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I had the delight this past semester to teach a “gen ed” global literature class that I nicknamed “Epic Journeys.” That means we read lots of long stuff from the ancient and medieval world characterized by people on the move: Gilgamesh, The Odyssey (and I cannot recommend Emily Wilson’s new translation highly enough), The Aeneid, The Voyages of Sinbad, Laxdaela Saga, and my beloved Divine Comedy. (And yes: that’s a significant reading list, so don’t listen to anyone who tells you that “kids these days don’t read.”)

Of course, “journey” is a well-worn conceit—but even so, that doesn’t mean that these texts still don’t yield rich questions to consider. Nothing survives as long as these books have unless it continue to compel us: why is the protagonist on the road? What challenges stand in the way of the journey’s end—and how are they handled? What do the characteristics of the protagonist tell us about the values of a given society? What is the role of the divine?

And then there’s one that I found particularly compelling this time through: what is to be learned from the people encountered along the way?

In the Divine Comedy, the answer is particularly profound, I think. Unlike all the other epic heroes, Dante can’t make it alone—importantly, he has multiple guides on his trip through hell, purgatory, and paradise. Unlike wily Odysseus and dutiful Aeneas, Dante the Pilgrim is fearful and timid and full of questions.

In fact, as he travels and meets person after person, his almost constant refrain (including in the beginning cantos of Paradiso itself) is “what are you doing here?” The implication is that Dante the Pilgrim is astonished because he has clearly made assumptions about the eternal destinies of people he knew, either personally or by reputation. (Admittedly, Dante the Poet has placed them there within the orthodoxies of Christianity as he understand it). Nevertheless, Dante the Pilgrim’s question forces the reader to ask the same question: why are we surprised? Why do we often agree with Dante when he questions people’s placement? What assumptions do we make about who is saved and who is not? About where they are and its fairness? The poem’s answer seems to be rather simple: we need to figure out only our own journey. Everyone else is not our business. Sounds a little like ocular effect of the mote and the log.

One place this lesson is particularly telling is in Canto 3 of Purgatorio. Dante comes across Manfred, a great warrior and leader, who was excommunicated by the pope and buried (as was the custom) in unhallowed ground. Yet here he is in Purgatory, repenting of his sins and being sanctified for his final destination in Paradise. Dante is amazed, but Manfred explains:

Horrible was the nature of my sins,

But boundless mercy stretches out its arms

To any man who comes in search of it…

The church’s curse is not the final word,

for Everlasting Love may still return,

if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.

Note the powerful assertion: “the church’s curse is not the final word.” Only “Everlasting Love” gets to make the final determination. Manfred testifies to the reality that nothing can separate us from the love of God—certainly, no human beings, even religious leaders, gets that authority. It’s a simple point, but still one that bears repeating.

When my students wrote in their final exams about reading the Divine Comedy, many returned to this passage as a place of hope for them. In a time where social media is constantly filled with stories of churches who wound and reject, in a time when church might feel increasingly irrelevant, my students (and not just my students) wrestle with the place of the church in their own lives. What does it mean to be part of increasingly fraught denominations these days? How do we accomplish that “long obedience in the same direction”? Dante’s own long journey gives us one epic answer: love and support the right workings of the church (the subject of much of Paradiso), but remember that the aim of the journey is knowing God–the God who pursues us even into hell, saves us despite what anyone else might think, and points our vision upward to the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

7 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    This sounds like a very worthwhile class.

  • Paula says:

    I love this!
    Tiny spelling thing: it’s mote, not moat.
    Thanks. And yes, I feel better now. 😉

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Your enthusiasm shines through. My guess is your students are fortunate to have an inspiring teacher in love with what she is teaching! I appreciate this quote and all it says to our current “quarrels.”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jennifer, for an article that raises more questions than answers. It sounds like a lot of deep thinkers of the past found hope beyond what the Christian religion or the church could offer. Such as Dante’s perspective, “ the aim of the journey is knowing God–the God who pursues us even into hell, saves us despite what anyone else might think, and points our vision upward to the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

    The “deist” sees God in the created order, and not in the special revelations of the plethora of religions. Each religion (including Christianity) spells out specifically what a successful journey will entail. And they are all different. God’s own revelation (not man’s) in creation tells us enough to know that God is love and cares for his entire creation as he moves the sun and the other stars.

    When we all get to heaven, we will likely see people of every religion. When Christians question why it is that not only Christians are in heaven, God will respond that all these varieties of people (including Christians) are in heaven not because of their religious beliefs but in spite of them. If there is a heaven, we will be there because God is a loving God. Thanks again, Jennifer for an article that could contribute to a deist philosophy, rather than theism.

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