I have a tendency to read the New Testament, and especially Paul, against the later Christian tradition — for instance, in my post yesterday distinguishing between the Protestant Paul and the “real” Paul. My teaching this semester, though, has me thinking more seriously about historical continuities than about betrayals, or at least about the necessary betrayals that are tied up in any long-standing tradition. And due to the vagaries of my syllabus, I’m thinking primarily in terms of Paul’s legacy for Augustine and Dante.
Let’s assume that I am right that by pistis, Paul does not primarily mean “faith” or “belief” in the narrowly religious sense but something like the trust that underlies any social bond. Yet it seems clear that he also means something like “faith” or “belief” insofar as he is gesturing at a future social bond. That future is rooted in the present — specifically the aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection — yet it is primarily pointing toward a future event in which God’s justice will be more fully revealed. Even as Paul hopes their practice will anticipate and somehow participate in the coming new form of social bond, the Pauline communities de facto live under the illegitimate Roman authorities. And although Paul has strong views about the day-to-day practices of his communities, he does not envision them challenging the existing power structures in the form of a revolutionary movement that would destroy and replace them. The life of the community is not “merely” political in that sense, and Paul seems to enjoin submission to worldly authorities as a way of marking out that difference.
So Paul has worked out a difference in level (the community’s practice is not “merely” political in a worldly sense) and a deferral in time (the community is anticipating a fuller renovation of the social bond to come). When Augustine develops his system of the two cities, then, he is not simply wrong, not simply misreading Paul. In a sense he is expanding on Paul’s basic intuitions, for a situation in which the apocalyptic fulfillment does not seem to be forthcoming. The church is, for all practical purposes, always going to be de facto under the rule of illegitimate earthly authorities, whose power is a kind of necessary evil to restrain human sin, and it can submit to them as long as they don’t interfere with religion (solidifying the difference in level). Yet this never collapses into sheer cynical worldliness because everything is oriented toward the Heavenly City — still a radically new form of social life grounded in Christ’s resurrection, but one that is deferred into a much more distant future.
Dante’s gesture may initially seem like more of a betrayal, insofar as he directly sacralizes the imperial power. Yet it’s important to note that the righteous emperor he hopes for — the “greyhound” of Canto I of the Inferno — is a sovereign-to-come, at least from the Italian perspective that matters to Dante. From the Pauline starting point, it may seem perverse to hope for a messianic intervention from the Antichrist, but that ship had sailed centuries ago. The Italy he portrays in the Comedy is certainly in Romans 1 territory, rife with cruelty, paranoia, and treachery. The intervention of a sovereign, legitimated by God, to restore the foundations of law is certainly more secular and “realistic” than trusting in the resurrection of the dead to refound the social order, yet from a certain perspective it is just as much a hope and even a fantasy.
The true ground of legitimacy is still to come, and in the meantime, we must live in anticipation. Justin Steinberg even suggests, in Dante and the Limits of Law, that Dante envisions the Comedy itself as a way of regrounding legitimacy in the meantime — asking, at key moments, for the reader to put his faith in Dante’s account, converting his poem from a fanciful tale into a political-theological statement aiming at real-world consequences.
If Steinberg’s reading is correct, then Dante’s gesture may actually be identical to what Paul is doing in his epistles. In fact, Dante draws a direct analogy between his journey and that of Paul (and Aeneas, of course, since he always has to pair the imperial and the ecclesiastical), albeit by way of humble contrast. Paul has been singled out for his mission by God, just as Dante has, and Paul is just as aware of the groundlessness of his claims from a human standpoint. His frequent references to “my gospel” may be a tacit admission of that point. And while Paul was doubtless tirelessly engaged in travel and community-building in his real world, he wound up creating a much more enduring community, intentionally or not, through his remarkable literary production — just as Dante’s literary production did more, in the long run, to create a distinctive Italian national identity than any Holy Roman Emperor ever could.
In the epic tradition, the hero is frequently styled as a poet. Both Odysseus and Aeneas deliver substantial portions of their own story in the first person. Dante’s innovation is to make the epic hero the poet himself. Given his deep debt to Virgil, we might expect that Dante did envision himself as a kind of national founder akin to Aeneas — but perhaps the more immediate inspiration is Paul, who founded a new city with words alone. We know Dante wants to be the better Virgil, but does he also want to be the better Paul, to do consciously and systematically what Paul stumbled into with his ad hoc writings? In class, we toyed with the idea that Dante plays up his rivalry with the epic tradition to distract from his real quarry: Scripture, whose place in the Christian imagination he is implicitly challenging. If his strategy is to downplay that rivalry, then it seems remarkable that Paul is so conspicuously absent in his heavenly encounters, that he never appears in person as a character and never speaks a word.