4 Reasons Why Christians Should Read Dante's Paradiso

To insist that a Christian should read the Paradiso is a far more specific injunction than to enjoin her to read good religious literature where she can find it or even to read the Divina Commedia. It is more bold as well as more specific than even the latter, since it has become a cliché in 20th century reception of the Paradiso that poetically it is the least realized part of Dante’s great epic. The general opinion is that as a poet Dante is at his best in the Inferno, even if it has become a commonplace to express humanistic reservations about the sadistic forms of comeuppance to be found throughout all the circles of hell. Still, even for those critics who wish to impress on us their refined moral sensibility at its very worst the Inferno is a masterpiece of horror in which Dante provides objective correlatives for our deepest fears (explored in the series which this essay concludes). Thus, it should not come as a surprise that not only has the Inferno found a modern readership, but that its images have been the starting as well as end point for numerous modern writers, many of whom have no Christian affiliation. The Purgatorio also has had its base of loyal fans, although its base is considerably smaller. When it is proposed as the most satisfying of the three parts of Divina Commedia it is largely for the reason that depiction of this state of postmortem existence seems to be adequate to our sense of being in the middle, exhibiting modes of virtues that are flawed and vices that seem corrigible, as well as finding deep roots in our experiences of regret and hope, suffering and transformation.

In terms of literary estimation the Paradiso has been received with significantly less acclamation than either, despite its relative theological advantages in that it does not talk about violent forms of retributive justice and does not have the liability of positing an end state denied by Protestants and the Orthodox alike. Chief among the farrago of objections is that this part of Dante’s masterpiece fails to existentially grasp us in the way the other two parts do, more specifically that it lacks the power and subtlety of image that makes the Inferno so unforgettable and the Purgatorio memorable enough, and overall depicts heaven in such an ethereal way as to make it entirely unappealing. In short, at the cocktail party that a Christian might find herself, the Paradiso can only be thought as the text that that forces from one’s lips the exclamation: “Hell is far more interesting!” Leaving aside the cringe-worthiness of the descent into pleasing at all costs, this piping fails to see the importance and necessity of the contribution of the Paradiso which, in addition to filling out and accenting the eschatological dynamics of the poem, also sifts and filters in an unsurpassed way what can and cannot be said about a postmortem form of existence that at the very least Christians are supposed to hope for. The fact that when we are among our secular friends we fail to announce this hope is both shameful and comprehensible in a period in which we tend to make the eschatological state more soluble as we clothe it in mystification, one of which is the biblical image of the “kingdom,” which ambiguates between heaven as a postmortem state and some form of immanent historical realization of world-wide justice, fellowship, and solidarity.

Without putting the Paradiso into competition with either the Inferno or Purgatorio I want to propose that there are a number of reasons why current day Christian believers should pay particular attention to the text, and that not one of these reasons has to do with a love of the medieval period.

First among the many reasons, only four of which I will deal with here, is that whatever its shortcomings, since the Paradiso is an imagining of heaven, it differs from much of contemporary theology which says very little about heaven even as it affirms it. Imagining both respects and promotes a motivational dynamics that much of modern and contemporary theology simply does not provide. Second, the Paradiso underscores simply and powerfully that heaven is beautiful and that God is beauty as such. While obviously this identification speaks to motivation insofar as it lifts up the aim of desire, it can also be said that Dante sums up the entire Christian Neoplatonic tradition in featuring the connection, and one might add the biblical tradition to the extent to which the Song of Songs is a privileged text. Third, in the Paradiso it is not only that Dante identifies the triune God with peace, he underscores how closely connected the capacity and activity of praise is with the construction and communication of peace. Fourth, and lastly, participation in the mystery of the triune God is not only not static, it radicalizes motion that has aim and term.

