Wednesday, January 31, 2007
I feel like it's unfair to judge Dante based on modern knowledge and values. Of course he thought homosexuality is a sin, he's a freaking 12th century thinker! He doesn't know all the things we know! He's not discriminating against a culture or lifestyle: in Dante's time a gay guy was a guy who preferred having sex with other men over women. Nothing more or less. I think that most guys like sex, no matter what form it comes in. Sodomy is not uncommon. Read the Kinsey reports; a lot of guys have sexual encounters with other men, and it doesn't make them homosexuals.
Today there is a whole culture of homosexuality, involving a sense of identity with a larger community. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons, etc. aren't a homogenous group; they are a collective of people who have been discriminated against for violating customary practices regarding a) sexuality, b) gender identification, and/or c) sexual behavior. All of these diverse people are grouped together because it's a lot easier for them to fight against discrimination. Strength in numbers, right?
This wasn't so in Dante's day. He isn't hating on people by putting Latini in hell. I think that maybe he's trying to sell his book. If everyone in your culture says such-and-such is true, and then you write a book that's already going to offend a lot of people, wouldn't you try to at least follow the rules? For instance, today it would be really hard to publish a book that said gays deserve to go to hell, because almost nobody agrees with that. As a culture, we have decided (the intellectual sector of our culture- the part that is actually involved with publishing) that homosexuality is a biological thing. Some people still disagree (fundamentalists) but they tend to be looked down upon for their backwards ideas.
Putting Latini in hell is Dante's way of showing that he's not playing favorites. He liked Latini! He just happened to be less "enlightened" than we are in these matters, and he couldn't very well leave a sin out just because his buddies were part of it. I don't understand why that's so hard to grasp. If I, as a Christian, wanted to make a faithful portrayal of hell, I couldn't escape certain things. For instance, some of my very close family members are adulterers. Not that I want to see them in hell (thank God they've repented!) but in order to have integrity as an allegorist I couldn't let them off scot-free just because I love them. Everyone is a sinner, to the Christian mind. It's whether you choose your temporary pleasure over God that lands you in hell (remember, hell is a choice, even if being gay isn't!) I'm NOT agreeing with Dante's way of dealing with homosexuals, but I think all this debate over Latini proves the point of my first blog: we as a society have no respect for tradition. All we want to talk about is how Dante is a jerk, instead of acknowledging his lasting influence. When I've written something better than the Commedia, I'll slam Dante. Until then, I'll try to see what's good about his poem.
Monday, January 29, 2007
"Based on the DC/Vertigo comic book Hellblazer and written by Kevin Brodbin, Mark Bomback and Frank Capello, Constantine tells the story of irreverent supernatural detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), who has literally been to hell and back. When Constantine teams up with skeptical policewoman Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) to solve the mysterious suicide of her twin sister (also played by Weisz), their investigation takes them through the world of demons and angels that exists just beneath the landscape of contemporary Los Angeles. Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldy events, the two become inextricably involved and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost." (Summary written by unit publicist/WB on imdb.com.)
Although this is just in fact another comic book movie it has "practical" applications to Dante. For one, Constantine is Dante to a certain extent. Constantine has been to hell and walked through it. The difference is that Constantine is able to return to the living world and Dante, from what I understand, does not. The thing that I wanted to talk about was the very last scene of the movie Constantine.
During this scene Keanu Reeves' Character- who, as we understand, has been endowed with all kinds of specific knowledge about heaven and hell- sacrifices his life to save that of another. This results in God allowing him passage to heaven because he, like Christ, gave his life, making "the ultimate sacrifice" in order to get into heaven. Constantine, who has otherwise defiled the name of God over and over, and by all means is going straight to hell (we know this because Satan, played by Peter Stormare, tells us so), knows that by doing this one good deed, and because he believes in God, he is guaranteed a one way ticket to heaven. But Satan intervenes because he wants Constantine to run his army or something, and saves him so that he can sin again and get himself sent to hell.
