Dante’s Paradise: Canto 24 Retelling — Gemini — Saint Peter Examines Dante’s Faith

Chapter 24: Gemini — Saint Peter Examines Dante’s Faith

Beatrice said to the lights, “O saved souls who feast at the banquet, help this man. With God’s grace give him a few crumbs that fall from the table. Consider his great thirst, and give him a few drops. Your needs are entirely satisfied.”

The souls spun in circles. They were synchronized the way that wheels in clocks are synchronized. They moved in harmony, although some spun in circles quickly and others spun in circles slowly. The speed of their movement revealed to Dante the degree of their bliss.

The soul who was brightest and who spun fastest circled Beatrice three times while music played that was so beautiful that it was ineffable and Dante could not remember it later.

After finishing three circles, the soul said to Beatrice, “Holy sister of mine, I have heard your prayer to us, and I am happy to grant it.”

Beatrice said to the soul, “Eternal light of the man to whom Our Lord gave the keys that open the doors to Paradise, test this man. Ask him questions about faith — the faith that enabled you to walk on water.

“You know that he has love and hope and faith, but it is fitting that he show his knowledge of and glorify faith because the citizens of Paradise are citizens of the true faith.”

Beatrice thought, Dante will be examined on his knowledge of the virtues faith, hope, and love. The first three Spheres that Dante visited were concerned with those virtues. Moon: faith. Mercury: hope. Venus: love.

The souls in these first three Spheres incorrectly practiced or lacked in some way the virtue associated with the Sphere they were in.

Afterward, the Sun and the Spheres beyond the Sun were beyond the shadow cast by the Earth. The souls on these Spheres (including the Sun) did not lack the virtue associated with the Sphere they were in; instead, they were outstanding examples of that virtue.

One purpose of the examination is to see what changes his journey has wrought in Dante. What has he learned by taking this journey?

Three apostles will examine Dante in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Saint Peter: faith. Saint James: hope. Saint John: love.

Dante’s examination will be similar to a medieval university exam for a bachelor’s degree. The examination involves discussion, not final answers. The bachelors taking these examinations in the Middle Ages discuss whatever topic the masters examining them propose. This examination is a case of engaging oneself in a dialogue from which one can learn.

Taking an examination such as this can be a good thing. The people examining Dante are on Dante’s side, and they hope that Dante does well.

Saint Peter will examine Dante in the virtue of faith. This is the same Peter who before the rooster crowed denied three times that he knew Jesus after the Romans took Jesus prisoner. Peter sinned, but he repented, and he became an effective spreader of Christianity, with the result that he knows a lot about faith and that he is now in Paradise.

Dante thought about faith while he waited for Saint Peter’s first question.

Saint Peter said to him, “Good Christian, speak up. What is faith?”

Defining important words to show that you know their meaning is often a good idea. Dante glanced at Beatrice, who wanted him to do well in the exam, and then he defined faith.

Dante replied to Saint Peter, “The grace of God allows me to be questioned by you. May God’s grace help me to express my answers well.

“The pen of your brother, Saint Paul, who with you set Rome on the path to Christianity, wrote in Hebrews 11:1 that faith is the substance of the things we hope for, and it is argument for those things that are not seen. In my opinion, that is the essence of faith.”

Beatrice thought, Dante has done his reading for the examination. Saint Peter is the author of 1 Peter and 2 Peter in the New Testament; these books are letters. Dante has read these books, as well as the writings of Paul, including Hebrews.

Saint Peter replied, “You are right, but do you understand why faith is substance first and argument second?”

Dante replied, “The things that are clearly evident in Paradise are not clearly evident on Earth.

“The things we hope for are the happiness and love that come from residing eternally in Paradise. Our hope for these things rests on faith, and so faith is the substance of these hoped-for things. Faith is the foundation on which our high hopes stand.

“Once we have this faith, we can use it in argument. Faith gives us the unproven (on Earth) but true (everywhere at all times) axioms or starting points from which we can gain further knowledge.”

Saint Peter was pleased by Dante’s answer and said, “If all mortals on Earth understood faith so well, the faulty reasoning of flawed thinkers would be ignored.”

Filled with love, he added, “You understand the definition of faith. My next question is this: Do you have faith?”