Before I proceed to discuss each of these four points in turn, I should make a few situating remarks regarding the Divina Commedia as a whole. I begin by speaking to a common 20th century complaint about the Divina Commedia, namely, that the epic poem is compromised by its theological architecture as well as its commitments and that is only by separating out the poetry from the Catholic content that it has a chance of being relevant to our age. As T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers pointed out in different ways, there are a number of howlers in this castigation: first, the anachronism of stipulating that poetry in the pre-modern period be subject to the dissociation that is as much the presumption as experience of the modern which, while it does not particularly encourage a connection between poetry and religion, will tolerate the connection as a very private option; second, the unargued for barring of any form of literature, poetry in particular, that shows as little anxiety as Dante does regarding his basic ideological suppositions that include a belief in the afterlife in general and eschatological judgment in particular; and third the fact that the medieval poet had a ready-available cultural content, which he could and did master, somehow makes Dante less original than modern poets who proceed without ideological consensus and without agreed on forms. Needless to say, all three English apologists were puzzled that the objections made against Dante did not seem to apply to Milton and Paradise Lost in particular, which caused them to wonder whether the real issue was not the general one of the relation between poetry and religion, but the relation between poetry and Catholicism in which both obedience and freedom are values.

The admittedly awkward questioning of Dante’s originality is itself worth exploring a bit more, but, of course, not at the expense of specifying in what the originality of the Divina Commedia consists. One of the major issues between Dante’s critics and defenders concerns the definition of originality. For Dante’s critics it seems that “originality” can be ascribed if and only if a writer/poet creates in an ideologically fragmented environment in which there are neither ready-made forms nor available themes: writing that matters require something like creation from nothing. Coleridge’s statement in Biographia Literaria to the effect that the poet is in essence a repetition in time of God’s creation of the world stands not only as a judgment on Wordsworth and a mandate for Romantic poetry, but also for the very possibility of poetry in the modern period. This is not so in the case of Dante, the medieval, for whom poetry has a different model for creation and invention: the poet is the shaper—maybe even reshaper—of something that is given. His model of poetic creation is not God who brings forth something/everything from nothing, but rather the demiurge who is provided something like a world of assumption, and both an extensive and variable religious and literary tradition to work with. Ironically, it is by elevating, rather than repressing, this difference that we can bring out the extraordinary originality of the Divina Commedia. A modern literary critic such as Harold Bloom is prepared to suggest that whatever the presumptive authority of the religious and philosophical content with which Dante worked, Dante’s sense of his own abilities was entirely immodest and that Dante was competing with all the poets who came before him, above all Vergil, the great Latin epic poet. This is an interesting concession wrung from a modern critic, even if the language is overly psychological, and Bloom sometimes forces the issue too far by suggesting that Dante is in some way Milton avant la lettre. Dante’s justification for his poem is both more interesting and more religious. In order to write the Divina Commedia Dante has to access, or, rather, has been accessed by the Holy Spirit. This is an important theological statement, at once serious and dangerous, and not captured by “inspiration” as it is typically used by writers and literary critics who have forgotten the original meaning. For a poet to claim to be in and from the Holy Spirit is risky in the fourteenth century given the rise of Joachimism and the suggestion that to be in the Holy Spirit is to belong to a new dispensation not so much of the reception of revelation but of revelation itself. Even if Dante does not quite want us to go this far, the accent on Spirit is certainly in excess of what is permissible in Aquinas, if not necessarily Saint Bonaventure who hints at the power of the Holy Spirit, even if he, like Aquinas, is a critic of Joachim and the Spiritual Franciscans of his own day.

That there is a more spacious room for the exercise of the Holy Spirit than is usually granted in the Catholic tradition is made abundantly clear in the way in which Dante supplements what scripture and the theological tradition have said about the afterlife. If scripture is relatively silent about the afterlife, the theological tradition is ascetic. It is true that in the story of the good thief in the Gospels a heaven is intimated, and that Matthew 25 provides us with a primitive depiction of hell, and that Paul speaks to the importance of resurrection, which in turn opens up interpretations of possible anticipations in the Hebrew scriptures. Besides the above there is not much in scripture to hang a vivid portrait of our states in the afterlife. Correspondingly, the theological tradition shows itself anxious to avoid any speculation about heaven or hell that can be linked to curiosity. If there is an exception in the theological tradition it is Augustine. It is Augustine who lays down the doctrine of intermediate state, that is, the doctrine of separated souls in the afterlife, whose assigning to heaven or hell is to be ratified at the General Judgment when souls will reunite with their bodies. It is Augustine who also uses Matthew 25 as the lynchpin for his analysis of hell and who thinks of the life of the blessed as defined by the beatific vision.

Still, Augustine is the exception that proves the rule, and in any event Augustine’s eschatology is largely a patchwork of biblical symbols and what he takes to be the most necessary theological extrapolations. The detail supplied by Dante would have been unimaginable to him. Now if the supplement to scripture and tradition provided by the Paradiso does not enjoy exactly their kind of authority, while Dante is hardly above bragging, even at his most modest he seems to entertain that it enjoys more than private authority. One of the main ways in which authority is elicited is that in the Divina Commedia Dante accesses the apocalyptic traditions central to which is the otherworldly traveler as well as the more popular religious traditions, especially those which express fears regarding eternal torment. Canonic and non-canonic apocalypses are not only discourses of a human being lifted up to the heaven, often enough accompanied by a guiding spirit, they are also depositories of graphic imagery of the heavenly environment and assembly. These marginal traditions, which have a panoptic orientation, provide both precedent and symbolic and narrative fuel for Dante to fill out the states in the afterlife whose movement from two (heaven and hell) to three (also purgatory) was cemented in the ratification of the doctrine of purgatory at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

Imagination and Motivational Dynamics

One of the conspicuous marks of modern theology is just how thin its reflection is on heaven. This is all the more surprising given the fact that hell is under almost continuous scrutiny, and the doctrine of purgatory is notarized only within Catholicism. It can be stated with a considerable degree of confidence that at the current time Christian assent to the doctrine of heaven is at best notional and in many Christian quarters hardly even that. Given that in a modern intellectual environment in which doctrines are not only routinely rebutted, but when allowed in principle are asked to demonstrate some practical effect, there is a curious lack of interest in speaking about a postmortem state that at the very least would assist in shaping a Christian life. Surely, one obstacle is the epistemological turn in modernity represented in different ways by Descartes, Locke, and Kant. In all three cases depictions of the eschatological state and our manner of relating to God and each other is essentially off limits. We may or may not be able to affirm postmortem existence, but even in those cases where we do, we are unable to justify speaking with certitude about a mode of existence that is alien to our finite and embodied experience.

One should be grateful for the recent upsurge in imagining the eschaton and the profound commonsense of assuming that imagining is correlative to desire. While there a number of contemporary theologians who plead the necessity for eschatological imagination, three stand out in particular, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Thiel, and Paul Griffiths. At the same time, such imagining still remains the exception rather than the rule even in, or especially in, theologians who point us to the existential and practical planes. One of the many reasons for this disconnect is the way in which the more social and political language of “kingdom” tends to replace the language of “heaven.” Besides the general conviction that talk of heaven detracts from the talk of the earth and the justice that is demanded, more politically-oriented theologians routinely criticize the classical picture of heaven as supporting an individualistic and spritualistic picture of the eschatological state. Over and above the increasing lack of hold of the classical model of heaven, serious questions have been raised regarding the classical eschatological model by theologians of different theological stripes and different confessions who together with Dante refuse to substitute a utopian immanent state for heaven. This in turn forces the question whether Dante’s configuration of heaven can still be taken seriously as a specifically Christian act of imaginative extrapolation as well as a poetic construction.

