Dreher wonders if atheists can “really get” Dante:
Without question many people read it and understand it deeply without converting to Christianity, but as I read Paradiso, with Inferno and Purgatorio behind me, I found myself genuinely mystified by what an atheist or agnostic reader would make of its illumination of the workings of divine love. Paradiso is not a work of theology, strictly speaking, but if you do not accept the existence of God, and a God who is Love at that, the poem loses much of its power, or so it seems to me.
I know how defensive atheists and agnostics can get over claims like this, so let me hasten to say that the Iliad and the Odyssey remain imaginative works of staggering genius, even though none of us believe in the pantheon of Greek gods. You do not have to accept Greek religion to understand and be profoundly moved by these epic poems (though it is interesting to imagine how those who first heard the poems, as believers in those gods, experienced it).
Paradiso is different. It is utterly saturated with theology. In my personal experience, I do not think the Commedia would have worked its magic on me had I not believed that the God of Whom Dante wrote really exists, and that His love, as Dante characterizes it, is a real thing. The Commedia was a means of transformative grace for me, and a theophany, the likes of which I had not experienced since I was 17, and wandered unawares into Chartres cathedral – but I doubt it would have been had I not believed that such grace actually exists. What I don’t know is the extent to which that is a statement about my own subjectivity.
(Image of Dante and the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino, 1465, via Wikimedia Commons)