This morning ends the Ekklesia Project gathering for the year, with Joel Shuman speaking with us about the benefit of reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for imagining the Kingdom of God. By reading the poem in its entirety, Joel learned to face some challenges he had previously overlooked. The poem constitutes a very long parable to the effect that, “The Kingdom of God is like. . . .”
Joel argues that Dante understands that all the things of this world belong to and are redeemed into the Kingdom of God. He cites five features of particular importance: first, Dante’s effect on the imagination. Dante creates a landscape of the imagination, and invites his readers to join him there. He, like Jesus, treated the imagination as among the most important of the moral faculties. Faithfulness demands imagination, the capacity to discern God’s work in the world even when the appearances seems to contradict that possibility. Second, Shuman cites Dante as an exemplar of “wakefulness.” Dante stirs us to rouse from a sleepiness that blinds us to the reality of grace. Most people prefer sleepwalking, in seeking gods of our own making; Dante narrates for us a waking at the grace of God’s beauty. Third, Joel notes the power of desire. Dante encounters threatening beasts that emblematize the desires that drive us away from God (as Jesus notes in Matthew 13:22 the seed that gets off to a good start, but that succumbs to the cares and desires of this world). Fourth, Joel notes the effect of habit on our lives. Purgatorio concerns our learning to live well (whether in a post mortem interval, or in daily terrestrial life). Dante encounters encouragement and scolding as he passes through the Purgatorio, illustrating that salvation requires not individual effort, but the shared diligence of lives bound together. Dante’s goal can only be accomplished in communion. And I must have missed the transition to the fifth point, because Joel just wound up the talk.