Anyway, my point it, that the difference her is that Dante, to a certain extent believes the same thing. At the very beginning of the Inferno he says that with your last dying breath if you truly believe and ask for forgiveness from God that he will open the gates of Heaven to you. But, this is of course very unlikely, because few are aware of this fact. The difference between Dante and today's society, as it is told through this movie, is that we are a society that thrives on immediate gratification. We believe that even if we live a life of blaspheming and as a heretic that it is all good because as long as we do the right thing in the end then we are guaranteed a ticket to the holy place in the sky. Dante doesn't...you have got to work for it. Even if you believe in God, and love him, you must also be a good person and not live a life of access.
My point here is this, we as a society, are always looking for the easy way out. Whether it be a get rich quick scheme, or a self help book, we never take responsibility for our own actions which is exactly what Dante's hell is all about; atoning for the sins that you've committed during your life time for an eternity. Heaven is a place where only the worthy may go like Keanu, and Dante, so don't get too ahead of yourself and start living the good life today.
I don’t think I have much to contribute to the great Sodomy Debate…so I’m going to backtrack a bit and write again about how limbo continues to cause problems for me. As we’ve gotten further and further into hell and met more and more denizens of Dis, some inconsistencies have started to trouble me. Dante places Caesar in limbo along with Saladin. I’d like to take a look at these two in relation to a few fellows we find down in the eighth circle, the sowers of discord.
Way down in the Ninth Bolgia we come across the Islamic prophet Mahomet and the Roman Tribune Curio. These two are representative of the inconsistencies that I wonder about. First Mahomet. What is the difference between Mahomet and Saladin? If Saladin is used as an example of Dante acknowledging a great follower of Islam, then what to make of the founder of Islam “cleft from crotch to chin” in the depths of hell? At what point does the sin of following a false religion become muted? 200 years? I guess what makes Saladin so special? What did he do to avoid the fate of Mahomet?
But more interestingly I would like to know what Curio is doing here in hell. He has had his tongue hacked out for counseling Caesar to cross the Rubicon and begin the Roman civil war. Caesar is up in limbo though, as a virtuous pagan and the one who made the actual decision to cast the die. Can someone explain the fine point of internationality that separates the two men? My Roman history is a little rusty, but I don’t think there is much doubt that Caesar and Pompey were going to clash and that the Republic was doomed. So why isn’t Caesar chopped in two for dividing the Roman people and beginning the slide towards Tyranny?
Caesar established Rome as a full-fledged empire with himself as dictator; perhaps this is part of Dante’s rehabilitation of all things Roman as pre-Catholic precedent. But if the Pope then becomes the heir to the crown of the Empire, why is the man who allegedly helped make this a reality—Curio—not glorified as some sort of a prefigured pre-Papist?
Something else that caught my attention occurred in the same circle. On page 120, the last stanza reads: “I do not dare descend to his own level…” In the drawing, Dante and Virgil appear to be on a rocky ledge above the scorching sand. Dante, still living, cannot descend to the same level as his friend because he will suffer the pain of the sand. Though the evil of Hell can’t harm him, the physical place can. Allegorically, even on Dante’s guided tour, he must remember to follow the “right” path to avoid the torture of Hell, just as in his life. This also tells the reader that regardless of the sins of your peers and esteemed friends, you must remain on the “right” path to avoid the eternal torture of Hell. Could this simple phrase explain the danger of peer pressure?
Another thought that comes to my mind regards Minos. Minos is the beast that listens to each soul’s confession, and then delivers the verdict of their eternal (non) resting place. Did Dante take into consideration what would happen in the event of multiple sins? If a man is an adulterer, couldn’t he also be a seducer? What happens in the event of a woman who is a fortuneteller and a hoarder? Or a man who is a wrathful heretic? When multiple sins come into play, it would seem simpler to believe that all sins are equal and all souls go to the same level of Hell. Or, the more sins that are committed, the deeper the level of Hell. This way the worst of the worst get the highest punishment possible. I personally don’t believe that all sins are equal, but I do believe in varying levels of each sin (the difference between a one-time thief of desperation vs. the kleptomaniac). If Dante’s version of Hell were the real thing, I would think that in the case of multiple sins, that person would go to the level of the worst of his sins.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
If sodomy, or more broadly, homosexuality, or broader still, “being queer” is no longer understood to be “unnatural”, is simply identifying as one of these enough to automatically relegate you to Hell? Not in my book. This just goes to show how much outside forces influence religion and our understanding of it. Our current understanding of homosexuality and what it is biologically informs our treatment of the subject, just as Dante’s Hell is informed by the thinking of his day.
