Literature and religion

Well, it had to be done. I have, this week, started to read Dante. Not in the original, of course – I am a very poor linguist – but in Robin Kirkpatrick’s translations, which come with detailed introductions and copious commentaries and notes, invaluable for someone like myself, shamefully ignorant as I am both of the historical and the cultural context of the Commedia. And it is a dual language edition, so I can, at least from time to time, glance across to the Italian text to get at least a feel of what the original sounds like. 

So why Dante? Well, life is too short for anything but the best. And how do I know this ranks among the best? Well, I don’t, of course. But given that one cannot check everything out for one’s own self, one has to rely to a great extent on the judgement of others – one has to go by reputation. Which is not to say that one abnegates one’s own judgement, of course; but one’s judgement can only be applied to what one has already read, and, except in the obvious cases of twaddle that are recognisable from a mere extract or two, this judgement doesn’t take one very far in deciding what to read next from that vast and as yet unknown ocean of literature. One has little choice but to rely on reputation. 

In a recent post, I suggested that the four most significant pillars of Western literature are Homer, Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare. This is contentious, of course – not for what has been included, but for what has been left out: what about the Greek tragedians, one may ask? Or the Romans? And why stop at the early 18th century? – why not move on to Goethe and Heine and Pushkin, or to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, or on into modernism? Indeed. This is why trying to compile lists of these things, or attempting to define the criteria of inclusion into a literary canon, is such a fruitless activity. But however we define the literary canon, there is no-one whose place in it is more secure than Dante’s. To anyone with an interest in literature, this is a peak that just has to be scaled. 

But approaching something such as the Commedia leads to a somewhat awkward question: how should we, in our secular and disbelieving age, approach religious literature? And religious art as well, for that matter. And religious music. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that one has to have religious belief to appreciate or even love works with religious content: it should come as no surprise, for instance, to see Richard Dawkins choose Bach’s St Matthew Passion amongst his Desert Island Discs. But the question still remains: do we secularists appreciate such works despite their religious content? Or could it be that, despite our professed disbelief, we love these works because of it? 

I find this an endlessly fascinating question, and I fear there is no way to discuss this question without at least touching on that awkward and potentially embarrassing issue of one’s own religious beliefs, or lack of them. I would prefer not to go into this too deeply here, firstly because I am not at all learned in matters of theology, and secondly because it is an extremely contentious area, and whatever personal view I put forward, I am bound to anger and even alienate at least some of my readers. But if I am to write about literature (which is after all the primary purpose of this blog), then it’s hard to see how I can escape writing about religious literature; and if I am to write about religious literature, my own religious (or irreligious) outlook is far from irrelevant. So, with apologies beforehand to anyone whom I might offend, I might as well take a deep breath and dive in: how do I, who profess no particular religious belief and who usually write “None” when asked to specify my religion on an official form, approach a work as the Commedia which is entirely imbued with Christian thought? Is it possible to take anything at all from the Commedia without, at the very least, a leap of the imagination into this world? And can one be capable of such a leap without having, at the very least, some sort of sympathy with religious belief? 

Before we dive into discussion of such matters, we should, I think, acknowledge that the extreme poles of devout belief and of unconditional disbelief are but that – poles; and that, between these poles, there are almost infinite shades of grey, almost infinite nuances. The very presence of these nuances is often denied by the Dawkinsites, who appear to insist that either one believes or one doesn’t, and that there can be no room for “I don’t believe but…”.  I think this is the first of many points where I part company with the Dawkinsites: far from dismissing this but as intellectual pusillanimity, as they appear to do, it is in this region of but that we find depth and richness: but for this but, our lives, beset as they would be with immutable certainties, would, to my mind, be arid indeed. It is in this region of but that the human imagination, without which there can be no art or music or literature – or even, for that matter, science – flourishes. Far from dismissing this but, let us welcome it, and look into it a bit deeper: but what

