In this section we will examine:
the terms in which theologians in the Middle Ages thought it was possible to talk about God
Dante’s idea of God and its significance in the Inferno.
We will see in particular that three notions are of central importance for understanding Dante’s idea of God:
1. Medieval theologians believed it was impossible for human minds to have full knowledge of God.
2. Dante’s idea of God is based on his understanding of God as Trinity.
3. The most important aspect of Dante’s idea of God as Trinity is Dante’s understanding of Christ.
Trying to understand Dante’s idea of God should be an important part of your study of the Inferno. Remember that everything in the Commedia is meant by Dante ultimately to be seen as God’s creation. It will therefore in one way or another be related to Dante’s idea of God. Dante’s idea of God, however, is usually one of the most difficult things for modern first-time readers of the Commedia to understand. This is because in order to understand Dante’s idea of God one needs to have some familiarity with the way people thought about God in the Middle Ages.
God in the Middle Ages
The question of God
Many modern readers approaching the Commedia for the first time tend to assume that Christians in Dante’s day had a rather simple and unproblematic understanding of God. People tend to assume that, in the Middle Ages, there was a single and fixed idea of God that people were instructed in by the Church. People often assume, moreover, that when it came to the question of God there was little room for discussion or personal opinion.
In fact, things were not exactly like that. Although it is true that in the Middle Ages the Church presented the idea of God that it thought believers ought to take as the foundation of their faith, the idea it presented changed continually. Church councils were frequently organised with the purpose of reflecting on and redefining the idea of God which the Church presented to its members. Apart from these councils, theologians throughout medieval Europe were constantly debating what one ought to take ‘God’ to mean. Related to this debate was the way the Bible was read and commented on in the Middle Ages. Although it was believed that the Bible was the Word of God, the interpretation of its meaning was seen as an ongoing and open-ended venture in which commentators would build on the work of previous ‘authorities’, but in which there was also room for a considerable amount of disagreement regarding the interpretation of individual passages.
So, although it is true that ultimate authority in matters of doctrine rested with the Church (and that at times this authority was exercised in violent terms), the question of God, in Dante’s time, was far from unproblematic. It was, in fact, one of the most lively and widely debated questions in the Middle Ages.
Language about God
Underlying the very possibility of a debate regarding God was the notion that a full understanding of God ultimately lies beyond the power of human reason and language. Theologians believed that no human statement could be regarded as the final word on the nature of God.
This did not mean that they believed that it was impossible to talk about God at all. Indeed, they believed that the world was God’s creation, and that God sustained it in its being. They also believed that God had revealed himself to humanity through the Bible, and through Christ. It was therefore believed that human beings could and should talk about God on the basis of their experience of the world and of their understanding of Christ and Scripture.
However, medieval theologians also believed that full knowledge of God is simply not available to the human mind. This idea was accompanied by the notion that God ultimately defies the categories on which all human thought and language are based. Let us take an example. God was often referred to as being ‘good’. However, God could not be described as ‘good’ in the way in which a person or a thing could be described as ‘good’. Rather, the idea that a thing or a person could be ‘good’ was seen to derive its meaning from the fact that goodness most perfectly belongs to God.
Another way in which medieval theologians put this, was to say that when ‘good’ is said of God, this does not mean that there is some entity called ‘God’ which is ‘good’ like a thing or a person could be ‘good’. It means, rather, that goodness itself is part of the mystery which God is; and that if it is meaningful to think of God’s goodness in terms of the goodness of a person or a thing, this is not because the two understandings of ‘goodness’ are the same, but because the goodness of a person or a thing derives from the mysterious goodness of God. (The same things we have said about ‘goodness’ could also be said for other ideas that were generally associated with God, such as ‘justice’, ‘love’, ‘power’, ‘wisdom’.)
In Dante’s time, then, theologians believed that human beings could use language to speak about God. Yet they also believed that no one could be sure of how exactly what they said about God might actually apply to God. This paradox was expressed in a number of ways. Two examples make the point. Aquinas says that although human beings can speak meaningfully and truthfully about God, on the basis of their experience of the world, they cannot fully know what they mean when they do so (Summa theologiae I, 13). And Bonaventure says that God cannot be seen because God is the very light through which the human mind is able to see anything at all (Itinerarium mentis in Deum, V, 3–4).
