies in icy barrenness).

Zooming out a theological level or two, we can see in the Inferno a profound insight first articulated by St. Augustine: evil is the privation or corruption of the good. Far from having independent existence, evil (and hell) are parasitic upon the good, the true, and the beautiful. We can only really conceive of hell in terms of the inverse of the Reign of God. Inasmuch as this is the case, even hell itself points – obliquely, to be sure – to the goodness and mercy of God.


Canto 27: On living in integrity with the Gospel

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In Canto 27, Dante invokes the memory of Guido da Montefeltro – a former warrior turned Franciscan who advised Pope Boniface VIII on the way to triumph militarily over a city in a papal war. In order to obtain Guido’s effective military counsel, the pope gave him blanket absolution for all of his sins. The warrior-turned-Franciscan urged the pope to make a promise to the inhabitants of the besieged city of Palestrina and then to break it as soon as the gates of the city were opened. Rather than pardon and clemency, the pope brought wholesale slaughter on the inhabitants of Palestrina. As a result, Guido da Montefeltro found himself in one of the deepest places of hell because “he counseled fraud.”

The case of Guido da Montefeltro’s counsel of fraud raises important issues for Christians of any age. Is it ever appropriate to draw from the habits and mentality of one’s sinful past in order to further the cause of the church? How important is it for Christians to have integrity with their words and promises? Should the core symbols and values of the church be used as a pretext for secular or military purpose? Do pragmatic ends ever justify the use of immoral or fraudulent means – particularly in relation to the church?

It seems right that assigned Guido da Montefeltro a very low place in hell. By doing so, Dante protests against the profanation of the church and the message of forgiveness and new life in Christ by corrupt political interests. No matter the circumstances or the potential advantage to be gained, the church must always act in a manner consistent with the  Gospel of Jesus Christ. It cannot prostitute itself to the logic of violence or to political agendas. The church and its leaders are called to fidelity to the way of love, the keeping of promises, and living by the integrity of words spoken (even to enemies).

This canto calls to mind a key element of the moral vision of Immanuel Kant. He argued that human beings should never be treated as a means to some end; they should always be treated as ends in and of themselves. For Kant, the end can never justify the means. One must always act in accord with that which is morally right – regardless of circumstances or consequences. Kant’s moral vision would seem to be deeply resonant with that of Dante in this canto. The corrupt Franciscan and the pope in question here are judged because they failed to live according to the core precepts of the Gospel and allowed themselves to engage in consequentialist calculations of a highly corrupt character.

As we journey with Dante  through hell on the way toward cross and the empty tomb during this Lenten season, we are invited to reflect upon the lessons he would teach us. In this canto, he would seem to have us reflect on the relationship between the Gospel and the way in which we conduct our lives in the midst of a morally messy and often violent world. He would seem to call us to as Christians to see that our means matter as much as our ends. He also seems to call us to a deeper integrity between our words and our actions.


Canto 21: Oddly Satisfying

By Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

I have to admit that I found this canto oddly satisfying. Maybe I should have said “perversely satisfying.” Confusion about what is going on in this canto gave way, eventually, to insight and, finally, perverse enjoyment. Here’s why.

When I first read the canto, I had no idea what was really going on – beyond the obvious encounter with demons. A little internet research taught me the meaning of a new word: barratry. For some reason, this was a new word for me. According to the online Miriam- Webster’s Dictionary it means: “1. the purchase or sale of office or preferment in church or state
2 : an unlawful act or fraudulent breach of duty by a master of a ship or by the mariners to the injury of the owner of the ship or cargo 3 : the persistent incitement of litigation.” In other words, barratry is a fancy word for the corruption of officials in church or state. In the case of Canto XXI, Dante uses it to refer to corrupt politicians. All of a sudden, the scene began to make sense to me.

This is the place in hell (pretty far down, I might add) where corrupt politicians go. Before death, they perverted justice and the good of the state. For a price, they could be bought and sold. As Dante said, “…and given cash they can contrive a yes from any no.” That has an all too familiar ring to it. Sounds like the U.S. Congress to me! Now that I know this new word – barratry – you can bet that I am going to throw it around as often as I can when referring to our federal lawmakers – pretty much all of whom are on the take.