My own first tentative steps into this region of but are motivated by certain feelings – feelings of yearning and of awe – that I know I often have, but which I cannot articulate to any degree of precision. Vaguely defined though these feelings may be, I know I experience them when I listen to certain music, or when I read certain lines of poetry. And not just then: there are all sorts of occasions when I know I feel certain things that, for want of a better word, may be described as “transcendent”, since they appear to transcend the mere physicality of the world I inhabit. Now, it may well be that “appear” is the key word here, and that these feelings of transcendence are no more than my synapses synapsing and my neurons doing whatever it is neurons are supposed to do. Yes, perhaps. But do I want to see myself as no more than a collection of neurons and synapses? The answer, for all my professed rationality, is “No, I don’t”. It may well be that I am no more than the sum of my constituent physical parts, but there is a very big part of me – no doubt deeply irrational – that rebels at such an idea. The Dawkinsites will tell me to amputate away that irrational part of myself , but I cannot. And neither, frankly, do I want to. Those who demand that, out of respect for rationality, we deny ourselves these feelings, might as well demand that we deny ourselves feelings of sexual desire, which, after all, are equally irrational. Of course, some have exhorted us to do just that, but they have been no more successful than I think Dawkins & co will be in their exhortations. Irrational or not, there are some aspects of our humanity that we cannot reasonably be expected to part with; and insisting, like some modern Pentheus, that we do so , seems to me unrealistic, and possibly, as Pentheus himself found, dangerous. 

But at this stage, the Dawkinsite may ask: “What about the truth? Does that count for nothing?” But, in keeping with their oft-stated dictum that everything must be challenged, I think it is worth challenging, at least as an intellectual exercise, the belief (for it is no more than that) that the importance of truth overrides everything else. Can we be sure of this? What if the truth makes us unhappy? What if the truth diminishes the richness of our lives? This is not to deny the importance of the truth, but if everything should be questioned, then let us, as Ibsen did in play after play, question also the nature of truth itself, and of the human capacity to apprehend it, and also its importance when balanced against other claims. And let us not assume that we are in full possession of the truth in the first place: such  an assumption is, to say the least, highly questionable. 

It is at this point I realise how far I am from being that sceptical, rational creature I like to imagine myself. I’m not. But it doesn’t follow that I must therefore be a credulous, superstitious fool, for, contrary to Dawkinsite doctrine, it’s not merely a case of adhering either to one pole or the other: there are many shades of grey in between, and these shades must be acknowledged. True, I’m not entirely sure on what shade of grey in this in-between I stand on: indeed, I am not even sure I stand at all – our lives are not static, and neither are our frames of mind, even from one moment to the next. It is this constant flux in the unfathomable depths of our minds that gives our lives whatever richness they have: in this sense, uncertainty is not merely to be rejected – it is to be welcomed. 

It is with all this in mind that I approach religious literature. For I know I am not alone in feeling as I do: all human societies, in all parts of the world and in all times, no matter how primitive or how sophisticated, have had a belief in what may be termed– once again, very vaguely, for we have no vocabulary to express these things precisely – “spiritual”, i.e. something other than the physical. This inclines me to suspect that our yearnings towards spirituality, towards transcendence, towards whatever vaguely defined term we care to use, are innate, and cannot, for all the Dawkinsite exhortations, be wished away. And neither, I think, should we wish to wish them away. 

Beyond this, I don’t know that I am prepared to speculate. If I were asked if I believe in a personal God, I’d answer I probably don’t – “probably”, because I don’t know what shade of grey I may be on at any given moment. But despite my agnosticism, possibly leaning towards (but no more than possibly leaning towards) atheism, I do often find in religious writing – or in religious music, or in religious art – an expression of something which I cannot adequately describe, but which I know is far from alien to my sensibilities. That towards which we yearn may well be illusory for all I know, but the yearning itself isn’t. So, when I find myself in a state of rapture when listening, say, to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; or when I find myself responding to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins describing a world charged with the grandeur of God; or when I am moved by Rubens’ Descent From the Cross; I rather suspect I am affected because of, and not despite, the religious content of these works. 

So, onwards and upwards, as they say: Dante. Given its reputation, it’s a bit daunting, but there’s no point merely sticking in an apprehensive toe into the water: one just has to dive in, and hope for the best. And of course, one cannot read something like the Commedia without knowing the Bible. My own knowledge of the Bible has mostly been absorbed from secondary sources: until, say, a couple or so years ago, I had read very little of the Bible.  Oh, of course, I paid lip service to it: it’s a pillar of Western civilisation; our entire culture, the norms of the society we live in, all flow from the book; the King James version is among the great literary miracles of the world; and so on, and so forth. It was far easier paying this lip service than actually reading the thing. So, after I finished my reading of all the Shakespeare plays about a couple of years ago, I decided that I really had to get to know the Bible at first hand. Since then, I have been reading through it, book by book (it’s not a volume that should be rushed through) – for, of course, the Bible is not a single book, but an entire library. And soon, I shall be tackling the Book of Psalms, which, a friend of mine (who I hope is reading this, and from whom I’ve nicked without permission quite a bit of the contents of this post – I’m sure he knows what I’m talking about) once described to me as “food for the soul”.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say – not only will I be diving into Dante, I plan also to dive into the Book of Psalms, with the aid only of the renowned Tyndale Old Testament commentaries by Derek Kidner. And, depending on how my reading progresses, and how much I can take in, I hope to be reporting on those one hundred and fifty psalms, one by one, on this blog. For whoever may be interested. 

