Dante the Theologian: An Odd and Brilliant Book

Review by Matthew Rothaus Moser

Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century poem, the Commedia, is an epic narrative of 14,233 lines that tells the story of a pilgrim’s journey through the realms of the afterlife, as he makes his way to the beatific vision of God. It is often heralded as the great Christian poem. Despite its influence on the Christian imagination, the relationship between the Commedia’s poetry and its theology has often been the subject of controversy and debate in the last 700 years of its life.

Denys Turner’s recent book on Dante as a theologian rides a wave of recent interdisciplinary scholarship, resisting interpretations of Dante that assume the Commedia is poetry rather than theology. In fact, Turner’s book is an extended argument against that “rather than.” For Turner, poetry and theology converge in the Commedia as each requires the other to speak well of the truth of things.

Turner gives each of the Comedy’s three cantiche Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso — a two-chapter treatment governed by a central theological concern, developed in various directions.

The two chapters on Inferno identify the possibility and nature of hell and what it means, theologically, to exist infernally. For Turner, hell’s world is “the place for each sinner of that specific [moral] self-harm that is theirs, the place where the implications of choosing [their sin] spins out in the specific shape of a life so defined” (p. 50). Damnation means living out the logic of one’s sin without reprieve. Turner calls this the “moral psychology” of Dante’s hell, a truthful — if infernal — self-knowledge in which moral disorder has become a kingdom of the sinful self. It is “disorder regnant” (67).

The payoff of Turner’s exploration of the infernal logic of Inferno comes when he interrogates recent discussions of Dante’s “infernalism” that keep arising in debates over universal salvation. Turner asks if Dante’s Inferno is rightly judged by some universalists as a morally abhorrent imagination. Turner helpfully intervenes on this point by exploring Inferno as an “anti-narrative”: a narrative whose logical consistency is inherently self-refuting.

Inferno expresses the conditional possibility of how human beings can come to will nothing positive, nothing even parasitic of the Good, in short, to will will. Dante’s hellis a world of “pure [negative] will” (100). But is it possible to “will to nothing” or to will hell?

No, says Turner. There is no “there” there for us to will. Hell can only exist within the larger theater of the Good that it parodies and exploits. Inferno, considered theologically, is not a statement of what is there in hell, but rather of how a hell of unchecked, eternal egoism would look and feel, of what the “perfection” of wicked desire would look like.

This is the theology that lies behind that famous inscription above the gate of hell, insisting that those who enter must “abandon every hope.” Yet Dante does enter hell with hope; Turner insists that there could be no possibility of him ever leaving hell if he followed the warning above the gates. This means the pilgrim’s journey through hell is his purgatory.

Dante’s journey through the inferno is ultimately salvific. And insofar as he takes his readers along with him, our journey through Inferno has the possibility of being salvific as well. Though Turner does not put it this way, Dante’s journey through hell in Inferno is a literary harrowing of hell, an exposure of the infernal lies that we so often tell ourselves that Inferno dramatizes. To read Inferno theologically is, for Turner, to read it purgatorially.

The heart of Turner’s book lies in the two chapters on Purgatorio. As Turner rightly insists, Dante is a purgatorial writer (p. 20). One cannot understand the theology of the Comedy from the perspective of Inferno alone. To put it more strongly, one cannot even understand the theology of Inferno from within the confines of its narrative. One needs Purgatorio to understand Inferno, for “Purgatory is the truth of Hell when turned right-side up” (p. 124).

The two chapters on Purgatorio explore the character of conversion. An especially compelling aspect of these chapters is Turner’s focus on the purgative healing of personal narratives. In a way distinct from the hopeless self-knowledge of hell, purgative self-knowledge brings with it responsibility and choice. It requires the recognition of myself as I really am (Purgatorio 9.96). Turner says that purgatorial self-knowledge requires abandoning — not hope, as in Inferno — but false “self-told stories” in favor of the true story of my life and identity in relationship to grace and salvation.

Turner focuses mostly on the pilgrim’s confrontation with Beatrice at the top of Mount Purgatory (Purgatorio 30-33). Dante has already traveled up the seven terraces of the mountain, healed from his vices, and returned to a state of moral innocence. Turner says that Dante’s journey through Purgatory has left him in a dangerous state of moral smugness.

In Turner’s reading, Dante’s self-told story at the top of Mount Purgatory is that he has reached the goal of his journey, his conversion is complete, and, most important and erroneously, that he achieved it through his agency and the exercise of moral will. It is his self-confidence and self-satisfaction that, Turner thinks, will hold Dante back from fuller conversion.

Conversion, considered theologically and not just morally, involves the reformation of the will and the memory — including those stories of ourselves that we tell and inhabit. The healing of memory requires “remembering a first self,” who is inserted into a narrative of grace and forgiveness. Dante’s theology of conversion, Turner shows, is one in which sin is neither original nor inevitable, God’s grace has priority, and forgiveness isn’t earned through moral exercise but received by a heart made gentle by love.

The central concern of Turner’s chapters on Paradiso is the “mystical” reality of heaven present in hidden ways in the ordinary (p. 202). Turner reads the Comedy as culminating in the attunement of the pilgrim with the music of heaven that has been hidden within every moment of his journey so far. It is this transcendent and mystical reality that Dante’s poetry in Paradiso attempts to signify and to make present.

But Dante’s poetry is only up to that task if it learns how to fail at that very task, to follow a paradisal pedagogy that leads poetry into the depth of theological silence that comes when all metaphor and concept, all speech and thought, exhaust themselves before the plentiful mystery of the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso 33.145).

What is especially striking about Turner’s chapters on Paradiso is the way that, despite all talk of politics, eternity, silence, mysticism, and the apophatic, one of his most extended discussions is on the role of the smile in Dante’s heaven. The theology of Paradiso allows no disembodied spirituality, no mysticisms of extraordinary experience, but insists instead that the heavenly is revealed in the most earthly and prosaic of forms: the human smile.

The smile is a sign that contains its own signified; there is no distance between the smile and the pleasure it expresses. A true smile is a sign of itself, just as in heaven “the meaning of everything signified is complete in itself” (272). The smile is what heaven is, and it is what Dante’s paradisal poetry aims to become. By the time we reach the closing of the Comedy, Dante’s poetry and theology will meet. His verse effects what it signifies, as theology and poetry both culminate in holy silence as the perfected excess of language.

This is an odd and brilliant book. Its brilliance lies in its compelling drawing out of the theology running throughout the whole of the Comedy. Its oddity stems from how it does not fit easily into established academic categories. It cannot be simplistically cataloged as Dante scholarship, or historical theology, or historical reconstruction, nor does it fit neatly under the heading of doctrinal or spiritual theology. This oddity is the book’s best feature. For in its stubborn refusal to fit into tidy academic categories, Turner’s work mirrors Dante’s.

Part of what Turner does so well here, in a way that Dante does when his commentators allow him, is expand the register of what theology and poetry both sound like, how they are written, and how they aim at truth. Turner’s Dante expands the boundaries of such categories, allowing them to bleed into each other. The result is not simply an interesting take on Dante, but an expanded vision of both theology and poetry, an image of how they might work together today by undergoing the kind of infernal, purgatorial, and paradisal education that Dante dramatizes. The goal of this education is so that they might together learn to speak truly by failing — that is, by eliciting a holy silence that is an efficacious sign of the fullness of the Word.

Dr. Matthew A. Rothaus Moser teaches theology at Loyola University Maryland and in the Honors College of Azusa Pacific University.


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