The Italian human rights advocacy group Gherush 92 recently called for the removal of Dante's The Divine Comedy from school curricula and university reading lists, arguing that it is Islamophobic, anti-semitic and anti-homosexual and so should have no place in the classroom or lecture theatre.
Gherush 92 has an ideological approach that lends itself to this kind of campaign. For example, it argued in 2009 against Benedict XV1's planned visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, stating that the Pope intended to manipulate the Jewish people 'so as to squash them and isolate them in their memory'. Benedict's visit was, in their terms, an insult not only to Jews but also to Roma gypsies, to gay people, to women and to all who were massacred in the Shoah and during the course of the centuries of Christianity'.
Even if we pass by their conflating of the Holocaust with the entire history of Christianity, it's obvious Gherush 92 has a distinctively anti-Christian and, in the Italian context, anti-Catholic agenda. Christianity, according to them, is responsible for everybody's suffering, past and present, an historical consciousness reflected in the organisation's name, which recalls the treatment of Jews in 15th century Spain.
Nevertheless, there are important questions raised by its call for The Divine Comedy to be banned. The debate provides an opportunity to reflect on how people in a modern pluralistic society can value and understand works of art, elements of which clash with contemporary moral and cultural preferences.
In the 1950s the Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued that, with the decline of belief in God, the moral concepts and language derived from belief in a divine will were no longer sustainable. The arguments made by Gherush 92 fulfill Anscombe's thesis. They imply that the ideas expressed in works such as The Divine Comedy are mere cultural preferences, rather than a grasping after truth, and that, as cultural preferences, they are unacceptable.
In effect, any art, symbolism, stories or language that doesn't correspond with Gherush 92's conception of 'modernity' should be jettisoned from our cultural canon. Unfortunately, if we were to be thorough about this, it would mean depriving ourselves of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Shakespeare, Hobbes, the Iliad and most of our literary and philosophical resources penned prior to the later 20th century.
Fortunately, following Anscombe, there is no obligation to accept the Gerush 92 vision in order for us to protect pluralism or cultural diversity.
So how do we answer Gherush 92? Is it true that art that expresses ideas incompatible with modern western cultural preferences can no longer offer wisdom and lasting insight? Is there an unnavigable gulf between modernity and the cultural and religious world of the past?
The answers to these questions are very important; after all, if we appropriate Anscombe's reasoning, if 'modernity' is disconnected from its foundational moral concepts and language, then is modernity, including pluralism and respect for diversity, still possible? If we can no longer understand, appreciate and draw wisdom from our cultural and religious history, then isn't 'modernity' hollowed out, and our moral and social concepts just flimsy expressions of contemporary cultural preference?
For the sake of real pluralism it's important we are willing and able to enter different cultural worlds, in order to see the universe in different ways.
A visit to an ancient church, for example, is an invitation to do this. Often in churches in Italy and France one can look up and see a night sky painted on the ceiling above the altar. Small silver stars are set against a deep blue background. The night sky evokes a sense of awe at the vastness of space and time. When the congregations of the 14th and 15th centuries looked up at a night sky, what did they imagine they saw? In a culture steeped in Christian narrative and teaching, many would have seen the heavens arrayed above them, the cosmos ordered by divine mystery.
Dante's Comedy paints a cosmic vision of life, death and life beyond death. It expresses this mystery of the late medieval Christian universe in its stories and images. Some of these images, like that of the Prophet Mohammed enduring painful torture, or the derogatory description of Jews, don't fit with a modern orientation toward pluralism, respect for other faiths and inter-faith dialogue.