No more boasting like a fool – this deed I’ll do before the purpose cool.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on June 19, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Starting at the end of your entry, I have read a psalm a day–King James versions–for years. I am a non-believing humanist and read them for the poetry and the morality, which are both inspiring. It is a double pleasure because my edition has a medieval missal painting on every second page. I absorbed more of the Bible and the Apocrypha (which has most of the good stories) than I realized during my years in Convent schools–very useful in my favorite reading of Victorian writers.

    I have read Dante very intensively, in translation. I had an undergraduate student who was baffled by it and we sat down and went through maybe 100 pages checking from the footnotes, and even further sources, EVERY SINGLE reference she did not follow. Oh my goodness; this was exciting and we continued on in the same way once a week, for a whole year.

    I would suggest reading Gilbert Highet”s “The Classical Tradiition” as a wonderful read in itself and as a reminder of how important some works are to understanding the main canon of western literature, whether or not one has any kind of religion beliefs.


    • Thanks for that, Erika. I agree that there are certain landmark works that are absolutely vital for any understanding of Western literature, and that both Dante and the Bible are firmly on this list.

      My own upbringing was very secular. My parents were nominally Hindu, but there was no observance of religion at home. Indeed, the main exposure to religion I had when growing up was from school – and given this was in Scotland, this exposure was essentially to Presbyterianism. But there wasn’t really much of that either: I have never had religion “forced down my throat”, as it were, either at home or at school. One can only be grateful for that. Quite apart from anything else, it means that I can now approach religious books without any baggage or prejudice.

      It is impossible to take an interest in Western culture without becoming aware of the Judaic and Christian traditions – whether from art galleries, or from poetry, or from Handel oratorios, or whatever. I am reading through the Books of Samuel now: I haven’t read them before. And yet, I know every single story. It is astonishing how much one can take in simply through osmosis. But of course, taking in something second hand is no substitute for reading the thing itself.

      I hadn’t known about Gilbert Highet’s book before, and I have just looked it up: thanks for the recommendation. I often get the impression that too many readers are fixated on modern and on contemporary literature, and seem to have lost with the roots. And the principal roots of Western literature are clearly the classical and the Hebraic – the Greek and the Biblical. It really is quite shameful that I have been neglecting so much of this until quite recently!

      I am delighted to have found in you and in Alex (see comments below) correspondents who have had experience of reading Dante, and, if it’s OK with you, would love to benefit from your experience as much as I can: this, after all, is what the internet is for! So you may expect more posts on my Dante-reading in the near future.

      All the best for now, Himadri


  2. Posted by Alex on June 19, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I thought you were going to write about Dante, but you’ve made very interesting points about religion, Himadri, specially “the region of but” and “the flux of our minds”. Truth can stand all our efforts to question it, but it’s so much broader than our philosophies (Hamlet dixit). And, because religious experience is so elusive, metaphor, parable and music are more adequate to convey it than definitions and propositions, the tools of Science and Philosophy. The scientific method needs predictability, and there’s something in us that not only is unpredictable, but rebels against being forced to predictability. In E.F. Schumacher words: “Human beings are highly predictable as physico-chemical systems, less predictable as living bodies, much less so as conscious beings and hardly at all as self aware persons.”

    Two years ago I started reading the Commedia and it struck me as a literary and aesthetic revelation. It’s the most powerful work I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t skip the italian version, though. It is, after all, Dante’s words. My appreciation of the poem heightened when I heard the poem in italian while I read it. I’m Spanish and I’m aware than Italian (or Dante’s tuscan italian) is closer to Spanish than English, but I’d advice you to hear the poem read in italian while following the text. If you want to hear a beautiful version of it, just let me know. Dive in the Commedia; you don’t imagine, and nobody knows before reading it, what you’ll find in it.


    • Hello Alex, reading back over this post, it is, I admit, somewhat rambling. I usually try to give an impression in the first few sentences of what the post will be about, but appear to have failed on this occasion! (My supervisor, back in my student days, used to tell me that if I want to say something in a thesis or dissertation, I should first say I’m going to say it, then say it, and then say that I’ve said it! It’s a piece of advice I generally try to follow.)

      I cannot really say anything at all about Dante right now, because I am only just starting out. And even once I have finished reading, what can I, after merely a single traversal (and that in translation), say about a work such as this that would be worth hearing?

