Circling down to hell: 12-31-09
December 31, 2009
To finish off this strange year, I thought today the subject should be appropriate.
So I'm going to write about hell.
What the . . .?
Well, not long ago I was looking at the 100-year-old "Harvard Classics" collection of books on one of our shelves (the collection belonged to my wife's grandfather) and I realized that I'd never sat down and read through the whole of Dante's Divine Comedy, much of which, as I'm sure you know, takes place in hell. Or at least in what Dante imagines hell to be like.
And that's the point I want to make today. My guess is that all of the images we have of hell, whether they find their roots in the Bible or in other sources, are much more a reflection of our fears of the unknown than they are of anything real. Now, I'm not for a moment saying there is no hell. I won't know the answer to that one -- if ever -- until after I die. But even Pope John Paul II suggested that hell is not a physical place but a state of being.
Because, as I've said here recently, all words are metaphors, no description we can offer of hell can either confirm its existence or describe its geography in any precise and unchallengeable way.
And as Dante Alighieri himself said once, "I found the original of my hell in the world which we inhabit." Which is not so different from this quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: "We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell."
There have been hundreds if not thousands of interpretations of Dante's epic poem. So I'm not going to suggest that my thoughts about it are in any way the final word or even get close to what Dante was up to in the work. But because the hell he describes in the poem is so bloody, so hopeless, so over-the-top graphic in its putridity, perhaps he was trying to suggest to us that the human mind can create a hell much worse than a loving God ever would. (Some theologians have thought exactly that.)
When I was a boy, my family owned a large coffee-table type, wildly illustrated version of The Divine Comedy, with various wretched depictions of the several circles of hell. It was in some ways a one-dimensional precursor to modern snuff films. And if its purpose was to scare the hell out of readers, it failed with me. I found it ridiculous, amusing and bizarre.
Perhaps that explains why, despite my best intentions, I have been unable to plod my way through much of the actual words of Dante this time. Instead, I've been reading and focusing on the brief summary of each canto provided in the translation by Henry F. Cary. It's sort of the Cliffs Notes version, but it seems to be much more straightforward than the wandering words of the wandering poet passing through hell.
Maybe Dante's work would have appealed to me more if he'd done it as a blog, with a daily posting for each of the 34 cantos about hell and the dozens of other cantos about purgatory and paradise.
Or maybe not. I just hope Dante's work didn't condemn him to, well, you know. . .
* * *
DECIDING WHO GOD'S ENEMIES ARE
And here -- one more time -- is the problem: People claiming to speak for God in radically certain ways. In this case it's a Muslim cleric in Iran declaring that opposition leaders there are "enemies of God" who deserve to die. It's this kind of belligerant nonsense that other people of faith must stand up in public and condemn. My doing so here will, however, have much less effect than if other Muslim leaders around the world were to do so. By the way, a group of prominent Christians who would identify themselves as conservative or evangelical is pushing for action on Iran. Their concern is well taken, though I don't necessarily agree with them on what should be done.
* * *
P.S.: In response to yesterday's posting here about souls, David M. May, who teaches New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary here (an American Baptist school), posted this reflection on his own blog about how to understand the concept of soul from a biblical perspective. Helpful stuff. Have a look.