Review of Peter Hawkins’ Beecher Lecture on Dante’s Purgatory by Dan Meyer

Posted: November 27, 2007 by Rick Hogaboam in Philosophy
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by guest blogger Dan Meyer.

Just finished watching and listening to Peter Hawkins’ second Beecher lecture on Dante’s Purgatory, introduced, by the way, by Barbara Brown Taylor, a former Beecher lecturer herself. (The lectures can be seen on the Internet, as can several other series.) Hawkins acknowledged that some of the 18th and 19th century Connecticut saints buried in churchyards around the state would be spinning in their graves if they knew such a discussion was being entertained in Marquand Chapel! He then spent 20 minutes describing his own vision of purgatory, stimulated by a vision of his dead father, 20 minutes describing Dante’s description of it, and 20 minutes describing Henry Ward Beecher’s possible pilgrimage there as a result of his reputed dalliances with women.

He says that when Dante got to the top of purgatory, a re-creation of Eden, he was met by Beatrice, whom he had met and fallen in love with when she was eight. But Beatrice, far from showing him love, met him with cold fury because of his failures – failure to remain faithful in his love for her, and failure to employ opportunities to exercise his masterful gifts. In discussing Beecher, he then asks, “What figure will greet him when he arrives in that Eden?”

To me, purgatory represents works-righteousness, humans paying the penalty for their sins, It is human-centered. That’s indicated in his choice of words for love. He uses eros, which describes human love. The Bible speaks of agape to describe that love. Anders Nygren, in his book, “Agape and Eros”, shows that historically eros is man reaching up to God, while agape is God coming down to man (man, of course, in the generic sense).
What the Bible shows us is a God-given righteousness, a righteousness, as Luther said, that comes through faith. Earlier this morning I read a chapter from a little book by Walter Brueggemann in which he pointed out that even when God was so disgusted with Israel that he determined to break his covenant with them, he found that he couldn’t do it. He points out that when Ezekiel became convinced that repentance was beyond the realm of possibility for the people of his day because they had sunk so deep into sin, God said, “I will give them a new heart, a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone,” so that they would then obey him from the heart.

The answer to purgatory is grace; not cheap grace, but grace purchased at the expense of Christ’s death. As the psalmist says, God ‘separates our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.’ And as Jeremiah said, he remembers our sins no more. So that what believers have to look forward to is not time in purgatory working off their sins, but a God who by his grace purges and makes them clean and fits them for eternity in his presence.

So, much as I enjoyed the lecture, I can’t buy the premise. Still, he said things that prompted introspection!


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