Dante replied, truthfully, “Yes, I have faith of an excellent quality. If faith were a coin, my coin would not be counterfeit.”

Saint Peter then asked Dante, “The other virtues, including hope and love, rest upon faith. My next question is this: From where did you get your faith?”

Dante replied, “I got my faith from the Old Testament and from the New Testament, both of which were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Any proof compared to this proof is unconvincing.”

Saint Peter then asked, “What is the evidence for the truth of what we read in the Bible? How do you know that the Bible is God’s holy word?”

Dante replied, “I know that the Bible is true because of the miracles recounted in it. Nature cannot perform these miracles; miracles are in opposition to the laws of nature. Miracles are the proof of the truth of faith.”

Saint Peter then asked Dante, “How do you know that the miracles recounted in the Old Testament and the New Testament actually occurred? You can’t simply assume that they occurred. You need to have an argument that concludes that they occurred.”

Dante replied, “I look at the Earth, and I see that much of it is Christian. If the miracles actually occurred, that is a good reason for Humankind to turn to Christianity. But if Humankind were to turn to Christianity without the existence of miracles, then that would be an even greater miracle than the miracles recounted in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

“The conclusion of my argument is that it is much more likely that the miracles recounted in the Old Testament and the New Testament occurred than it is that Humankind became Christian without the occurrence of the miracles recounted in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Therefore, I believe that the miracles recounted in the Old Testament and the New Testament really occurred.

“In other words, miracles occurred, and people became Christians. Suppose that the miracles did not occur. If people became Christians without witnessing the miracles that spurred them to become Christians, that would be even more of a miracle than the miracles we read about in the Bible!

“Thank you, Saint Peter, for spreading Christianity on Earth. Unfortunately, the vines that you planted are now thorns because many clergy are corrupt.”

Dante’s answer pleased the saved souls and they knew that Dante was correct about the corruptness of the present clergy, and so they sang, “Te Deum Laudamus” — “Let Us Praise You, God.” The music they sang to is heard only in Paradise.

Saint Peter was reaching almost the last of his questions. He asked Dante, “The grace of God has helped you to answer all these questions correctly, and I am pleased by what you have said. But now tell me your creed. What do you believe? What do Christians believe? And what is the source of your belief?”

Dante replied, “Saint Peter, you entered the tomb of Jesus Christ first although younger feet than yours — the feet of Saint John — arrived at the tomb first. You are now in Paradise, and your faith has now been confirmed.

“You ask what I believe and why I believe it.

“I believe in the One True God. This God moves all the Spheres although He is Unmoved; He is the Unmoved Mover. The One True God created the universe and was not Himself created. This God has necessary existence while the universe has contingent existence. This God loves.

“I know this because of physics and metaphysics — because of the Book of Nature and philosophical and theological reasoning. I know this because truth falls from Paradise to Earth. I know this because of scripture — through Moses, aka the first five books of the Bible, and through the prophets and through the Psalms and through the Gospel and through your own letters that you wrote under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

“And I believe in the Trinity. I believe in three eternal Beings. I believe in an Essence that is both One and Three. I believe that the words is and are apply equally well to this Essence.

“Why do I believe in this Essence? The teachings of the Gospel have educated me.

“And now you know the source of my belief and why I believe the way I do.

“The source of my belief is like a spark that catches fire and shines like a star in Heaven and enlightens my mind.”

Saint Peter was delighted by Dante’s answer and he sang benedictions for Dante and flew three times around him.

Dante the Pilgrim had passed this examination.

Beatrice thought, Dante has learned much not only from holy scripture (Moses, aka the first five books of the Bible; the Prophets; the Psalms; the Gospel, and from Peter and Paul), but also from philosophers such as Aristotle. When Dante refers to God as an Unmoved Mover, he is using Aristotelian language. A combination of creed and philosophy is found in Dante’s answers.

Dante has two sources of knowledge: reason (as in the study of nature, including the heavenly bodies) and revelation (as in scripture).

Humankind can learn some things through reason, and Humankind can learn other things through revelation. The two kinds of knowledge do not conflict. God created the universe, and God created the physical laws of the universe, including those that guide evolution.

Importantly, by using reason, Humankind can learn some things about God. The same is true of revelation.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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