The Divine Comedy: Week 1, Reason Can't Get You All the Way to Heaven

Let's try going through Dante's The Divine Comedy on Fridays to start 2019. We'll see how many Fridays this will last.

A programming note: I'll be using Mark Musa's translation from the Penguin Classics.

Fridays won't be a close reading of the Comedy. This is going to be a selective, idiosyncratic, scattered collection of random thoughts about the Comedy.

Let's start with Virgil.

At the start of the poem, with the first Canto of the Inferno, the Pilgrim finds himself midway through life lost in a woods:
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off the straight path.
Frightened, the Pilgrim tries to ascend a hill topped with sunlight. The path is blocked, however, by three ferocious animals, a leopard, a lion and a wolf. The imagery here is that the Pilgrim cannot directly walk upward toward divine illumination. The leopard, lion and wolf are often interpreted as images of sins that prevent the Pilgrim's upward spiritual ascent.

At this point, the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, appears and proposes to take the Pilgrim on another path, one that will lead first down through hell and then upward toward heaven. The pair then set off.

In offering to be the Pilgrim's guide Virgil notes that he will not be able to lead the Pilgrim all the way to heaven. Virgil can only lead so far. At that point another guide, Beatrice, will have to step in. And at the very, very end of the journey Beatrice will hand the Pilgrim off to St. Bernard.

Interpreters take Virgil, Beatrice, and St. Bernard to represent Reason, Faith and Contemplation respectively. And while Virgil is with the Pilgrim the longest, all the way through hell and up Mount Purgatory, the message is clear: Reason can't get you all the way to heaven.

That's the significant point I'd like to sit with today. Reason can't get you all the way to God. This has been a huge lesson for me, especially the last couple of years. I'm a rational, intellectual, questioning person. And my rationality places huge, huge stresses upon my faith. I'm a doubter and a skeptic. I'm really good at "deconstructing" faith. So much so, my faith almost cracked.

But you know what? I eventually learned the lesson highlighted here in The Divine Comedy. When it comes to God, reason, doubt, skepticism, and deconstruction can only take you so far.

At some point, if you want to get to heaven, you have to leave Virgil behind.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply