V. Montemaggi – Dante’s Theology

« Dante’s Theology »

by Vittorio Montemaggi

Dante’s theology is defined by the realization that God is love. At the beginning of the Commedia, Dante tells us that it is from divine love – “l’amor divino” – that creation issues (Inferno 1.39–40), and it is in and as that love that Dante’s journey famously ends: “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” [love that moves the sun and other stars] (Paradiso 33.143–145).[1] So as to move from the “cose belle” [lovely things] of Inferno 1.40 to union with the love that gives them being in Paradiso 33, Dante takes us through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and invites to reflect on human community as it fails, learns, and succeeds to live in full participation of the love that grounds (its) existence. As such, Dante’s theology is at once infinitely rich and profoundly simple. Infinitely rich, because it wishes to coincide with nothing less than the mystery in and as which human existence – in all its various dimensions and with all the particular personhoods constituting it – can be seen as expression of the love which grounds and sustains all existence. Profoundly simple, because in this love all is one, and the realization that God is love can thus provide the crucial interpretive key for the various dimensions of Dante’s theology and for the multifaceted ways it invites us to explore the infinite richness of human existence. It is in the particular interplay between its infinite richness and its profound simplicity, I would like to suggest, that the theology of Dante’s Commedia can be seen as a particularly significant example of the spiritually transformative potential of literary texts, understood as the capacity these have consciously to awaken us to our own existence being nothing other than manifestation of divine love.[2]

The Commedia is generally perceived as a work to be studied for the answers it wants to give rather than the questions it invites us to ask. As one of the founding texts of the Italian literary tradition, and as a breathtaking compendium of medieval life and thought, the Commedia is generally perceived as requiring, in order to be properly appreciated, as detailed a study as possible of the specific literary context which it grew out of and transformed, and of the historical facts and items of philosophical and theological learning it refers to, encapsulates, or builds on. And relative to Dante’s building on the culture, politics, art, and learning of his day, it is felt that our assessment should primarily be of the specific conclusions on specific questions – be they questions of intellectual content or poetic form – that Dante proposes, his final word on this or that particular matter. These all certainly are and ought to continue to be vital components of our study of Dante’s poem. But they should not necessarily be taken as the primary framework for engagement with Dante’s theology. If they are, reading the Commedia risks becoming an activity concerned primarily with the pursuit of intellectual goals that, however significant, do not reflect those in pursuit of which the Commedia’s theology ultimately articulates itself. 

Dante wrote the Commedia to help save us. Whether or not we agree with his particular vision, we cannot read his text accurately, as theology, if we adopt interpretive practices that do not allow for the questioning open-endedness of Dante’s challenging invitation to his readers to undertake the journey toward divinity of which his poem speaks.

Dante does indeed actively engage in rich, complex, and dynamic conversations with the culture, politics, art, and learning of his day, and on the basis of this he certainly comes to some striking conclusions, both in the form and in the content of the Commedia. No reading that ignores the importance and multifaceted nature of this can do full justice to Dante’s poem and its theology. It is vital, however, to recognize that such ventures are not pursued as ends in themselves, but as part of broader reflection on the nature of truth, of human existence, and of the relationship between them. In writing the Commedia, Dante is not taking the culture, politics, art, and learning of his day for granted. Neither is he taking himself for granted. He embarks on an exploratory journey impelled by the question of what the ultimate truth and value of all these things is. 

For Dante, this means asking how all these things relate to God. Contrary to widespread assumption, however, this does not for Dante mean conforming to a fixed and rigid set of established doctrinal propositions; or to hold in any case that the pursuit of truth can ultimately be equated with the pursuit of the right ideas. These views would misrepresent both Dante and the dynamism of medieval theological reflection more generally. Dante’s exploratory journey into the divine is impelled, rather, by the open-ended question of how human existence can best be lived in the light of the mystery in which all reality is grounded: the ineffable truth out of which, ex nihilo, all that is comes to be. Dante’s preferred name for such mystery is not “God” but “love” – “amore.” 

“Love” is not an easy word to use. The Commedia can be seen as Dante’s constructive response to such difficulty. The possibility of representing the journey into God depends, for Dante, precisely on learning how to use the word “love.” On this also depends the possibility for us to read the Commedia as theology. And, in both cases, the kind of interpretive practices required by the word “love” are akin to the intelligence required for engaging, narratively, with human interrelatedness and with the possibility of its being transformed and transformative toward ever-deeper participation in divinity. One of the most accurate ways of reading the narrative of the Commedia, theologically, is to see it as a journey – shared by its author and us – toward comprehension of the word “amore” as indicative of the mystery that makes us who we are and that guides us toward divinization.

There can, indeed, be little doubt that the journey on which the Commedia takes us is one its author hopes will be transformative for us. Dante would not have seen his poem’s truthfulness to reside simply in what it speaks of but also, and primarily, in its contribution to the animation of love in us: the conscious realization of divinity within individual human beings and within humanity as a whole. Or, as Roberto Benigni puts it, 

Questo poeta ha fatto questo viaggio per noi, ha sognato per noi […] è andato in tutti e tre i regni: ci dobbiamo credere! […] Ha visto tutto quello che descrive; ma non perché Dio c’è, ma perché Dio ci sia![3]

To read the Commedia as theology is to be open to the claims it makes on our active participation in the journey of which it speaks. We might or might not agree with the propositional import of the particular way in which Dante conceptually and imaginatively articulates his theology in the Commedia. But if we are to read it as theology, and not simply engage in a detached analysis of its theological ideas, we need to allow ourselves, existentially, to interact with the text not simply as an object under examination, but as a living partner in a journey seeking to explore the deepest dimensions of our being, of the cosmos’ being, and of the point of encounter between the two. Or, as Benignigoeson to say, 

Se dentro si voi si muove una scintilla, un sussulto, siete Dante, siete voi i poeti, siete Dio, proprio perché Dante è Dio mentre scrive! Si può parlare di Dio, solo essendo Dio, sennò non se ne può parlare. E allora quando si parla di Dio, si diventa Dio in persona. Se dentro di voi succede qualcosa, si apre una cosa che la testa non può contenere, una cosa spettacolare. La bellezza, la poesia non sta in chi scrive ma sta – il sublime – nell’orecchio di chi ascolta; dentro di voi sta Dio, non solo dentro a Dante che l’ha scritta, ma se voi non lo sentite, non ha scritto niente! Quindi siete voi il poeta, siete voi Dio, siamo noi insomma. È una cosa straordinaria![4]

The idea that one can speak of God only in being God is striking, and appears radical, daring, extreme.[5]It is, however, no more radical, daring, or extreme than to say that the beginning, sustaining ground, and end of our existence is love that moves the sun and other stars. If divine love is, most fundamentally, what we are, what creation is, then it is entirely appropriate to say that the possibility of speaking truthfully of God not only depends on our learning to use the word “love” but also, therefore, on our inherent divinity. In the Christian tradition(s) Dante inherited and so richly engaged with, deification is the final goal to which human existence naturally tends. There is no more truthful theological statement than a life that is true expression, embodiment, realization of divine love. For Christians, this is inextricably tied to the Incarnation: Jesus as way, life, truth. It is also inextricably tied to the belief that all human lives can be, in and as love, Christ: part of Christ’s mystical body (that is, the Church). 

If it is only possible to speak of God in being God, then it is also only possible to think about God, or listen to someone else speak about God, in being God. To listen, read, think, and interpret theologically is to interact with texts in search of a common divinity: that divinity in and as which human beings can be most truly themselves; that divinity which Dante hopes his text can both speak of and, as theological utterance, embody. As we are told in Paradiso 2, Dante’s journey is propelled by “la concreata e perpetuasete / del deiformeregno” (19-20) [In-born in being, our perpetual thirst/ to reach the deiform domain]: our innate desire to be in the Empyrean, beyond time and space, where the only reality or “shape” is the light-love- joy which is God,[6]and where all that is finds its truest expression,[7]revealing itself to be (in the) divine. No matter what one may be thinking, if one’s thinking itself is not deiform or tending toward deiformity – that is, light-love-joy – what one is thinking about is not “God,” but only a human idea going by that name. Conversely, whether or not one is thinking about “God,” if one’s thinking itself is deiform or tending toward deiformity then one is in the presence of theological truthfulness.

At the risk of oversimplification, allow me in the space at our disposal to substantiate the above remarks by referring briefly only to one episode of the Commedia: that of the Heaven of the Sun (Paradiso 10-14). This is the episode theologians often turn to instinctively to reflect on Dante’s theology; for it is here that Dante seems most explicitly to portray his understanding of theology, in and through his representation of figures of great theological importance. In the Heaven of the Sun, Dante meets the wise: those who in their earthly lives, illumined by grace, stood out for intellectual achievements.[8]Theologians have pride of place here. Indeed, the two primary spokesmen for the wise of the Sun are two of the most prominent of medieval theologians (whose reputation, though, was of course in Dante’s day fresher, and more dynamic and controversial than it is today): Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. It is thus legitimate to suppose that in this episode Dante is consciously trying to tell us something about what he thinks doing theology is (or ought to be).This impression is reinforced by the fact that Thomas and Bonaventure are the first “professional” theologians to speak in the Commedia. And, while Dante’s poem has already presented much rich theological content, there is a clear jump in these cantos even on the poet’s part to language that is more explicitly and ambitiously theological. This is evident immediately from the splendid opening of Paradiso 10, the beginning of the episode of the Sun:[9]

Guardando nel suo Figlio con l’Amore
che l’uno e l’altro etternalmente spira,
lo primo e ineffabile Valore
quanto per mente e per loco si gira
con tant’ordine fé, ch’esser non puote
sanza gustar di lui chi ciò rimira. (Paradiso 10.1–6) [9b]

The episode of the Heaven of the Sun thus opens in robustly theological terms, with Dante’s bringing to the fore the interconnections between Creation and Trinity. Shortly after having beeninvited to delight in the Trinitarian origin of all there is,[10] we are introduced to the first of the two groups of divinely wise human beings Dante encounters dancing harmoniously in the Heaven of the Sun.[11]This is the group led by Thomas (the other is led by Bonaventure). Much has been written about these cantos, in terms especially of what they tell us about which particular author(s) or school(s) of thought most influenced Dante’s theological thinking. What is especially significant from a theological point of view, however, is the fact that these cantos seem precisely to want ultimately to transcend this kind of question. The harmony that commentators have otherwise all but unanimously identified as one of the primary characteristics of the episode (and that is already beautifully evident in Paradiso 10.1–6), can be read into what Dante is telling us about theology at this particular juncture of his poem: theology is that intellectual seeking that allows us ultimately to transcend earthly divisions, to see the unity-in-diversity of the created order and of human knowledge as both part of the created order and as that part of the created order that can, spatiotemporally, become aware of itself as eternal.

It is extremely significant that the intellectual harmony that Dante both illustrates and invites in the Heaven of the Sun does not pertain simply to theology but to a wide range of intellectual disciplines. While Thomas and Bonaventure might be their spokesmen, among the wise Dante meets human beings whose intellectual achievements have taken a variety of forms. That of theology might be the dominant voice here, but it so only insofar as it is in harmonious relationship—dance—with other kinds of human wisdom. In fact, this is already manifest in the way Thomas introduces himself to Dante:

[…] Quando
lo raggio de la grazia, onde s’accende
verace amore e che poi cresce amando, 
multiplicato in te tanto resplende,
che ti conduce su per quella scala
u’ sanza risalir nessun discende; 
qual ti negasse il vin de la sua fiala
per la tua sete, in libertà non fora
se non com’ acqua ch’al mar non si cala.
Tu vuo’ saper di quai piante s’infiora
questa ghirlanda che ‘ntorno vagheggia
la bella donna ch’al ciel t’avvalora.
Io fui de li agni de la santa greggia
che Domenico mena per cammino
u’ ben s’impingua se non si vaneggia.
Questi che m’è a destra più vicino,
frate e maestro fummi, e desso Alberto
è di Cologna, e io Thomas d’Aquino.
Se sì di tutti li altri esser vuo’ certo,
di retro al mio parlar ten vien col viso
girando su per lo beato serto. (Paradiso 10.82–102) [11b]

It is important to note the beautifully profound simplicity of the four sentences with which Thomas introduces himself, and of how they embody a communal conception of knowledge and understanding, which in itself can suggest the infinite richness of a perspective that recognizes in love the one truth in and as which all of human existence can recognize itself as manifestion of divinity. In the first sentence, Thomas expresses his recognition of grace and divinity in Dante, and his utter and utterly free dedication in love to caring for him.He then communicates to Dante that he is aware of what Dante desires at this particular moment, namely to know who it is that contemplatively surrounds Beatrice (note too: Thomas knows Dante well enough to frame his description of Dante’s desire around Beatrice). In the third sentence, Aquinas then tells Dante who he is, but only after identifying himself as part of a wider community (the Dominicans) and as pupil of a particular teacher (Albert the Great, who as Dominican is also said by Thomas to be his brother). After having introduced himself, Aquinas then immediately proceeds to telling Dante about the others who he is dancing with.[12]

The picture of the life of the mind that emerges from the first words spoken by the first theologian who speaks in the Commedia, is that of a communal enterprise illumined by a love that grounds recognition of individual character insofar as it is the truth which gives being to all that is and which is mediated in and as community. Indeed, the picture of theology that will continue to emerge throughout the episode is of an intellectual discipline able to discern the common goal and origin that all intellectual pursuits ultimately have, and through such discernment able to create contexts in which individual human beings can come together in love in pursuit of truth, regardless of the particular configuration their wisdom takes.[13] Moreover, it is clear that Dante meant for Aquinas’ words to be of resounding significance for understanding the conception of the pursuit of truth embodied in the Commedia as a whole. Aquinas is one of three characters in the Commedia to begin a speech with an enjambment on “Quando”. The other two are Ulysses and Beatrice.[14] Ulysses, as I have argued in more detail elsewhere, represents the perils of pursuing truth as detached from human interrelatedness.[15] Beatrice, as I have also argued elsewhere, calls Dante to recognize his responsibility before others as prerequisite for the ascent to Heaven.[16] Third in this significant progression, which in itself takes us from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso, Aquinas embodies an understanding of truth defined by human interrelation as manifestation of grace (the spatiotemporal particularity of which is indeed emphasized by the word “quando”). If those represented by his Aquinas are the characteristics of Dante’s understanding of theological inquiry, then it would seem that Dante’stheology is indeed at once infinitely rich and profoundly simple. Profoundly simple, because it is ultimately animated by the one realization that God is love and that all theology consequently ought, independently of the particular questions it might at different times wish to address and of the various ways in which it might wish to do so, articulate itself as human encounter configured communally as love and animated interpersonally by our recognition of the inherent divinity of our interlocutors. Infinitely rich, because such realization is capacious enough, in open-ended exploration, to encompass all human existence, all human personhood and particularity;[17] including mine and yours, who in reading Commedia might choose to join Dante in journeying towards ever deeper engagement with the mystery in which we all have our being.

[1] The text of the Commedia is cited following Dante Alighieri, Commedia, ed. and comm. Anna Maria ChiavacciLeonardi, 3 vols (Milan: Mondadori, 1991–1997). Translations are taken from Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. and comm. Robin Kirkpatrick, 3 vols (London: Penguin, 2006–2007). 

[2] The present reflections closely follow my Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology: Divinity Realized in Human Encounter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), especially Chapters 1.1 and 2.2. Readers are referred to this work for detailed bibliographical reference relative to the questions explored here. For a statement regarding the nature of Dante’s theology, complementary to the present one and focusing on a different set of particular questions and passages, see my “In Unknowability as Love: The Theology of Dante’s Commedia”, in Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry, ed. Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). A fuller study of Dante’s theology would, alongside the Commedia,also have to take into consideration Dante’s other works. This is the topic of a forthcoming essay I am currently preparing in the context of the project on “Dante’s Other Works” of the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame. For broader engagement with Dante’s theology see also Leonard J. DeLorenzo and Vittorio Montemaggi, eds, Dante, Mercy, and the Beauty of the Human Person (Eugene: Cascade, forthcoming); Peter S. Hawkins, Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Claire Honess and Matthew Treherne, eds, Reviewing Dante’s Theology, 2 vols (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013); Giuseppe Ledda, ed., Preghiera e liturgianellaCommedia. Atti del Convegnointernazionale di Studi, Ravenna, 12 novembre 2011, (Ravenna: Centro DantescodeiFratiMinoriConventuali, 2013); Christian Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press/AAR, 2005); Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne, eds, Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). 

[3] This poet has made this journey for us, has dreamed for us … has been in all of the three realms: we have to believe in it! … He has seen everything that he describes; not because there is God, but so that God may be!, text in L’ultimo del Paradiso, televised reading of Paradiso 33, broadcast on RAI1 on December 23, 2002 (now on DVD; text available on gliscritti.it/approf/2005/conferenze/benigni/paradiso.htm). See also Roberto Benigni, Il mio Dante (Turin: Einaudi, 2008), 25 [my translations].

[4] Benigni, L’ultimo del Paradiso: If within you there moves a spark, a tremor, then you are Dante, you are the poets, you are God, precisely because Dante is God as he writes! We can speak of God only by being God, otherwise we cannot speak of this. Thus when we speak of God, we become God in person. If within you something happens, there opens up something that the mind cannot comprehend, something spectacular. Beauty, poetry – the sublime – does not reside in who writes but in the ear of who listens; God is within you, not only within Dante who wrote it; but if you don’t feel this, Dante wrote nothing! Therefore you are the poets, you are God, this is what we are. It is an extraordinary thing!

[5] See also Francesco Mininni and Andrea Bellandi, Roberto BenigniDa Berlinguertivoglio bene allaDivina Commedia: ilpercorso di un comicochesiinterrogasuDio, ed. Riccardo Bigi (Florence: Società Editrice Fiorentina, 2011), 91–93.

[6] Paradiso 30.38–45.

[7] Paradiso 33.85–93. See also Paradiso 22.61–67.

[8] For readings of the episode of the Heaven of the Sun that are especially relevant to the reading offered here, see Kenelm Foster, “The Celebration of Order: Paradiso X,” in The Two Dantes and Other Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Ronald Herzman, “From Francis to Solomon: Eschatology in the Sun,” in Dante for the New Millennium, ed. TeodolindaBarolini and H. Wayne Storey (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003); Giuseppe Mazzotta, “The Heaven of the Sun: Dante between Aquinas and Bonaventure,” in Dante for the New Millennium; Paola Nasti, “Caritas and Ecclesiology in Dante’s Heaven of the Sun,” in Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry.

[9] It is important to recall, here, that from Inferno 1, 13-18, the sun in the Commedia is itself symbolically associated with the divine and inextricably connected in the poem to Dante’s presentation of journeying toward divinity.

[9b] Looking within his Son through that same Love/that Each breathes out eternally with Each,/the first and three-fold Worth, beyond all words,/formed all that spins through intellect or space/in such clear order it can never be,/that we, in wonder, fail to taste Him there.

[10] See also Paradiso 10.7–27.

[11] Paradiso 10.49–81.

[11b] When/rays of grace igniting love in truth –/those rays through which, in loving, love still grows –/reflect in you so multiplied that you/are led along with them to climb this stair,/which none descends who will not rise again,/whoever, seeing this, should then withhold/the wine flask that you thirst for counts as free/no more than rain not streaming to the ocean./You wish to know what plants these are enflowered,/entranced – a garland round that donna who,/in beauty, strengthens you to dare the skies./I was a lamb with that holy flock/that Dominic conducts along the road/where “All grow fat who do not go astray.”/This one, who here is nearest on my right,/ was master to me, and a brother, too –/Albert of Köln. I’m Thomas Aquinas./And if you wish to know the rest as well,/then follow with your eyes the words I speak,/circling around this interwoven string.

[12] Thomas’sidentificationoftheparticularidentitiesofhisheavenlydancepartnerstakes up most of the remaining part of the canto (Paradiso 10.103–138), which then ends with one of the most beautiful images in the Commedia: Dante’s comparison of the dance and song of the blessed of the Sun to the harmoniously moving parts of a chiming alarm clock that sounds in the morning to wake us up, at that time in which the Church – God’s bride – calls in love to her beloved so as to request his love in return (Paradiso 10.139–144). The canto, which as we saw opens with the harmony of the created cosmos, thus closes with the harmony of the cosmos’ conscious return in love to its Creator.

[13] Symbolic of this harmony is the loving complementarity famously presented in the episode of the Sun between Dominican and Franciscan wisdom.

[14] Inferno 26.90; Purgatorio31.67.

[15] See Montemaggi, “In Unknowability as Love”.

[16] See Montemaggi, Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology, especially Prologue.3.

[17] A fuller study of Dante’s theology would, in this respect, have to take into account at least two further dimensions of Dante’s thought: his understanding of Hell, and his understanding of the relationship between his work and Scripture. For more detailed reflection on the former, see Montemaggi, Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology, Chapter 3.1-12; for more detailed reflection on the latter, see MontemaggiReading Dante’s Commedia as Theology Chapter 2.5-6, and Epilogue.2.