Then when a little more I raised my brow,
I spied the master of the sapient throng,
Seated amid the philosophic train.
Him all admire, all pay him reverence due.
— Dante’s Divine Comedy, IV.127-130 (translated by Henry Cary)
Dante’s homage to Aristotle must rank among the nicest things ever said about someone in hell.
In the Divine Comedy, the pilgrim’s tour includes a stop in the Elysian Fields, Hell’s high-rent district where the great pagan thinkers continue their contemplations. Dante rightly admires the great pagan philosophers for their keen and honest insight. Yet according to his theological framework, they must be consigned to hell. There is a uncrossable gulf between human wisdom and the things of God for Dante — marked by the river Styx in the poem.
I make no claims about the final destinies of people’s souls, pagan philosopher or not. (I hope to sit down with Aristotle in heaven to clear up a few points I’m still puzzling over.) Nonetheless, occasionally I imagine myself standing on the other side of the Styx, looking over at what philosophy looks like outside the perspective of faith. Recently in the New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel — whose deep and honest erudition would win him a spot in Elysian Fields from Dante —reviewed the newest book by prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga.
My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements. Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence.
Both shores of the Styx are populated by very bright, reasonable people. People who read the same studies, do the same math, and publish in the same journals. Despite their shared commitment to reason, they differ on the question of God. Nagel understands that God, or the absence of God, is not the conclusion of an argument — reason doesn’t go that far. Faith requires something more. His clarity and honesty merit him “reverence due.”