Can An Atheist Really Get Dante?ROD DREHER
Reading the great Catholic poet's Divine Comedy is more than a literary experience, it's a guide to the spiritual life.
Here's what I mean. Mine will be a practical book about how going on this imaginative journey with the pilgrim Dante, through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and applying the insights he teaches you, can show you the way out of your own dark wood. It happened to me; it can happen to you. This is not a study in Dante, or if it is, it's a very specific kind of study, one that is meant not only to be contemplated, but used. It is, of course, hard to write about the Commedia without putting God at the center of the experience, and I wouldn't want to do that. But people do. Prue Shaw's wonderful new introduction to Dante, published this week, explores the main themes in Dante's work, but doesn't really get into the God business — which is bizarre to me, but it's a very fine book, if an incomplete one. Yesterday, it was announced that the Bard College Dante scholar Joseph Luzzi will be writing a memoir of how the Commedia got him through the death of his wife; he wrote a moving column in the NYTimes about this not long ago. Excerpt:
This seems right to me. I don't know how one can go swimming in waters as deep as the Commedia's without being changed at some level by what you read there. Dante writes in the poem about how art affects the imagination. Most art, I think, rolls right off of us, but this poem? Well, if you open yourself up to it fully, it will change you. Without question many people read it and understand it deeply without converting to Christianity, but as I read Paradiso, with Inferno and Purgatorio behind me, I found myself genuinely mystified by what an atheist or agnostic reader would make of its illumination of the workings of divine love. Paradiso is not a work of theology, strictly speaking, but if you do not accept the existence of God, and a God who is Love at that, the poem loses much of its power, or so it seems to me. I know how defensive atheists and agnostics can get over claims like this, so let me hasten to say that the Iliad and the Odyssey remain imaginative works of staggering genius, even though none of us believe in the pantheon of Greek gods. You do not have to accept Greek religion to understand and be profoundly moved by these epic poems (though it is interesting to imagine how those who first heard the poems, as believers in those gods, experienced it).
Paradiso is different. It is utterly saturated with theology. In my personal experience, I do not think the Commedia would have worked its magic on me had I not believed that the God of Whom Dante wrote really exists, and that His love, as Dante characterizes it, is a real thing. The Commedia was a means of transformative grace for me, and a theophany, the likes of which I had not experienced since I was 17, and wandered unawares into Chartres cathedral — but I doubt it would have been had I not believed that such grace actually exists. What I don't know is the extent to which that is a statement about my own subjectivity.
So, back to my practical challenge with my book proposal. I really do believe that the Commedia has life lessons to teach all readers, believers and non-believers. I even believe that Paradiso expresses certain principles and ideals that you don't have to be a believer to embrace. I intend to write the book for all readers, not just Christians. That said, I don't know just how particularly Christian the book should be to reach a broad audience, but be faithful both to Dante's intent and my own experience with his work.
Thoughts? Hey readers, let's not turn this into an atheists-versus-believers squabble. I'm seriously trying to grapple with the best way to handle this challenge as a writer, and I would appreciate your considered thoughts on the matter. I often learn a lot from you, and what you say about this will make a difference as I finish this proposal today.
See the original article with comments here.
Reprinted with permission of The American Conservative.
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Rod Dreher is a writer and journalist who lives in Philadelphia. He is an Orthodox Christian and the author of Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plant to save America (or at least the Republican Party).
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