We were talking in class about how the sins Dante places in Hell are often against natural law rather than religious law. For me this just drives home the point that religion is man-made. We created the houses of worship (churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc.), the religious texts and rules to follow, the rituals and ceremonies, not God (or god, or gods, or whatever). Nowhere is this more evident to me than at memorial services, of which I attended TWO this weekend. We need an afterlife, or the idea of one, to help us cope with our loss. Memorial services aren’t for that person, they’re for the rest of us. Many people need the comfort of knowing that that person is in a “better place.” I spent a lot of time this weekend wondering what does come after life, if anything? Is the thing we’re all meditating on and crying about really there? Who knows? We can (and do) spend our whole lives wondering about it, and everyone and their brother seems to have a different conviction, but who’s right? How do we know which teacher to believe, or trust, or follow?
This reminds me of my sophomore year of high school, when we read a novel version of Dante’s Inferno, (entitled Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in case any of you were wondering), where the main character is led around Hell not by Virgil, but by a man named Benito. At the end of the book we find out that it is Benito Mussolini who we’ve been following around the whole time. That was a trip, (especially since at the time my knowledge of WWII history was horrendously sub-par, so I was like: ‘Mussolini? Who’s that?’ and the effect was lost on me). The loosely tied in point remains: be careful who you follow and whose doctrine you ascribe to.
So then, the question remains: what comes next? Natalie was wondering who else Dante would put in Hell, Betsy was saying that people who hurt other people would go to her own little Hell (which I think I agree with), and Rachel started touching on who she thinks will or will not end up in Hell and Heaven. I’m interested to see these ideas flushed out more, in either an academic or personal sense. Academically speaking, how would you arrange a Dantean afterlife? Who’s going to be where? Are there levels? Personally speaking, what do you ‘really’ believe it’s going to be like?
What is a bit unclear to me is Latini’s speech to Dante. Latini says “your good works will be your enemy,” which leads me to speculate that somehow Latini’s sin of sodomy was tied to his good works (l. 64 p. 121). Knowing that he was a prominent scholar, politician, and writer, and thinking that good works would then most likely involve teaching, mentoring, or otherwise imparting his knowledge, perhaps his sin occurred with someone with whom he had a “student-teacher” relationship. This line of thought, however, reminds me that Dante and Latini apparently had just that sort of relationship, and since Ciardi’s notes make it seem like Dante was the only person to know of Latini’s homosexuality, I wonder how Dante would have known this unless he was the other sodomite in Latini’s homosexual relationship. If this is the case, it would explain why Dante “went astray from the straight road and woke to find [himself] alone in a dark wood” (ll. 1-3 p. 16). The pun on “straight” is just too amusing to ignore, and yet I doubt they used that term then in the same way we do today. In fact, all of these speculations are most likely unfounded and irrelevant, but the possibilities intrigue me.
If Dante’s belief that all sinners must be punished in accordance with their sins is true, and assuming that my speculations are also true, then Dante would have realized his fate as soon as he saw Latini. This may explain some of his hesitation and surprise at discovering Latini among “that ghostly crew” (l. 22 p. 120). I believe, however, that if homosexuality is indeed a sin and hell is as Dante depicts it, homosexuals would not be in the seventh circle, but rather, in the second with the carnal. The two sins go together I think under a broad category of “sexual sin.” But personally, I don’t think anyone goes to hell because of a sin or any other action. It’s entirely possible for homosexuals to go to heaven just like anybody else. This is a protestant view though, and one which Dante would not share.
According to Dante, Latini committed sodomy(and this very well could be slander), which is considered by Dante as a violent act against Nature. Regardless of Dante’s personal preferences, Latini must suffer an unnatural punishment for the “unnatural” acts he committed during his lifetime. The sodomites, in the seventh circle of Hell, are forced to run in circles endlessly, symbolic of the purposelessness of their sodomy on Earth. Dante views sex as a means to an end, namely, procreation. Because sodomy does not result in sexual reproduction, it is viewed as unnatural and selfish.
