"'Nel mezzo del cammin': Finding Dante in American Religious Culture"
The Center for Italian Studies presents the fifth annual Ravarino Lecture, delivered by Peter S. Hawkins, Professor of Religion and Literature in the Yale Divinity School. This special edition of the Albert J. and Helen M. Ravarino Lecture is connected to the Dante in America lecture series taking place at Notre Dame throughout 2021.
The lecture is open to the public.
The opening lines of the Commedia have become a Rorschach for all kinds of depth experience. Dante's nightmare selva oscura, his experience of being lost in the midst of it, seem to "speak to our condition" in ways that earlier Dantean identities do not - "the Italian writer against the Pope," the forlorn lover of Beatrice, the pater patriae of Italy. In particular, in the United States, Dante has become the poet laureate of the midlife crisis, appealing to those who find themselves in a trackless wilderness, who want to find someone who knows the darkness well but has nonetheless found a way to see again the stars. For some, this means following the poet along the lines of his Christian faith, as in the case of Rod Dreher (How Dante Can Save Your Life, 2015). For many more, it means interpreting that faith either as practitioners of other religious traditions or as humanists of various kinds who might well describe themselves as "spiritual, not religious." Rather than being the precinct of the Christian straight and narrow, therefore, the Commedia turns out to offer a big tent for all "sorts and conditions" of spiritually eclectic readers. I want to explore that variety of approach -- through publications, the Internet, and personal interviews - in order to suggest Dante's multiform presence in American religious culture today. Although still pre-eminently the author of Inferno, he has become not only our poet laureate of malaise but also a guide out of it.
Peter Hawkins' career has focused on Dante during his time both at Yale Divinity School and at Boston University. In addition to essays and chapters, his books on the poet include Dante's Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination, Dante: A Brief History, Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come, and, edited with Rachel Jacoff, Dante's Poets: Twentieth-Century Reflections. His long-standing interest in biblical reception history (Scrolls of Love and From the Margins 1: Women of the Hebrew Bible and their Afterlives) and in contemporary fiction (The Language of Grace and Listening for God, vols 1-4) have come together most recently in The Bible and the American Short Story co-written with Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg (2018). Over the years he has been proud to publish work in Notre Dame's journal, Religion and Literature, as well as to participate in a Mellon Foundation grant exploring the nature and place of the discipline at the University.