There are a number of reasons for suggesting that the Paradiso continues to remain indispensable for our modern Christian imagining. First off, given the level of attenuation in imagining the eschatological inside and outside theology, it is clear that the trio of Ratzinger, Thiel, and Griffiths are entirely insufficient to meet our contemporary need. On the basis of the rule that Christianity should accept help wherever it can find it, it should be open to Dante who has inspired many over the centuries. Second, if and when it comes to a comparison between Dante and these three theologians mentioned regarding the use of the imagination rather than talking about it, Dante is on an entirely different level in terms of scope of imagining. One of the structural ironies of the Paradiso is that despite Dante’s continually expressed caveats about his language not being adequate to express the transcendent realities of heaven, he says more about the heavenly state than just about any Christian writer with the possible exception of theosophists whose declared mission is to speak directly of divine mysteries (Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, etc.). Third, as might be expected of a great poet, Dante’s ability to fashion an image that arrests, delights, and motivates is vastly in excess of our very talented theologians. Moreover, in his description of the movement of ascent in heaven Dante makes it clear that heaven is the object of human desire, or rather heaven is the environment in which the blessedness of a fully healed relationship with God and others is enacted. It is the finalization of our desire as our deepest love.

In the Realm of the Beautiful

Although antecedently we might expect a poet to emphasize the beautiful, it cannot be taken for granted that a love poet would necessarily climb the ladder of loves from the love of a beautiful young woman to the love of God and its perfect realization in heaven. True, Plato’s Symposium provides the outline and Pseudo-Dionysius the basic Christian architecture, Augustine a significant measure of existential seriousness, and Aquinas and Bonaventure a measure of theological validation. Yet, Dante’s basic task is to remind us that God is neither fact nor duty, but the reality of realities that attracts us at the deepest level and promises delight and participation. It would not be wrong to speak of the emphasis on the beauty of God in the Paradiso as Dante’s erotic realism. Dante does due diligence with regard to acknowledging and appropriating the theological tradition’s elevation of beauty to the same status as truth and goodness. Technically speaking we are talking about transcendentals, that is, realities that stand for the divine subject as such, rather than attributes of the divine, for example, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence etc. Moreover, the transcendentals are coextensive. In the case of beauty, this means that at its core beauty concerns truth and also illustrates reality in its self-communicating mode that characterizes goodness. In the Paradiso Dante also makes much of light which, for him, unlike us light-saturated and polluted moderns, is more nearly event than state and thus theophany that is the satisfaction of the deepest desire of embodied souls searching for meaning and truth. Now, it should not be supposed that it is only the theological and philosophical traditions that are in play. While it would make no sense to Dante to object to an appeal to these traditions, which guide but do not exhaust his optics, it is important to point out that scripture is also involved and especially the Songs of Songs which was interpreted throughout the Christian tradition as pointing to the spousal relation between the soul and God and the Church and Christ. In Dante’s case his love for Beatrice and the yearning for unity that is its basic mark serves as the text to be read and volatized in a religious direction. Dante makes clear that the physical Beatrice is never left behind: she is not made invisible in and through allegory. Rather, the spiritualization is per Beatrice’s own instructions and is a display of her love for Dante who by midlife has gone astray and in consequence is at serious risk of not being saved.

The Paradiso assumes the doctrine of the intermediate state, that is, the separation of souls from bodies with which they will be reunited at the Last Judgment. Whatever the theological value of the doctrine, which has received a spirited and eloquent defense in Ratzinger, one accusation that rings false is that the souls represents the pernicious victory of Platonism in Dante and more generally in Catholic Christianity. In reply one cannot take advantage of the fact that the souls seem to have enough shape—after the manner of the shades in Hades—for Dante to recognize them. In contrast, it is legitimate to take advantage of the indelible sensory features of knowing and relation that we are told remain in operation in heaven. Seeing, of course, is elevated in heaven since knowing is a form of seeing, which in turn is a form of intuition that grasps without the delay or deferral of discourse and concepts. Needless to say, “seeing” is a metaphor, yet this is precisely to say that eschatological seeing bears a relation to physical seeing and knowing in the physical world, while surpassing it in no longer requiring physical eyes or logic. Vision is the dominant sense in the Paradiso, although now without the connotation of distancing objectification with which it is associated in the earthly embodied life. To this extent its analogue in this life is mystical knowing and the union of the knower and the known. Hearing also is validated; although again hearing bears a metaphorical relation to hearing with the ear this side of life.

Dante’s thinking of hearing like seeing being a spiritual as well as physical sense was a prominent feature in the mystical traditions and heavily promoted by Bonaventure in Dante’s immediate past and by Origen in the first centuries of the Common Era. In principle, smell, taste, and touch also had spiritual correlatives, and these senses certainly were prominent in Bernard of Clairvaux, the great experiential exegete of the Song of Songs, who enjoys an exalted status in Dante’s heaven. One of the more extraordinary “sensory” phenomena in heaven is the prospect of synesthesia at a spiritual level. In the Paradiso Dante limits himself to the seeing that is an ingredient in hearing and the hearing that is ingredient in seeing. But it is faithful to the field of sensory imbrication that Dante has opened up for us to think of the spiritual senses of smell, taste, and touch, which are more immediate, as interpenetrating each other as well as hearing and seeing. Indeed, it might be said that the reader is invited to think of hearing and seeing as tasting and touching the divine reality to which they relate and in which they participate, and smelling as the delight in the reception of the triune God as the beautiful towards which all the senses are oriented. If for much of the itinerary of heaven Dante is being as fulsome as he can possibly be, there are moments where he leaves description incomplete and sets us his readers the task of imaginatively going further.

The Realization of Peace

Peace is a dominant motif in Dante’s depiction of heaven. This makes perfect sense of the time in which Dante lived with wars between the papacy and emperor, about papal contenders, and internal strife in his own city of Florence that led to his exile of twenty years. Still, even if a historical referent can be supplied, similar to Augustine in The City of God strife seems be a historical universal: it is peace rather than war that seems temporary, and thus on this axis the relation between this life and the next is imaged more in terms of contrast than hyperbole, whereas with regard to heavenly beauty the dominant mode of relation is that of hyperbole. It is true that “rest” and “peace” are correlated in the Paradiso, since in heaven in our fully realized relation to God all the internal warring and discontent that is part of desire in this life is overcome. Indeed, again as with Augustine, when God is identified not only as the agent—the only agent—who can give peace, but as Peace itself. Dante does not evacuate peace’s ineluctable social dimension, that is, how we creatures negotiate our loves with our fellow creatures and avoid war and violence and those vices such as pride, anger, greed, and envy that feed them.

For Dante, the excision of envy is in heaven a special mark of peace. One of the more extraordinary episodes not only in the Paradiso, but in all of the Divina Commedia is to be found in Cantos 11 and 12 where before a puzzled and delighted Dante Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure engage in an extraordinary role play. Instead of vindicating the saint that founded their own particular order, the Dominicans in the case of Aquinas, the Franciscans in the case of Bonaventure, it is Aquinas who is the mouthpiece of the hagiography of Saint Francis, Bonaventure the mouthpiece of the hagiography of Saint Dominic. The point being made is the very contemporary and quasi-Girardian one that rivalry is the condition of war and violence, and that only its absolute extirpation, which covers rivalry in virtue as well as power, is sufficient for true peace. Dante is well-aware of the conventional nature of hagiography. Hagiographies serve to legitimate religious orders, mark off those charisms deemed to be crucial to an order’s particular identity. Albeit with many of the same religious goals, different religious orders are in explicit and implicit competition with each other. Dante avails of these hagiographies only to subvert their implicit rivalry.

One sign of implicit competition is the lack of interest or capacity to praise the good of the other. Praise of the other is the enacted rectification carried out Cantos 11 and 12, and is done so with the view that we the readers seek analogues in our own socially embodied lives. With rectification comes reconciliation and true and everlasting peace. As Dante catches us not going far enough, he proves to be experientially persuasive. It is not a hindrance that the entire discussion connects him closely Augustine, arguably, one of the most experiential theologians in the entire Christian tradition. I have mentioned The City of God a few times already, and with some justification, since this text provides the basic scaffolding of all Western eschatology, as well as exercising enormous influence in terms of eschatological detail. Here it is well-nigh impossible not to mention Augustine’s discussion of peace in Book 19 in which he brings out the intrinsic connection between praise and peace, something which for Augustine is the hallmark of the book of Revelation. The connection is reinforced elsewhere in Augustine, especially in his Commentary on the Psalms, in which singing and dancing are signs of peace. But the reverse is also true: wherever there is praise and singing in the Paradiso—and there is a great deal of it—there we have the enactment of peace, we might say the sacrament of peace.

