The Trinity Forum invited me to write the introduction to their Here is a link to an interview TTF did with me about the Commedia:
What should we expect to learn from Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise? How can reading about Dante’s journey help us during our own sojourn on earth?
The Commedia is so subtle and complex. I think everyone will take something different from it. Yet there are some basic life lessons that everyone will get.
First, you learn that you cannot find your way out of the dark wood on your own. You need the help of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls a “Higher Power”—and what Christians call the grace of God. The first step on the road to recovery is being humble enough to admit this.
Second, you learn that sin is not simply a matter of breaking the moral law, but rather is about loving in a disordered way. We love the wrong things, or we love good things too much or too little, or otherwise wrongly. This is a subtle but profound point, because it helps us to appreciate the nuances of sin, and how it works its way down into our character, often by masquerading as good.
Third, you learn that you are responsible for your own condition. I don’t mean this in the crude, masochistic sense that you have brought all your sorrows upon yourself, though that may be true to a certain extent. To be responsible is simply to recognize that you cannot change the world, but you can change your own heart. That is, you can’t always conquer the injustice and suffering that you are made to endure—that is the human condition—but you can use your God-given free will to control your reaction to it.
Fourth, there is no way to get to heaven without dying to yourself. We contemporary Christians say this, but we don’t often live it. We expect faith to take away our pain, but dying to self is bound to hurt somewhat. In Purgatorio, Dante shows us what the ancient and medieval church knew to be true: the value of ascetic practices to train our hearts to depend on God alone. These teach us to transform suffering into the seedbed of new life in Christ.
Fifth, so much of our individual suffering comes from not understanding the difference between icons and idols – that is, worshiping the created instead of the Creator. In Dante, everything in creation, if seen rightly, is something through which the glory of God shines. But only God is God. Our error comes when we treat conditional goods – romantic love, family, the church, professional success, the pursuit of justice—as idols. That is, when we regard serving those ends as the kind of thing in which we will find perfect happiness and fulfillment. In fact, only God can give us this. This, the pilgrim Dante learned, was how he lost the straight path through life. It’s how we all fail.
Sixth, you learn that knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God. In the end, God wants your heart more than he wants your mind. It’s so easy for intellectual types like me to approach God through argument and apologetics, and those are important. But they are not God. The human mind cannot possibly fathom all the mysteries of the infinite and all-holy Creator. But the human heart can establish a saving relationship with Him. Reason is a gift from God and can take us far along the road back to Him. But He is a god not of perfect thought, but perfect love, and He has made us to know Him best with our hearts.
How Dante Can Save Your Life, which will be published a week from today, is a book-length treatment of the themes above, as I lived them out myself. Reading the Commedia was a journey into the hidden recesses of my own heart, one that was difficult, but that resulted in a profound inner healing — and recovery from stress-induced chronic illness. It’s not a book of theology or Christian apologetics, but literary self-help in a spiritual vein, a practical guide to personal transformation.