      You’re quite right, of course: in any poetry, the sound of the thing – the verbal music it makes – is essential. Robert Frost once defined poetry as “that which gets lost in translation”. And I know for myself how the wondrous poetry of Tagore, which moves me beyond words, can so often appear flat and insipid when rendered into English. This is why I bought myself a dual language edition of Dante. In the commentaries in this edition, translator Robin Kirkpatrick frequently comments on the verbal and linguistic effects of the original. I find this tremendously useful. What I am doing is reading each canto first in English, then reading the commentary and notes on that canto, and then re-reading the canto, this time looking over at the Italian text, and looking out for the effects described in the commentary. It makes for slow reading, but what’s the point merely of skimming through something such as this?

      As I said to Erika (see my reply to her above), I am delighted to have found people who have had experience of reading Dante. So, novice though I am in this area, I shall, from time to time, be jotting down here my impressions on what I have been reading. Please do feel free to weigh in – it would be much appreciated.

      Cheers, Himadri


  3. Posted by Alex on June 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Being born in Cuba, a communist country, my upbringing was as secular as it can be. No mention of God or religion at school or at home. Maybe that’s why my approach to religion and to religious art is so similar to yours.

    Your plan for reading the Commedia is perfect; actually, the slower you read, the better. What a great recommendation from Erika. The Classical Tradition is magnificent. In the Conclusion, which you can read as a prologue to the book, there is, in my opinion, the best definition of civilization I’ve come across: “Civilization is the life of the mind”. But you’ll find the whole book illuminating.

    Cheers, Alex


  4. Hi Himadri

    When I was at school I was very excited about books and wanted to read everything, including books by great authors telling me what I should read that I hadn’t yet read. So I got my hands on a copy of The Inferno because everyone said it was great. I had a couple of editions. One was by Dorothy L. Sayers in terza rima. (I also wanted to read everything by Dorothy L. Sayers. You should never underestimate these genre writers who happen to be fluent in Medieval Italian.) I said to my English teacher, “Have you read Dante?” hoping for a stimulating discussion. She gave me a withering look and said ,”No, I can’t read Medieval Italian. Can you?” Well I had a parallel text edition in my school bag and the Italian didn’t look that difficult but I didn’t like to say so.

    But I didn’t much care for The Inferno either in Medieval Italian or in English. So I’ve never read the other two. I found it a little bit flippant. I was hoping for something much more shocking and sinister. But it could just have been too much of the Lord Peter Wimsey influence.

    Incidentally I have still only ever read a single Lord Peter Wimsey mystery.


    • Hello Joseph, good to see you here.

      There’s quite a bit of flippancy in the Inferno, I think, Some of the punishments seem like slapstick, cartoon violence. I suppose I don’t have a problem with that. The tone isn’t always flippant, of course, but there’s more variety than I’d expected. It’s not at all po-faced and “worthy”.

      And yes – how can poetry translate? Poetry is what gets lost in translation, as Robert Frost put it. But then again, there has been quite a bit of poetry in translation that I’ve enjoyed, so perhaps it isn’t a lost cause. But even in translation, Dante is such a major landmark, that I felt it was high time I got to know at least something of his work – even in translation.

      I haven’t read Dorothy L Sayers at all – I’ve always imagined Lord Peter Wimsey stories would be too genteel for my taste. On the whole, I think I prefer my crime a bit more hard-boiled. But of course, I’m pre-judging, and I know I shouldn’t. The problem is that nowadays, when I want some light reading, it’s all too easy to reach for old favourites such as the Sherlock Holmes stories, or, say, the MR James ghost stories, or a bit of Wodehouse. I really should expand my repertoire a bit.


  5. Posted by alan on June 23, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    I have found the perfect literary course for you that combines both literature and religion at Richmond Adult Community College starting in September:
    “The Works of Dan Brown in Close-Up”
    6 two hour sessions spread over 6 Wednesdays starting November 2nd.
    Sadly they are in the afternoons between 13.00 and 15.00
    Nevertheless, it has got to be worth sacrificing some your annual leave for.
    The course reference is C00519-111203(PK)
    I look forward to reading your post about it…


    • And adult education course on Dan Brown! Satire becomes redundant, doesn’t it? And people tell me that I’m overstating my case – or even that I don’t have a case at all – when I inveigh against cultural decline! There was rubbish in past eras as well, I’m told. Yes, sure there was. But I don’t think there were adult “education” courses on Jackie Collins!

      It would be interesting to compare the subjects on offer in adult education courses nowadays, compared to the kind of thing that used to be on offer, say, some 40 or so years ago.


