Dante, C.S. Lewis, and the Goodness of the Good

Christians hold the keys to human felicity and flourishing. Articulating that to the rest of the world is our great challenge.

By Jim Tonkowich Published on February 19, 2017

Every once in a while, it’s okay to rant. Some years ago I wrote a good one. But I had no idea how to turn it into a column until I listened to a lecture by my friend Dr. Jason Baxter.

Baxter spoke on “Evil Enchantment and The Weight of Glory: What Dante Taught C.S. Lewis about Poetry.”

The rant had to do with the feeling that as a Christian and a political conservative, I found myself being against things rather than for things. “Choice” is a very happy word for most Americans so those of us who want to call ourselves “pro-life” are endlessly tagged with being “anti-choice.” It gets old.

We’re also anti-gay-marriage, anti-pre-marital sex, anti-pornography, climate change deniers, and the list goes on leaving the impression that we are defined not by what we stand for, but by what we oppose.

We’re clear about what we oppose, but a bit fuzzy about what we’re for.

And perhaps we’ve added to that impression by defining ourselves that way — just read the next direct mail appeal you receive. We’re clear about what we oppose, but a bit fuzzy about what we’re for. In the process we’ve defined the good as a list of thou-shalt-nots rather than positive and winsome thou-shalts.

The Good is Not Negative — It’s Glorious

This, according to Dr. Baxter, is a chief symptom of the evil enchantment. Our imaginations perceive the good as negative and less than compelling.

By contrast, C. S. Lewis, taking his cues from Dante presented what Baxter called a thick, viscous view of the good and the good’s final expression in Heaven.

Lewis read Dante’s Inferno, the first book of the three-part Divine Comedy, in Italian as a teenager. He read part two, Purgatory, as he recovered from wounds received in the trenches of World War I. Finally, after giving up his atheism, but before embracing Christianity, Lewis read Paradise. “It reaches heights of poetry which you get nowhere else;” he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “an ether almost too fine to breathe. It is a pity I can give you no notion what it is like.”

Lewis was overwhelmed by Dante’s dense notion of the good. As Dante the pilgrim ascends to the heights of Heaven and finally into the presence of God, Dante the poet’s description does not become wispy, vague, or airy but thick and concrete.

“To Father and to Son and Holy Ghost,”
            sang all the heavens, “glory!” — filling me
            with drunken joy; it seemed what I beheld

Was laughter of the universe, the glee
            of laughter whose inebriating swell
            enters by what you hear and what you see.

O joy! O happiness ineffable!
            O riches safe, no worry of desire!
            O life of love and peace, perfect and still.
           (Paradise 27.1-9)

Now think of Lewis’ writings. In The Great Divorce, those who arrive at the outskirts of Heaven for the first time are not real enough even to crush the blades of grass as they walk. Terrifying? Yes, but glorious in Heaven’s thick goodness and reality. Think of the final chapter of The Last Battle. “Further up and further in!” everyone cries as they race deeper and deeper into the joy of the New Narnia.

“All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page:” Lewis writes at the end of that book, “now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Christians’ Great Challenge

We can learn from Lewis, Dante, and others for hints about how to express, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Christians hold the keys to human felicity and human flourishing. A view of sexuality that accords with the teaching of Scripture reflects the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is not a list of taboos invented by a killjoy God and/or His killjoy followers, but good news for everyone, lifting us out of slavery to our whims and wants. Treasuring life from conception to natural death celebrates our humanity while offering opportunities to relish the joys of family and community.

The implications for politics, culture, and evangelism are limitless though articulating such a thick vision of the good is not easy. It is, in fact, the great challenge that faces us today. But as Dr. Baxter points out, we have exemplars. Just as Lewis learned from Dante, we can learn from Lewis, Dante, and others for hints about how to express, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

That is, of course, assumes that we believe in the inexpressible goodness of the good. Do we? Good. Now let’s tell the world.

 

Note: My podcast interview with Dr. Baxter as well as his lecture will be available online on February 21.

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