The Heavenly Thesis Defense
Dante’s ascent through Heaven’s catechism culminates, as do so many of our educational experiences, with an oral examination. There’s never any sense that Dante’s status as one of the saved hinges on his answering properly–after all, as is the case throughout the poem, God’s salvation is entirely gratuitous, and Dante’s contribution always comes as part of the salvation that God has already accomplished–but his role as a poet, the authority figure who brings truth to the people in verbal form, does seem to rest on how well he can frame the stories he has to tell in terms of received Christian doctrine. Come to think of it, the connection makes sense: the last oral examination I underwent was to determine whether the University of Georgia should confer on me the title of Doctor of Philosophy, one who teaches people to be friends of wisdom.
Three figures, who should be familiar to readers who know the canonical gospels, examine Dante at the end of his journey: first Peter examines him on the content of the Christian faith (canto 24), then James on the theological virtue of hope and the disposition of the faithful towards the contingencies of history (canto 25), and finally John on the highest of theological virtues, the disposition that is not for the time-before-the-end but for eternity, divine love (canto 26). After Dante successfully convinces all three that he will be a good teacher to his readers (did we ever doubt he’d pass his defense?), a fourth figure joins the three. Before Dante’s perspective on Heaven shifts, and he sees the trans-spatial and the extra-temporal arrangement of things, he has a chance to hold forth with Adam on matters of original innocence, the language that the man and the woman spoke in the garden, and other things that fascinate the poet.
The wrath of the saints, which Dante experienced among the contemplatives, has its final moment here in canto 27. As Peter speaks of the corruption of his successors to the bishopric of Rome, Dante sees the ancient saint burn with an ardor that impresses on him the sheer gravity of corruption among the human race’s chief spiritual authorities. Once again Dante reminds me of realities that, as a post-modern, disposed-to-irony English professor, I’m entirely too inclined to forget: the teaching office of the Church, not to mention the administration of the sacraments and the counsel of the holy, are so serious that even those whose beatitude is eternal burn with wrath against those who do not treat them with due gravity. Dante once again reads me, as genuinely great books do, and reminds me that the things I do here are not trifles, even if I know better than to take myself and my efforts too seriously. To hold the work with the seriousness due its dignity yet not regard myself as more important than the work is a tricky task, intellectually and morally, yet that task does fall to me as a professor at a Christian college.
Once Heaven’s teachers finish their series of lessons for the poet to return to humanity (I have to emphasize again that Heaven, for Dante, is eternal and immediate presence-with-God, not a hierarchical spherical apartment complex), Dante issues a disclaimer to end all disclaimers, insisting that, as one invited into the Empyrean view of Heaven, he had heavenly knowledge of heavenly realities (30), but as a mortal writing lines in Italian, all he can do is say what was not happening. I note this move because, for Dante–and I think it’s a good move for us too–to negate in theology is not the starting point but the horizon. The content of divine revelation stands, and we mortals should be thankful for that revelation, but even revelation, and even revelation to one who has been to Heaven and back, has its limits so long as our concepts and our sentences are temporal, finite things. But this is Heaven, so even the negations are pretty cool.
The Empyrean reminds Dante, as he remembers, of a great rose, yet Heaven knows no distance between souls or between any given soul and God. The saved abide in God’s presence in ascending rings, as in a stadium, yet there is no distance (and certainly no mediator) between any of them and God’s goodness. The Holy Virgin sits enthroned as Queen of Heaven, and her intimacy with the divine, being infinite, gets shared with all the souls there. Dante, at least in Ciardi’s translation coins a beautiful contradiction to name the unspeakable beauty and grandeur of Heaven: an “infinite order” (canto 32) greets him there. (If that doesn’t strike you as a contradiction, consider whatever models of order you can imagine, and note that you automatically think of limits, of finitude, as inherent to that order.)
Here Dante sees Beatrice enthroned among the ladies of the Lord, seated next to Rachel of Genesis fame, and he realizes that, even as she sits elevated higher above him than his earthly notions of distance can comprehend, yet in that moment she is closer to him than she has ever been before. In fact, although the Empyrean Rose dwarfs the whole earth and even the system of planets that revolve about the earth (give him a break–it was the fourteenth century), yet the distance there is also not-distance, as he finds himself present at any given point even as he should be far from it.
While Dante enjoys this special, superhuman awareness of God, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux greets him and prays to Mary for him (canto 33), and Dante begins his final shift of awareness (such is the nature of narrative poetry that the poet seems to “go” here and there, but once again a contradiction intervenes: in Heaven everywhere is everywhere else, so poetry can only note the impossibility and then narrate away), to behold God’s self. As the poem’s final lines roll along, Dante becomes aware of the unity of God, as Aristotle taught him, then the genuinely human face of God in the incarnate Son, and finally a vision of the Trinity as three interrelated spheres, each divine in its fullness and all three infinitely loving. It’s that love that moves the spheres that ends the poem.
Another Good Trip through Dante
Never when I read Dante do I think that he’s simply “right” in any simple sense; some of what he writes, because my own world has shifted to different models of astronomy and biology, has given way to new ways to imagine the world. And others, like his dedication to the Roman Empire as God’s unique favorite among the kingdoms of the world, likely wouldn’t have been universally acknowledged even in the fourteenth century (during which, for instance, the King of France claimed a special place in the vast eternal plan). So when I say that Dante is one of my real literary masters, I don’t mean that I won’t differ from him on questions of astronomy, biology, politics, or any number of other questions.
Yet some things, like the education of the desires and the insistence that all good things are divine gifts, continue to teach me to see reality differently, requiring me to entertain questions that never would have occurred to me had I not read Dante. I realize that I’m not taking seriously some things that I should and holding on entirely too tightly to other things that I should take lightly. And every time I read Dante, new things occur to me, questions I need to pose to myself and to pose to my world and to answer as faithfully as I can, knowing full well that the really important questions don’t get answered with a subject and a verb but with a sustained, disciplined commitment to a way of life. The questions that Dante poses require those sorts of answers, and I’m glad that he continues to be part of my yearly festival of good reading. Ultimately that’s what makes a book a great book, and Dante is great even among the greats.