But sodomy is ultimately classified as an act of violence against Nature. It could be argued that by committing sodomy, one is literally committing an act of violence against their body. The act of sodomy, indeed, can be anatomically destructive. In the words of my high school Health teacher, “the body wasn’t built for that, too much ripping and tearing.” Thanks for that, Teach. But some definitions of sodomy include oral and anal sex and bestiality. On this count, as Professor Anderson mentioned in class, the “Sodomites” are not exclusively homosexual men.
From a strictly Biblical perspective, however, it seems clear that to mistreat one’s body is to sin against God. 1 Corinthians 6:19 reads, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?”(NASB). Along these lines, one could easily argue that besides sodomy, there exist a host of other lifestyle choices that could be classified as maltreatment of one’s body. So would Dante place those who use drugs, drink alcohol, never exercise, or eat complex carbohydrates in Hell too?
I have to say, I have a problem with Dante putting Brunetto Latini in hell for his ‘sodomy.’ He doesn’t say how he found this out or why he thinks this was the case, and it seems very strange that there is no historical record of Latini’s homosexuality other than what Dante has claimed in his poem. Since sodomy is sort of a violent act, there is perhaps an understandable reason as to why Dante would consider it violence against nature. However, it seems odd that he uses authority outside of the Bible to decide whether Latini was in Hell or not, since he uses his Natural Law understanding instead of something more Christian. This may be because I come from a time where orthodox church practice and fundamentalism is reading the Bible literally, which Dante didn’t. Neither do I, but I have a very different idea of the universe than Dante anyway. I feel that we understand a bit more about the natural world in our current times. I am perhaps radical in my beliefs about homosexuality, since I believe that it is mostly a biological phenomenon. There are studies in populations of animals that show that the number of homosexuals in a population increases when the population grows too large, and so acts as a sort of natural population control since those individuals do not reproduce.
I don’t believe in Hell, so I probably wouldn’t put anybody there, but even if I decided to create my own little Hell, I wouldn’t put poor Brunetto Latini there. I think Hell would be a place for people who have hurt other people, and Latini seems to be a nice enough guy. Dante gives him much respect and praises him highly, so it appears safe to assume he wasn’t a murderer or a rapist. If Latini didn’t hurt anyone with his sodomy, like the other party involved, then I don’t think Hell is the place for him.
Also, I don’t believe that sodomy necessarily means homosexuality because it is more a part of male homosexuality than female homosexuality. If Dante really wanted to hit hard on homosexuality, then he should have put a lesbian in his Hell as well. Maybe they didn’t know that women could be homosexual in the medieval ages; I don’t know where the documentation to prove what they thought about female homosexuality would be found. But the people who have problems with homosexuality always have much more trouble with male homosexuality than female homosexuality, and perhaps that is the case here. Perhaps Dante just sees the act of sodomy as a perversion of nature, and not homosexuality. As we discussed in class, it seems slightly nasty that Dante throws that in there, because Latini can’t defend himself against this claim even if it is slander. Nor can any of the other men Dante so blithely names off as Sodomites. I believe that one of the most disturbing parts of this passage was reading Ciardi’s notes at the end, where they mentioned that no other document mentions these men and sodomy. Dante seems to be taking advantage of his poetic license here to remove from public consideration those who came directly before him.
As we discussed in class, I am stating my views, and I don’t mean to offend anyone with them. I’m sure my personal conception of the world is different than many other people’s conceptions.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
The best representation of Heaven in celluloid existence is towards the end of Ice Age II. Scrat, the acorn-chasing tree shrew, dies (sorry if I’m giving anything away here). He sees first a light at the end of a tunnel, goes into the light and is confronted by giant gold gates. He passes through the gates and into a glittering no-gravity zone. A choir of dodo-birds fades in (singing phonetically) and out. Heaven is revealed to be an endless field of acorns just lying there for the taking. The clincher is when Scrat sees God: God is a massive Gold acorn. I find this scene crazily touching- I believe if I were a prehistoric rodent, God would indeed look like an enormous acorn. The Great Acorn is the immediately recognizable symbol of all his heart’s desires; more beautiful than he could have ever imagined. I always want to hear the song “I Can Only Imagine” when I see Scrat flying ecstatically towards The Great Acorn.
