The secret writing on the door is “Abandon skepticism, all ye who enter here.” To approach the Divine Comedy with an open heart is to be converted on some level, if only for the time being. The late American Dantean Charles Singleton put it this way in a retrospective essay: “It is quite conceivable to me (though I confess I do not know that it has ever happened) that an out-and-out atheist might achieve an understanding reading of the Divine Comedy through a willing suspension of disbelief and an imaginative and sympathetic surrender to the experience of the Poem.” The question is, Can one make such a surrender and remain unchanged by it? I doubt it. It seems unlikely that imagination and sympathy can be so deeply engaged without leaving traces in memory and planting seeds in reason. However that may be, the precise relationship between art and belief is a mystery and must remain so until we are imparadised with Dante.
Indeed. The great Christian art I encountered over my life did play a role in my conversion – not because it helped directly convince me, but because sympathetic engagement with it changed me somewhat. Art allows us to explore the implications of a worldview in a manner that is paradoxically both safer – it requires no real belief on our part – and also more dangerous – the experience is much more intense than a philosophical treatise usually is. We may be seduced unawares.
(Hat Tip: Dreher)