As I reflect on what is wrong with American democracy today, I keep coming to the conclusion that the flow of lobbyist money into the pockets of Democrats and Republicans alike is the root of the problem. As I see it, both sides of the aisle are corrupted by major financial interests like the petroleum, armaments, and pharmaceutical industries – to name of few of the most prominent suspects. Even though there are occasional calls for campaign finance reform and measures that would put some sort of buffer between lobbyists with deep pockets and our elected officials, these generally come to nothing. My deepest concern about the American political system is that it cannot right itself. The buying and selling of Congress by special interests is too pervasive and too deep. In my humble opinion, this – more than anything else – is eroding the great American experiment.

You can see why I took some perverse pleasure in seeing corrupt politicians getting shoved down into the black, stultifying tar of this level of hell. There is something comically ironic about money grubbing politicians (whose hands are sticky for money) being mired in sticky filth from which they cannot extricate themselves. At least somewhere and at some point (even if in literary imagination!), corrupt politicians finally get what is coming to them for the terrible destruction to the society that they have caused.

The second source of my perverse pleasure in this canto comes from the devils themselves. Look, I know they are devils; but they provide some pretty funny comic relief in the midst of all the darkness and the horror of hell. Even though Dante and Virgil are granted safe passage by virtue of divine decree, one of the devils says to his buddies as Dante walks past, “Should I just touch him on the rump [with his hook]?” Even though it is not allowed, the others gleefully nod in approval, “Yes – go on and give him a cut.” This just cracked me up. Who knew that devils could be so funny. Then, at the end of the canto, as Dante and Virgil head off with an escort of devils who will get them to the point of a functioning bridge, the rest of the devils hail their leader by making grimaces with tongues against their teeth (a Bronx cheer in hell?). The piece de resistance, though, comes in the last line of the canto when the leader of this cohort of demons salutes his troops with a royal blast. In Dante’s more colorful and direct words, “…the leader made a trumpet of his ass.” Even though the politicians didn’t know how to act in a manner becoming to their office, the devils (qua devils) know how to act appropriately for their station in hell. Hilarious, poignant, and bawdy all at the same time.

So far, this is my favorite canto.


Canto 15 Can we make ourselves eternal?

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.


Canto 9: Heretics

Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In the sixth circle of hell, Dante inquires about the flaming sepulchers he encounters. His guide informs him that those making “sounds of woe so great” as a result of “horrible pain” are the heretics and their followers. They are not named by Dante, but we know their names: Simon Magus, Marcion,  Valentinus, Arius, Donatus, Montanus, Eunomius, Mani, Nestorius, Pelagius, Sabellus,  Eutyches, Photinius, Novatus, Apollinaris, Macedonius, the Bogomils, and the Cathars. And these are only some of the most famous of the heresiarchs from the periods of the early church and the middle ages.  These heretical teachers undermined orthodox biblical teaching about the doctrine of God, christology, salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the character of the Christian life.

I find it interesting that Dante places these figures much lower in the order of hell than great Greco-Roman pagan philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. The pagan philosophers get off relatively easily in Dante’s vision: they only lack (evangelical) hope. By contrast, the heretics are found much deeper in the bowls of hell. Perhaps the reason for the differences in location have to do with Dante’s Christian humanism. While we find a basically positive view of the great pagan philosophers of antiquity, those who distorted or corrupted the core teachings of the Church are treated with severity and disdain. Perhaps this difference in Dante’s appraisal arose from the dual conviction that the best of the ancient pagans obliquely pointed toward and, in some cases, actually paved the way for belief in the holy Trinity, while the heretics ultimately turned people away from or even contributed to the destruction of authentic Christian faith. Presumably, the heretics had known the truth of the Gospel and  yet willfully distorted it to serve their own selfish interests – and brought untold thousands with them on the way to fiery destruction.