What’s amazing about this representation of Heaven is that it fits the common perception perfectly. We are a culture that holds to the maxim “Heaven is personal.” That makes sense because we are a very self-centered, individualistic culture. Heaven is a place that has everything you want… it is a personal wish-fulfillment cornucopia. The choirs aren’t praising God, they’re creating a gentle atmosphere for your listening pleasure. I could probably have them singing Cat Stevens songs if I wanted them to. This image of a personal Heaven is in tension with our popular image of Hell as a place where selfishness is punished.
Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven make less sense to us today than they did to his contemporaries, but they still make more sense than our popular, secular version of the afterlife. Consider other films that deal with an afterlife: What Dreams May Come is the ultimate “personal Heaven” and “personal Hell,” but it offers a secularized, or shall we say, religiously synthesized set of options. There is a God, but He never shows up. Apparently, He is not the point of Heaven. There is reincarnation, but no other elements of Hinduism or Buddhism. People get to choose what they and their own Heaven look like, and how they spend their infinite time. They also get to journey through various places in the afterlife, some of which (the bad places) are modeled on Dante’s Hell. In PeeWee’s Big Adventure, there is a typical vision of Hell, with dancing demons poking their victim (PeeWee’s bike, oddly enough) down into a flaming pit. Finally, in South Park: the movie, Heaven is a place of naked women for Kenny, who is cast down to Hell. Parker and Stone do their usual satirical magic, and Hell is not only the residence of Adolph Hitler, but of Mohandis Gandhi. Furthermore, Satan turns out to be quite sympathetic when we see he is just doing his job, and the ultimate evil is in fact Saddam Hussein, Satan’s insensitive lover.
All of these images play with our common concepts of the afterlife, but none share Dante’s completeness of vision. The popular images of Heaven and Hell (there never is a Purgatory or Limbo) lack the librarian instinct for categorization and ease of searchability. Almost never are specific people represented in Hell, perhaps because filmmakers aren’t in the mood to make political enemies.
"In order to remove the possibility of evil, God would have to remove Freedom, but doing so would also eliminate Love.
Love is the greatest good for any creature, but it is impossible without Freedom.
Love, in its essence, is a “choice” and, therefore, seems to be God’s purpose in giving man Freedom.
Thus, God allows evil for the purpose of a greater good which is Love"(CCC apologetic curriculum).
On a lighter note, another guy I greatly admire once explained it to me like this:
“If God dwells inside us like some people say, I sure hope He likes enchiladas, because that’s what He’s getting”(Jack Handy, Deep Thoughts).
“My young son asked me what happens after we die. I told him we get buried under a bunch of dirt, and worms eat our bodies. I guess I should have told him the truth – that most of us go to Hell and burn eternally – but I didn’t want to upset him”(Jack Handy, Deep Thoughts).
Monday, January 22, 2007
Great posts everyone; with so many interesting threads to pick up on I’m not entirely sure where to begin. Many of you have been wrestling with the idea of the damnation of the virtuous pagans and with the idea that sin is a rational choice. I too am uncomfortable by seeing Virgil and Caesar in limbo and by the idea that hell is rationally chosen, so for my first post I’d like to examine those ideas a bit and see what exactly it is that bugs me about them.
One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed so far in reading the Inferno is the change in Dante’s attitude towards those he encounters. At the beginning of his journey through hell he feels pity for the souls of the damned, swooning at the tale of woe Francesa tells him. But around the middle of Canto VIII, Dante has something of a change of heart. Whilst crossing the river Styx Dante and Virgil encounter one of the poet’s real life enemies, Filippo Argenti. Dante’s reaction is somewhat less than charitable. “I saw the loathsome spirit so mangled by a swarm of muddy wraiths that to this day I praise and thank God for it” (VIII, ll. 55-57).
I’d like to focus on this passage as an example of something that strikes me as odd. One of the more troublesome things contained within it is the idea that as sin is evil then sinners are evil. Then, since sin is against God, and the righteous are with God, they the righteous must be against sin and sinners. They in a sense must hate sin…must believe that yes, these filthy hell-dogs deserve what they get. Here it gets a bit tricky.