  6. Posted by Mark David Dietz on June 24, 2011 at 2:57 am


    Over here, across the pond, Dawkinsites are called cricket balls — I mean new atheists — sorry got two or your posts confused.

    Your approach to religion and literature is much the same as mine. I think the problem we have today, not only in religion, but in politics and morality (and pretty much all the things that matter), is that we have come to believe that a person is not saying anything if he or she does not come down hard and explicit upon a single, unequivocal position. As a result we have come to believe that any opinion that is in the middle must be mediocre and those who hold such opinions (in extremist logic) are mediocrities. But the middle is, to my way of thinking, always the most intellectually challenging position to find, even more so today when the middle is so little tolerated by what has become increasingly an extremist culture.

    The new atheists are an interesting group. They have raised reason and science almost to a level of idolatry. A level that is quite difficult for those of us with a bit of literature in our blood to really follow. Literature does not allow for easy answers, fixed definitions, and absolutes. The funny thing is — neither does science — or at least a very imporant part of science. Admittedly, a large part of science, what I call catalog science, depends upon fixed definitions and absolutes and perfect certainty — and a good deal of science (particularly the more popular sort) is comprised of this catalog science in which induction is nothing more than asking — so in which already-existing category does this data belong? But when the category does not exist, or existing categories prove inadequate, or anomalies begin to abound in frightening profusion, then the fixed definitions must give way to imagination and true induction (which is always an imaginative and uncertain act). This is where the most exciting science occurs, which is not to say that catalog science is not important, but in many ways its primary role is to prepare the ground for the great leaps of imagination that introduce new thought and new ideas. By definition, new thought and new ideas make a shamble of fixed definitions and absolutes and prefect certainty; they move science into the gray spaces, until the catalogers gather around and clean things up, nice and pretty. (This is, of course, Thomas Kuhn in a nutshell.)

    The new atheists exist in a kind of cartoonish, neo-positive illusion of truth that, to my mind, is altogether incapable of understanding religion which has always been better understood by the literary critic (Arnold, for example, or even T.S. Eliot, who I think manages to never quite get it right, although he tries very hard — of course, the same could be said of Arnold). Religion can be dogmatic, but also rather exquisitely imaginative, fustian gibberish, and then the most eloquent of all human language, morally bankrupt, and yet ethically, humanly brilliant. It is, as you say, all the shades of gray that lie between the opposing poles, but if you believe that only the poles exist with nothing in between, nothing connecting them, then the uncertainty of the gray spaces will only frustrate you. (You may take it that I am no fan of the new atheists.)

    Erika, I read “The Wasteland” in that same line by line fashion with my niece — how powerful a learning tool that is — for the teacher as well as the student.

    Translations — I’m pretty sure the translation I read was Mandelbaum’s which generally gets good marks. But I read it a few years back and if I read it again, which I should like to do, I really must get a dual language version.

    I’ve read one Lord Peter Wimsey story — fun, but not enough to invite me back. I love MR James whom I first read at the insistence of this argumentative old git I used to correspond with on the Penguin Classics site. Lately, if I want trash reading I dive into some of the murkier swamps of past literature such as H. Ryder Haggard or Raphael Sabatini (if the last Pirates of the Carribean had been a true-to-the-novel remake of Captain Blood — oh what a joy that would have been!

    Alan, I have a feeling that any serious study of Dan Brown’s religious notions must be quite different from a study of religion and literature in Dante. Brown rather notoriously did not do a very good job with his research — so that a large part of such a study must deal with the nature of his research and his very curious misunderstandings of everything from Gnosticism to the Catholic church. Secondly, it most likely would need to deal with the misapprehnsions of an audience that largely seemed not to notice or care about such things. The study of religion in Dante is usually taken at a very different level. Dante in some ways invents a portion of what came to be Christian belief, and at the same time he moves beyond traditional belief in some very astonishing ways (particularly in the last two books) — although, I have read that he took something of the structure of his poem from an Arabic original.

    All the best, Mark


    • Hello Mark, I will reply to your fascinating post later when I have a bit more time, but a few words on Alan may not be out of place here. He is an old boozing buddy of mine (“old” in the sense that we have been regular boozers for a long time, rather than that he is himself old in years), and he takes a delight (as you’ll see if you read back on some of the earlier comments) in leg-pulling, and generally taking the piss. (I’ve got that right, Alan, haven’t I?)

      Alan – I’ll see you tonight at the usual place! 🙂


      • Posted by Mark David Dietz on June 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

        Thank god for that. Alan, you are forgiven. Say three hail marys and call me in the morning…

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