Monday, April 9, 2012

So, Dante.

At last. My last blog post was followed by a week and a half of busy life (including teaching about Dante, among other things), and I did not have the time to write about Dante. 

In Christian tradition, there is a well-established theme of self-sacrifice. Christ's warning to his disciples perhaps best captures this theme. "If anyone desires to come after Me," He says, "let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it" (Luke 9:23-24). A disciple's life, according to this passage, is defined by consistent self-sacrifice. All that the believer loves in this world and all the believer thinks themselves to be must be exchanged in a sort of commercial transaction in order to know Christ better. In modern parlance, no pain, no gain. 

At the same time, however, there is a fairly well-established, if unspoken, concern about the potential danger of self-sacrifice. In a postmodern, post 1984 world, people fear giving themselves up to an organization - even a beneficial one such as the church; these people see the sacrifice of the self as a dangerous and life-denying act. An extreme example is that of the FLDS women. Like Christianity, Mormonism stresses the virtue of surrendering to a higher good; the women in the Fundamentalist branches of the church do surrender, and then spend the rest of their lives popping out baby after baby after baby. Gone are the talents and vibrant personalities that God endowed them with. Of course, the Christian surrender of human desires (the desire for food, for good drink, for sex and for companionship) and personal talents is nowhere near as extreme as the surrender required of fundamentalist Mormon women, but the fear is still there: Will my surrender to Christ and to His church cause me to lose the personality and identity that God has given to me? Will I become someone else?

It's a legitimate question, one that deserves a fair answer. It deserves an answer more complex than, "You will find joy in the path of discipleship". At the doctor's, children are told that having a shot will make them feel better again, but the nebulous concept of "feeling better" doesn't make them any readier to sit still and stop squirming. Likewise, the vague idea of "joy" is often not enough to overcome a concern about the loss of our very precious self, should we step onto the road of self-sacrifice.

In Dante's Inferno of all places lies a surprisingly affirmative and biblical answer to this question.

Background: Like most medieval writers and even classical philosophers, Dante believes that everything  exists for a specific purpose, referred to as telos. An object that fulfills its telos is successful; an object that does not, unsuccessful. For example, a book is meant to be read and understood. A book which looks beautiful but is never read does not fulfill its purpose. It is a bad book, because it has failed in its reason for existing.

Another background note: The medieval theologians believed that sometimes sin was only an excessive love of an originally good thing. Sometimes sin was love of a bad thing too, but that's beside my point. For instance, love of food taken to excess is gluttony. Food is not a bad thing, but the good thing that food is has become fascinating to an inordinate degree and replaced God at the center of the affections.

Okay, back to Dante's Inferno. In the Divine Comedy, Dante operates from the assumption that human beings have a specific purpose: to know and enjoy God and to be like him insofar as humans can. His assumption is, of course, grounded in the final creative act of God: "Let Us make man in Our image," God said, "according to our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Biblically, humans are made to be in the image of God.. In Dante, this purpose - this telos - takes the form of exercising power, wisdom and love in a way that clearly depicts God's own power, wisdom and love. Incidentally, each of these three virtues is associated with one member of the Trinity. This, then, is the human telos: to depict, in day-to-day actions, the image of the Trinitarian God.

In the Inferno, sinners do have the option of denying telos; this action is always associated with a sin. Perhaps the best example is the most famous pair of sinners in Hell: Francesca and Paolo, damned to the level of the Lustful for their affair. Francesca's story moves Dante to tears, but he is clear that Francesca no longer has any interest in God. Even if she could, she assures Dante she would not pray from Hell and instead elects to cling to her lover throughout eternity. Like other sinners, she has loved a good thing - in this case, Paolo - to excess. It is her love which prevents her from meeting telos, from depicting the image of God.

And Francesca suffers for her decision. As she chose to live in pursuit not only of sexual desire but also of tender romantic relationships, so those desires come to dominate her life completely. Francesca will never be separated from Paolo, a situation which smacks as much of pain and frustration as it does of pleasure. Nor is she in control of her situation any longer. Like the other Lustful, Francesca is swept hither and thither by hot winds across the plains of Hell; the winds represent her own hot desires and thus suggest that her entire existence - indeed, her entire identity - is reduced to the demands of a lustful spirit. Francesca, in choosing to indulge her natural desire beyond the bounds of virtue, has lost herself utterly in this desire. In other words, Francesca's decision not to meet telos undid her.

Had Francesca chosen otherwise, her fate might have been much different. According to Dante, natural passions such as Love, Francesca's downfall, are not absent from Heaven. In fact, the higher he ascends into Paradise, the hotter Heaven's flames grow, not only with love for God but also with love for other believers. In Heaven, everything is already pure; therefore, these desires such as love are also pure and are part of telos. As human beings let God make them into His image, so they will also be made into someone who can enjoy love and give love in return.

And so, Francesca's error is tragically ironic: In placing romantic love over telos, Francesca lost the ability to feel and to give the true, pure love for which she longed.

Yet in her tragedy lies in the answer to the Christian problem of self-sacrifice. As difficult as sacrifice is on this earth, such sacrifice does not ultimately destroy the self; sacrifice upholds and nourishes the self. That which the self desires stands ready for us who seek to be made "in the image and likeness of God", if we are willing to endure necessary but short-lived privation. Francesca desired love, and had she been willing to briefly check her lust for Paolo, she could have had love unending had she been made "in the image and likeness of God".

Yes, Christ calls us to self-sacrifice. But as Dante reminds us, this call is not ultimately a self-denying one, but a self-affirming one: Everything that we are and wish to be, we can find in the purpose for which He has made us.

I leave you with Augustine, to make my point for me:
All these things [the good things of this world] and their like can be occasions of sin because, good though they are, they are of the lowest order of good, and if we are too much tempted by them we abandon those higher and better things, your truth, your law, and you yourself, O Lord our God.

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