Author Archives: gmikoski

About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, 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.