Heresy still matters today – despite the liberal mainline emphasis on toleration and inclusivism. Corrupt teaching in the name of Christ can still lead people to disaster. Think of the wingnuts in the media who preach the  “prosperity Gospel,”  solicit funds for faith healings, or who explain unbelievable human suffering through natural disasters as the wrath of God. I also think of those who make arguments for the use of torture in the name of God and country. Or how about the creeping Islamicization of Christianity among the liberal Protestants (i.e. Jesus was merely a prophet who pointed us to the transcendent One)? Of course, this is not to mention the countless unconscious adherents in every pew of every church that I have known or served: Macionites (those who hold the view that the God of the Old Testament is angry and evil and that the Father of Jesus Christ in parts of the New Testament is loving and forgiving), Adoptionists (those who hold the view that Jesus the human being was so good that he received a metaphysical promotion), Arians (those who hold the view of “trickle down divinity” in which the Father is really God, the Son is the first thing that “God” created, and the Holy Spirit who comes in a distant third place), and Pelagians (those who hold the view that we can choose God by “making a decision for Christ” or that we can somehow earn God’s favor).  Make no mistake, the heresies from the early church and medieval periods of church history are much more than historical oddities; they are alive and well today.

Why do heresies matter today, though? Aren’t these just so many theological head games akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I would argue that corrupt or erroneous beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the way to salvation, the status of the Bible, or the character of the Christian life matter existentially and spiritually. Wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage. Puts most starkly: bad theology can kill. It can also lead to the killing of others.

Conversely, I believe that right beliefs (rooted in Scripture and defined by the church through the ages) contributes significantly to Christian health and growth. It matters, for instance, whether we believe that the one who died on the cross for us was both fully God as well as fully human. It matters whether we believe that we are saved from our sins by God’s gracious choice and not by our own tragi-comic efforts or actions. Like an expert doctor’s diagnosis and prescription, right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death.


Inferno Canto 3: Anti-baptism?

By Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

Canto 3 is liminal in character. It is about crossing over from one reality to another. It is a transitional space and time.

It strikes me that Canto 3 has great resonance with the season of Lent. Pastoral leaders in the early church created Lent for the purpose of navigating the liminal space between paganism and Christian faith within the context of the church. The forty days provided time and space for converts to cross over from lives lost in labyrinthine confusion into the promised land of salvation in the community of the redeemed. During Lent, candidates for baptism would come daily to the church in order to receive instruction in the rudiments of Christian belief and practice, to be exorcised, and to pray. These candidates (called “catechumens”) would always have a sponsor to guide them through the process of transformation and transition into membership of the Body of Christ.

The whole process would culminate during the Easter Vigil. Beginning on Easter eve, the catechumens, their sponsors, and the entire Christian community would gather to pray their way into Easter and to initiate the newcomers. The catechumens would cross over into membership in the church by passing through the waters of baptism. Often, the baptismal rite would invoke liminal imagery from the Old Testament: the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage; the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land by passing through the waters of the Jordan River; and the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry in the waters of the Jordan. Crossing the baptismal river led to a life of faith, joy, and hope in the fellowship of the church and in unity with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Canto 3 read against the Lenten practices of Christian initiation would appear to be a kind of anti-baptismal narrative. Nearly every element of the scene depicted in Canto 3 has an anti-type in the Lenten journey culminating in baptismal initiation into the church. Here, the condemned pass over from life into a living death by passing over the river. The ferryman is  a catechist of condemnation, conducting souls from one reality to another.  This new reality for the damned is one of woes, pain, loss, and divine judgment. The bottom line of the inscription over the portal to hell is, in fact, the metaphorical bottom line: “Abandon hope, you who enter here.”  The new reality means the death of hope.”

Dante’s theological insight takes one’s breath away: hell means living without any hope whatsoever. If we invert this spine chilling word, we see that life in fellowship with God is a life of hope. During this Lenten season, Dante can help us to see both the horrors of life lived without hope and also the life-giving power of life lived with hope.