I just saw an online comment about my upcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life in which the reviewer, who has seen an advance copy, found the writing beautiful and at times wise, but who doesn’t believe that the Dante solutions I advocate is universal.
The commenter is not named, but my guess is that he or she is a person who has no religious sensibility at all — not even a “spiritual but not religious” one. If that’s true, yes, How Dante is going to miss its mark with such a person. In the book, I am upfront about my own Christian commitment, and, of course, Dante Alighieri’s. I’m not trying to put one over on readers, and it’s important to say that. But it’s also important for readers to realize that you can dive into the Commedia and take a lot out of it, even if you are not a Christian. I have written How Dante for both Christians and the spiritually-inclined-but-religiously-uncommitted. If you don’t believe that there is any such thing as the spiritual life, then How Dante won’t help you.
I received a very kind note the other day from a Hindu reader of How Dante, advance copies of which are making the rounds, who raved about how much wisdom was in it. He is a fan also of the Commedia. This is really gratifying to me. It was a delicate balance trying to be true to my own faith, and to Dante’s, while also keeping in mind that the book will be read by people who do not share Dante’s commitment and mine to Christianity, or who don’t share the depth of our commitment. These people can still learn from Dante, and I want them to know that. Toward the beginning of the Purgatorio section, I write:
Purgatorio is not about coming to believe the truth; it is about living out the truth in your daily life. to put it in secular terms, Purgatorio teaches us how to overcome destructive habits of thought and action that trap us in our own personal dark wood and will destroy our lives if we do not act against them. Dante’s way will be familiar to readers familiar with twelve-step programs, which map out the road to liberation from the slavery of addiction like this:
- Confront the depths and realities of your brokenness, and take responsibility for it.
- recognize your need from deliverance from your addiction.
3. accept that you cannot overcome addiction on your own, and call on the help of a Higher Power.
In Christian teaching, salvation was accomplished for humankind by Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. Yet God, in his love for us, will not force us to accept it. we still have to say yes to his saving grace— and say yes again and again, aligning our wills ever more closely with his, cooperating with him to cleanse our hearts of the desires that draw us away from him.
Everyone who has tried to quit smoking, lose weight, or do anything else difficult to change their lives knows that you do it only by renewing that decision day after day. we face down cravings for the old life and, with the grace of God and the strength of our own free will, deny them. in time, the hold of these cravings fades, and we grow into freedom and wholeness. Purgatorio, then, is the story of how we recover from our addiction to passions, learn to love rightly, and create within ourselves the space for God’s grace to transform us.
You simply cannot understand what Dante is doing in the Commedia without understanding the Christian ideas that underlie his thinking. Late in the book — at the end of the section on Purgatorio — I write:
If you stop here, you will have traveled far enough to grasp the secret of the Commedia, the holy grail itself: The meaning of life is found not in serving the self and things of the senses, but in serving the Higher Power that unites and orders and transcends all created things. we call this power God, and it is in God that we live and move and have our being.
For Christians like Dante Alighieri and me, that Higher Power has a name, Jesus Christ. He is the incarnation of love. He is the way, the truth, and the Life, and no man can reach unity with God, or theosis, except through Him.
If you — Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, spiritual-but-not-religious, and so forth — can relate to the claims in the first paragraph of the second quoted section (the “serving the Higher Power” one), and you are not freaked out by the paragraph that follows, then How Dante Can Save Your Life is a book for you.
It’s strange, and disappointing, how so many people believe that no religious people, or no religious people of religious traditions different from their own, can possibly have anything to say to us. I have profited from reading contemporary books about Judaism, by Jews. Last week, a reader of this blog sent me a couple of books about Buddhism (presumably she’s a Buddhist). I’m grateful for this. One of my favorite books is Christ the Eternal Tao, in which an Orthodox Christian monk explores Orthodox themes in Taoism. A few years ago, that book inspired me to do some reading in Taoism, from which I really benefited (I still have the Taoist books on my shelf). From all of these non-Christian books, as from books by ancient pagan Greco-Roman poets and philosophers, I take what is good and useful, and give thanks for it. Isn’t that what it means to be a humanist, whether you are a Christian humanist, as I like to think of myself, or a humanist of some other kind. I expect that How Dante will attract that kind of readership and, if I’m successful, spark fruitful conversations across religious divides.
UPDATE: Reader McKay writes:
I see this kind of attitude all the time in academia, particularly from my colleagues in the social sciences. Sometimes I’ll recommend they read something from philosophy, or literature, or history, and I’m mostly met with blank stares and bemused smiles. It’s as if we don’t accept the epistemological tenets of something — or, worse, if we consider our own epistemological tenets to be the apex of ways of knowing — then we dismiss that something as irrelevant or incommensurable with our beliefs. But why? I’m willing to bet that if we all looked back at our lives, most of our “Huh!” or “Wow!” moments came in conversations not with people just like us, but with people with entirely different sets of assumptions and standpoints. It’s common to lament specialization in academia, and how much that keeps us sheltered in our particular intellectual hamlets. Surely we can’t let it happen to interfaith dialogue or intercultural exchange.
Well said. As you saw earlier today on this blog, reading that New Yorker article about efforts to save dying languages sparked some rumination within me on how orthodox Christians might save our traditions in a rapidly de-Christianizing world. Reading Rupert Ross’s book about things he learned about justice from working as a state’s attorney with Canada’s aboriginal peoples was also really enlightening for what it taught me about the way Canada’s Indians think of themselves and their relationship to the cosmos. Normally I wouldn’t have picked up a book on the religious teachings of aboriginal American peoples, but my Christian friend and sometime commenter Thursday sent it to me, and boy, am I glad I read it. So you never know where wisdom will lie.