This understanding of language about God was shared by Dante. In many ways, the Commedia may be seen as Dante’s contribution to the medieval debate on the nature of God and of the relationship between God and humanity.
Dante’s idea of God
One way of starting to explore Dante’s idea of God is to think carefully about the images and expressions Dante uses to refer to God, and about the way in which these relate to each other.
In Inferno I you will see the word ‘Dio’ is only used once in the canto, and quite late on – line 131. Yet God is referred to at least two other times in the canto – lines 38–40 and 124–29. In fact, these two passages are more informative about Dante’s idea of God than the explicit occurrence of ‘Dio’. Lines 38–40 speak about the Creation, which is referred to as the time when the sun and stars were moved for the first time by the ‘amor divino’ (note that, given what was said above about medieval language about God, this expression could be read as ‘the love of God’ or as ‘the love which God is’). Lines 124–29, on the other hand, refer to God as the ‘Imperador’ who reigns from heaven and whose rule is omnipresent in the universe. So, by the time we come to the first occurrence of the word ‘Dio’ in the Commedia, we have already been presented with at least two different pictures of God: God as love, and God as emperor. Moreover, the image of the sun (17–18) is also used by Dante as a symbol for God. What insight do these three different images provide into Dante’s idea of God?
God as Trinity
Dante’s understanding of the Trinity is of central importance for understanding Dante’s idea of God. Inferno III, 1–9 introduced us to Dante’s idea of God as Trinity. This is the Christian idea that God is indivisibly one yet at the same time three ‘persons’: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although in Inferno III, 1–9 there is no explicit mention of the three persons of the Trinity, we know from Convivio that Dante associated the notions of ‘power’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘love’ respectively with Father, Son and Holy Spirit (II, v 8). That said, it is important not to think of Dante’s idea of the Trinity in terms which are too schematic, as if the three persons of the Trinity were seen by Dante as three independent entities. It is important to remember that for Dante ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’, as well as ‘potestate’, ‘sapienza’ and ‘amore’, refer equally to one and the same God, the ‘fattore’ of line 4.
The most important aspect of Dante’s idea of God as Trinity is his understanding of the figure of Christ. According to Dante’s Trinitarian understanding of God, Christ is the incarnation in human form of the second person of the Trinity. Christ is therefore seen as being at the same time fully God and fully human.
As we have seen, the second person of the Trinity is associated by Dante with wisdom. This reflects the Christian belief that the second person of the Trinity is the Word of God. The Word (or logos, as it is sometimes referred to in commentaries) was thought to be the eternal wisdom through which God created the universe and sustains the universe’s being. As such, it was the ground for the belief that God revealed himself to man through the order of the world and the cosmos. The idea of the Word was also at the heart of the understanding of the Bible. The Bible was seen as divine revelation in that it was believed to be the written embodiment of the Word of God.
Christ was seen as the human incarnation of the Word, and as the supreme instance of God’s revelation of himself to humanity. The primary aspect of this revelation was believed to be love, and the primary instance of this love was believed to be Christ’s willingness to die for the good of humanity. Because Christ was believed to be fully God, his death was seen as God’s supreme act of love for humanity. Moreover, because he was believed to be also fully human, his death was seen both as man’s supreme act of love for God, and as one man’s supreme act of love for other human beings. (In all these different aspects, love was associated with the Holy Spirit. As Dante will put it in Paradiso X, 1–3, the Holy Spirit is that love which eternally binds Father and Son.)
Given what has been said so far, then, you should not expect to find Dante’s idea of God only in his explicit statements regarding the nature of God (such as Inferno I, 38–40, 124–29 or Inferno III, 1–9). Because Dante saw God as Trinity, you might also expect to find his idea of God reflected in his presentation of the figure of Christ, and of the love which he believed human beings ought to show for God and for oneanother. Dante believed that human beings may be perfected and freed from sin if they are able to love God and others as Christ had. When thinking about a particular character in the Inferno, therefore, always ask yourself if and on what terms that character may recall the figure of Christ or reflect Dante’s understanding of the love which human beings ought to show for God and for one another.
Further listening: a short lecture, by Ruth Chester (University of Leeds), on the idea of God as Trinity and its relation to Dante, can be downloaded here: Dante's Religious Thought 1: Trinity.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson