The great French historian Jacques Le Goff credited Dante with doing more than any theologian to make purgatory a meaningful part of Christian tradition, and, more recently, Jon M. Sweeney has argued that Dante practically invented the modern idea of hell. Whatever the merits of these claims, I would like to suggest that Dante exercised a similar influence on the Christian understanding of heaven—and that this influence is not what Dante’s many modern devotees might suspect.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Dante contributed decisively to the disappearance of heaven in modern theology. That will seem counterintuitive to those who associate Dante with a carefully structured cosmos that provides for levels and degrees of sanctification and glorification. In fact, however, Dante’s vision of heaven not only vaporizes the afterlife but also annihilates matter. For all of his poetic greatness, he gives us a heaven that is little more than an idea to be contemplated, since he thinks it is our destiny to become one of the ideational objects of God’s self-awareness.
Of all that has been written about Dante, little has been said of his metaphysics of matter. This oversight skews the study of the Supreme Poet, whose journey through cosmic space is at the same time an excavation into the spiritual foundation of our earthly existence.
Already in the first canto of the Paradiso Dante expresses his conviction that “matter may be unresponsive, deaf” (129) to the divinely instituted forms that order the world. (I am using the translation by Allen Mandelbaum.) In the second canto, Dante recalls how “on earth we can not see how things material can share one space” (37-39), a limitation which prevents us from understanding how we will eventually become one with God. The passivity of matter is thus an impediment to our spiritual progress, and Dante’s speculations about dark spots on the moon tell us why. He attributes them to variations in “matter dense and rare” (2.60), but Beatrice explains that it is the oneness of God, not gradations of matter, that differentiate “light from light” (2.146). Matter does not have enough ontological weight to accompany the pilgrim on his ascent up the scale of being.
Matter must be formed, of course, which is why “the Bible condescends to human powers, assigning feet and hands to God, but meaning something else instead” (4.43-45). Dante must learn to see with his mind “the truth beyond whose boundary no truth lies” (4.126). At the end of Canto IV, he looks into Beatrice’s eyes, which are “so divine that my own force of sight was overcome” (140-141). The truth, for Dante, is necessarily concealed within itself, just as the sun, he writes in Canto V, “conceals itself from sight through an excess of light” (134-135).
In perhaps the most complex canto, XXVIII, Beatrice emboldens Dante to see in her own eyes the reflection of a point of light that is as infinitely bright as it is literally pointless (without space). When he turns to see what she sees, he finds that this point projects an inverse of the hierarchical order of being through which he has so far traversed. The world in front of him is inside-out, an appearance that has, “as boundaries, only love and light” (54). Yet he still does not understand “how the model and copy do not share in one same plan” (56). That is, he still believes that space is real—he still does not understand that he has not seen the heavens as they actually are—because he is not yet ready to fathom its dimensionless source.
That point of light is none other than the divine mind where “all whens and ubis end” (29.12). Beatrice wants Dante to realize that time and space exist only when their source is behind us, casting the material world as an illusory shadow. Dante identifies this impossible point with the Empyrean, which he enters in Canto XXX. From here on, Dante insists that he cannot describe what he experiences, except to use the analogy of a dream. Indeed, he is now in a real dream, since, rapt and motionless, he inhabits a purely intellectual realm.
The Empyrean is the tenth heaven, a Christian addition to Aristotelian-based cosmology. Most of Dante’s contemporaries thought the Empyrean was spherical, mobile, and most importantly, corporeal (and thus material in some fashion). They treated it as the ideal, angel-filled world that bridges the one and the many. Even those who agreed with Dante that heaven is absolutely luminous thought it is composed of a subtle quality that holds together matter and spirit. After all, in Dante’s world the Empyrean was also known as the home of the blessed, what we call today, with our spiritually flat cosmos, heaven (simpliciter).
By identifying the Empyrean with God—indeed, with the abode of the Trinity, represented as three coextensive circles of light—Dante rendered it absolutely immaterial. Heaven for Dante is the actualization of non-duality—everything “separate, scattered” is “ingathered” (33.87, 85)—much as the One was for Plotinus. Heaven has thus become the transcendent ground of the cosmos rather than its apotheosis. It is more like an idea than a place.
True, Dante has a vision of Christ in the end of his poem, but since light has no color—or is “colored like itself” (33. 130)—the human form he thinks he sees is light “painted with our effigy” (33. 131). Trying to see Jesus is as foolish as a geometer trying “to square the circle” (33.134). The immediacy of light means that Christ no longer serves as our mediator; his dual nature of human and divine is thus not what it once was. God has no need of the Incarnation either since “only You know You” (33.125). To enter into the circle of lights, “force” must fail Dante’s “high fantasy” (33.142). He has to leave the human condition behind.
Thus does Dante bring to a beautiful conclusion the theological assimilation of the ancient Greeks’ hylomorphic theory of matter. Form is not latent in matter, and matter has no dynamism, no desire for form, since formless matter is absolutely nothing. Our knowledge of the forms begins with and is conditioned by matter, but God needs nothing (which is what matter is) to think the forms. He thought of matter only to help us to learn to think as he does, so once we become one with him, matter will become unthinkable. In heaven, we will not be individually unique forms, since that is what the angels are, but we will not be embodied either. In heaven, we will become the idea that God has of us.
Dante says as much in Canto XXVII: “This heaven has no other where than this: the mind of God” (109-110). And even Erich Auerbach, who praised Dante as the father of literary realism, observed of the Paradiso that, “The higher Dante rises, the more universal and impersonal become the souls that appear.”
Only in myth, I suppose, can heaven be presented as a material place in a cogent and persuasive manner. Ironically, and devastatingly, Dante’s artfully incomparable journey is ultimately one of demythologization, and thereby a dematerialization of the afterlife. But not just heaven: His fiction is profoundly realistic because, paradoxically, he was so sensitive to the sublime unreality of the created world.
It is perhaps going too far to say that Dante anticipates Bishop Berkeley’s subjective idealism, but it is not beyond reason to suggest that Dante’s heaven is something like Berkeley’s world. And that makes matter one of God’s ideas, but not a very divine one.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.