I guess what confuses me is the difference between anger and righteous anger. Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. Virgil praises Dante at around line 40 for his angry reaction to the sinners. What allegorically is this saying? That it is reasonable to sometimes hate? Is wrath a tool of the righteous? And probably most troubling for me…how exactly is righteous determined? This is the problem it seems with the damnation of the pagans. Where and how did they view the Right? And what is hell but a wrathful experience? The sinners experience the wrath of God…but how does one define the difference between good wrath and bad wrath?
I think the glee with which Dante damns the sinner is what makes me the most uncomfortable, the glee with which he draws the line between black and white. If you are on the side of God, are your political enemies automatically evil?
Many are the popes and corrupt religious figures that we find in hell. Most are there it seems to receive punishment they rightly deserve. But during their lives, and correct me if I’m wrong, they defined what was right on earth. What of those who, like the virtuous pagans, followed an incorrect definition of what is right? What of the misled? Of those with an “incorrect” understanding of Christ and love and right? What if you choose the wrong Right? Perhaps we will find some of these answers in Purgatory.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Now I'm not harping on God, I admire the things it has done, I just find it's existence rather convenient. What I mean by that is, instead of letting it be known to all, over all time, that there was a God, and that God would like your support, God just kinda let it slide until some time after the "creation" of man. But I digress from my point a little, which is that Dante punishes people for loving other gods before God wised up and said, "Maybe I should do something about this." While it is rather obvious that Dante is torn. What I mean is that he sees, quite clearly, that people- like Virgil- have the credentials of a heaven bound soul minus one thing, they were born before God had the holy revelation to be more proactive about telling humans about him/herself.
Now I don't want people to get offended by what I have to say, I by no means think that God does not exist, I just have personal qualms with a few of his policies, as set out by Dante. I guess I am just really hoping that there aren't quite so many souls that leave this world bound for hell, never to receive their creators love. I truly felt like I had more to say on this subject but I seem to be loosing my composure, so I will stop myself right............here.
When I first started reading Dante, I was surprised at how tolerant he was for having a medieval religious outlook. Dante’s outlook on free will is actually very different and more accepting than what later Christian denominations believed, like the Puritans. As the Puritans and similar denominations believed in basic human depravity and predestination, they believed that anything that happened was part of a person’s destiny, decided by God, and that the person could never change. For them, sin was permanent and a sign of a permanent evil within that person, like a relationship with the Devil. Since Dante believes in free will and not predestination, he believes that sin is a choice and at any moment a person can choose either to sin or not to sin. This means that the person has that control over himself or herself and so can’t blame God or any other force for the bad choices they choose to make, like Francesca trying to blame a book for the sexual relationship between her and Paolo.
This is one idea that has continued on throughout Christianity, such as in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce where he visits Hell and Heaven in a dream. Being Anglican, there is of course no Purgatory. In C.S. Lewis’s Hell, the people go onto a bus to visit Heaven to decide if they want to stay. Of course, even after seeing the peace and contentment and equality of heaven, they decide to go back to Hell. Much like Satan in Paradise Lost, they think it is “better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” They want their pain and their focus on their own problems. This also relates back to our discussion of Francesca in class since we inferenced that she does not really think or care about Paolo at all. All she can see is her own pain and her own self, which she would most likely have had to release in order to get into Heaven.
I think this works for modern times as well. People have a lot more choices to make now, at least in the
This would seem to be a flaw in Dante’s theology until we consider the historical timeline of Christianity. The inhabitants of limbo whom Dante specifically names all lived before Christ, and thus, actually didn’t have the choice to go to heaven. So, while they had the same freedom of action as those born after Christ do, they didn’t have the same range of choices insofar as they couldn’t choose to accept or deny Christ.
Dante’s choice of Virgil as a mentor and guide is a reflection of his ideas about Christianity. He shows that historically, pagan ideas and lifestyles led to the Christian religion and way of life. We can read this allegorically as Virgil (a pagan) quite literally leading Dante (a Christian). It seems that Dante had a more open-minded or accepting view of the ways in which Christians and non-Christians should interact. In his day, there were strong political laws and social mores about religion and what particular beliefs entailed, and there were serious repercussions for breaking these deeply engrained rules.
Dante’s Comedy shows how a person with reason can transcend those boundaries while still leading a Christian life and going to heaven. In fact, Dante literally does transcend the Christian/pagan, heaven/hell boundaries that no one else can. By teaming with Virgil, Dante experiences the impossible. We have to be careful when interpreting this however. Dante is not saying that every Christian should go find a non-believer and hang out in hell. The most profound things Dante learns from Virgil are how not to act or how to avoid ending up in hell. Culturally, Dante shows that we cannot and should not seclude ourselves away from any interactions with those who are not of our faith, and indeed, we can learn valuable lessons from each other while still remaining faithful to our own beliefs.
Reason plays a large role in Dante’s Comedy, and similarly, today’s American culture places a huge emphasis on reason and education. Many mentors are teachers or coaches within academic institutions. The importance of reason and intellectual thought remains a strong influence today, perhaps even stronger than in Dante’s time with the current trend to place science/intellectual discoveries at a dichotomy with religious beliefs or understandings. Many people now believe that reason hold the only truth possible, which is in stark contrast to what Dante believes.
Dante’s choice of Virgil, a pagan in hell, as his mentor underscores his belief that: 1) reason transcends all, 2) intellectual thought and Christianity go hand-in-hand, and 3) we have the free will to choose who we spend time with and what we learn from them.
Friday, January 19, 2007
Tradition, however, gets the short end of the stick in this ideology. The so-called Establishment is disregarded, rather than being seen as a useful agent of socialization and education. Freedom to make one’s own choices is useless without knowledge, and it is in traditional knowledge that a foundation for discovery is built.
Recently, a friend of mine, a culinary student, complained that America is a second-rate place to learn the culinary arts; that America has a meager culinary history. I begged to differ- I argued that some of the most exciting flavors in the world come from the US, where traditions mingle and are filtered through new experiences and techniques, creating astonishing results. I told him it is innovation, based on variety, which makes American food special and unique. Even so, it is my belief that innovation rests upon tradition.
The same can be said of ideas. It is good that Americans value freedom and innovation, but without any background knowledge, there can be no real innovation. Traditional learning has much to offer, and one unfortunate consequence of rejecting tradition at large is that it has disadvantaged those people most in need of guidance. For instance, the public school system is constantly moving away from the kind of learning that fosters social advancement. Colleges and universities are looking more like trade schools all the time; a truly good education comes at a higher price than ever before. The irony is that as education has been made available to the masses, the standards have been lowered, so that the purpose of education is utilitarianism rather than enlightenment.
Another feature of modern civilization is the idea that it is natural to rebel against authority, especially in one’s youth. This is not a biologically predetermined behavior, but rather one that we are socially conditioned to by a prolonged childhood phase. People of a certain age are left in a grey area where responsibility and its lessons are delayed, and regimentation is neglected. People in adolescence yearn to be ‘grown-up’ but are completely unprepared for the realities of life, and are taught to “question everything” without even knowing what it is they are meant to question.
Our lack of respect for tradition and convention has left our culture in a similar grey area. In my twenties, I have made the surprising discoveries that a) my parents usually are right, b) most authority figures do deserve my respect and even a level of humble submission to better judgment, and c) an education truly has very little to do with obtaining a degree, although the two goals are pursued contemporaneously.
The Greek poet Hesiod wrote that “Mnemosyne (memory) is the mother of the Muses.” Rephrased, his statement is that inspiration is preceded by prior knowledge- memorizing, or learning, must come before one can begin to innovate.