An Utterly Dynamic Heaven

Is the beatific vision the real hell? Does it not look like to a modern person celebrating movement and change a form of everlasting catatonia? One may agree that this kind of objection is frivolous, but this does not make it impertinent. Rather it brings out just how useless much theology has been when it comes to last things in general and heaven in particular and how feeble our imagination of the eschaton has become. One could take the shortcut of advising that the seeing about which Dante talks—in line with the theological tradition—is participative rather than representational, and that in consequence catatonia is out of the question. It would not be advisable to do so, however, since this simply pushes the problem further down the line. Our fulfillment would still be imaged as a state of perpetual rest which, if it leaves behind the fruitless becoming and change of this world, is deficient in terms of energy and excitement. As with the major thinkers in the theological tradition, Dante sees as his task an imagining that unites apparent contraries: rest as an end of becoming and motion and a new unimaginable dynamic of love no longer as a mode of lack but as a mode of plenitude.

The difficulty of giving both aspects their due measure is indicated by the various inflections provided the two great theologians who attempted such a balance. When Augustine articulated his view of the beatific vision it was intended as a cure for the blindness in this life that lacks direction because of its orientation was towards a changeable world. Thus, in terms of vision his extrapolation into the afterlife functioned contrastively. It is not as often acknowledged, however, that Augustine tried to complement this contrastive view by thinking of the afterlife as a peculiar form of dynamic seeking in which what is sought has already been found. Nonetheless, while Augustine has unfairly not been given his due when it comes to balancing the static and dynamic ratios in the next life, still it is the case that in his main texts the emphasis does fall on the static note. Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th century Greek theologian, provides a different example. His characterization of this life is that beneath all the frenzied activity there is no real change or development. Thus, contrastively, eternal life is characterized by eternal becoming or epektasy. Heaven is the domain in which genuine movement or becoming appears for the first time. Gregory does not neglect to mention that in fundamental respects heaven represents satisfaction or rest, and that one comes across some examples in this life of genuine growth, for example, the growth of virtue in an exemplary Christian or a saint. Formally, there is an attempt at complementarity, but dynamic going from glory to glory in the end is the dominant emphasis.

In important ways in the Paradiso Dante not only attempts a balance like these two theological giants, but manages a more satisfying coincidence of opposites. For Dante, as for Christians throughout the millennia, heaven is a finality; it is both the last note struck and the goal and term of our deepest desire. Much of this is registered in the Augustinian terms of rest, peace, undistracted attention towards the triune God in relation to whom we arrive at the full realization of who we are, which is expressed in a never ending doxology. Just in case, however, that the emphasis on rest will strike some as a repetition of the stasis and paralysis of their lives, in literalizing the communion of persons of the Trinity as a dance in which we “cannot separate the dancers from to the dance,” to quote W. B. Yeats’ famous lines from “Lapis Lazuli,” and suggesting that our vision participates in it, Dante provides the most eminent example in the entire Western tradition of the eschatological state as infinitely dynamic. He does so precisely because of the infinite depth of God and our infinite stretching out as if we were in an ecstasy beyond imagining on a Ferris Wheel that not only would not stop, but was spinning at the speed of light.

Editorial Statement: This reflection is an invitation to the McGrath Institute’s conference at Notre Dame celebrating the 50th anniversary of Introduction to Christianity. The event will feature many of the world’s preeminent experts in the field of Benedict XVI’s thought. Registration is still open. Posts will be collected here as they are published.

This essay is also the third and final installment in a series by Cyril O’Regan on the monstrous in modernity.


Featured Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso 43 Christ Among Saints and Angels, c. 1440; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

Read more by Cyril O'Regan