“Some believe that if they continue down the bad road, when they die, those choices will lead them to hell and they will forever suffer for it. This keeps most of them on the right path.” –Tams
Hell is not the only reason people lead good and decent lives. People who don’t believe in Hell must obviously be motivated by something else. I interpreted Flannery O’Connor’s words differently. I don’t read “no Hell, no dignity” to mean that Hell is the only reason that keeps people from sinning. In fact it is not. “No Hell, no dignity” means that we have free will, to choose good or evil, right or wrong. If God didn’t give us a choice, then we would be stupid ignorant puppets. There would be no purpose or meaning to our lives. Indeed if we didn’t have free will, “good” and “evil” would lose their meaning altogether. If we all knew we were all going to Heaven, and there was no punishment, there would be no way to separate the “good” actions and deeds from the “bad” ones. To give us a choice, free will, puts the responsibility on us. God is honoring us in the creation of Heaven and Hell, putting His faith in us to make our own decision. If he was a selfish, jealous God, he would not have given us a choice. We would have had to love him. Imagine if you just bought a puppy. You want it to love you, and wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a way to ensure that it loves you unconditionally, some way to brainwash it, force it to love you? But if you give the puppy free will, and it chooses to love you on its own accord, wouldn’t that be so much sweeter, so much better? That’s how I read Flannery O’Connor’s words.
“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” –Billy Joel
Not everyone is going to get the chance to make the ultimate decision on their deathbed: Hell or Heaven? We make this ultimate decision every day of our lives, in the little decisions and choices we are faced with. Life is a journey. So (if there indeed is a Hell and a Heaven), I’m totally on board with the idea that people choose for themselves to go to wherever they end up. I mean, some people are going to totally be with their crowd down in Hell. I think I also kind of agree with Billy Joel…I mean, how boring is Heaven going to be?
This got me thinking about this Christian idea of a “good” place and a “bad” place to go to after death. What if there’s just one place where we all end up? Or no place? Or a different place for every person? Reward, punishment for what you did on earth…what if the afterlife isn’t about all that? What if it just is?
This reminded me of a guest I saw on the Colbert Report in December. Deepak Chopra just wrote a book called Life After Death: The Burden of Proof which sounds really awesome. Apparently it’s rooted in traditional Indian concepts of the afterlife. I remember him describing death in terms of a telephone call: you can’t see the person you’re talking to, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And when they hang up, they’re gone from your reality, but you know they’re not really gone gone. He was saying death is kind of like that: people who die are still there (or here?).
“Chopra tells us there is abundant evidence that “the world beyond” is not separated from this world by an impassable wall; in fact, a single reality embraces all worlds, all times and places. At the end of our lives we “cross over” into a new phase of the same soul journey we are on right this minute.
…But far more important is his urgent message: Who you meet in the afterlife and what you experience there reflect your present beliefs, expectations, and level of awareness. In the here and now you can shape what happens after you die.”
Chew on that.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
According to today’s discussion, Dante believes that people choose to go to hell. I can agree. God gave humans the ability of free will, and they use this ability to make decisions that affect their life as well as their afterlife. If people do things wrong by choice, not just a bad mistake, but a real choice in which they know will be bad, they push themselves further from good and more to the evil or bad. To choose to go to hell is simply choosing the bad road on purpose, knowing there will be consequences.
Flannery O’Connor says, “If there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity.” People know that when they do wrong, there will be a punishment of sorts. Some believe that if they continue down the bad road, when they die, those choices will lead them to hell and they will forever suffer for it. This keeps most of them on the right path. When they stray, they usually realize that they are in need of getting closer to God by changing paths to make things right. Without a hell, what would keep people from choosing the wrong path? If they know there is no severe punishment for being a bad person, then they will less likely care about having a noble character. Without judgment, they can be as bad as they want, whenever they want, and never worry about how it affects others or what others think of them.
“No hell, no dignity” can also be explained through the eyes of the judicial system. If every wrong action had a specific punishment that was outlined equally for everyone, more people would weigh their options for doing wrong. For instance, Toby is suffering financially and needs a few thousand dollars to make ends meet so that he can get his life back on track. He knows that if he took the extreme path of robbing a bank, he would only get 2 years in prison if caught. He then weighs his options and believes that the sacrifice of two years and a bad record would be worth it. Though he doesn’t even think about having to return all that money and being in a worse financial state than he began, by choosing the bad path, he literally has sold part of his soul, only he knows the price.
For those who don’t believe in hell, what guides them to live a decent life? I know a few nonbelievers and they seem to be respectable individuals who do no intentional harm to anyone. And, there are always the select few who do believe in hell and still choose to make the bad decisions anyway. Why? It’s all summed up in those two little words: free will.