Some Thoughts on Dante, Fence Sitting in the Pre-Existence, and Worthiness Interviews

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”—Dante Alighieri (as reimagined by Dan Brown through John F. Kennedy)

The above bit of folk wisdom does not come from Dante. It is a wholly modern misquotation first fumbled by Harvard graduate John F. Kennedy in a speech about the Peace Corps and then adopted by Dan Brown’s fictional Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon in the multi-kazillion dollar bestseller Inferno. Harvard, apparently, has been slipping a bit in the Italian Classics Department.

What the great poet actually said was much more profound and infinitely more interesting. In Canto III of Inferno, before Dante and Virgil even pass through the gates of hell, they see a bunch of naked spirits running around in circles, pursued by hordes of biting insects. Perceiving that these shades are permitted to enter hell, but are nonetheless having a very bad day, Dante asks Virgil who they are. Virgil replies:

             “These are the nearly soulless
whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise
They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither God nor Satan,
but only for themselves. The High Creator
Scourged them from Heaven for its perfect beauty,
and Hell will not receive them since the wicked
might feel some glory over them.”
(Inferno, Canto III, lines 32-39)

Yep, that’s right. Before Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie led Mormonism down the “fence-sitters-in-the-pre-existence” rabbit hole to explain an unconscionable priesthood ban, Dante offered a medieval Catholic version of the same story to explain the existence of those with no place to go in the afterlife. In this sense only, it is accurate to attribute to Dante the general sentiment that trying to be neutral is bad.

But Dante was thinking of a very specific type, and a very specific instance of moral neutrality in this passage—and it is one that we would do well to note. Shortly before the publication of Inferno, Pope Celestine V, a man of great personal righteousness and integrity, renounced the papacy because he did not believe that high ecclesiastical office was compatible with a sin-free life. His resignation paved the way for the ascension of the opportunist, Boniface VIII, whose corruptions and persecutions were a major theme of the Divine Comedy. Dante saw Celestine’s Great Renunciation as the key event that essentially gave the Kingdom of God to a thug.

On a deeper level, Dante’s targets the spiritual logic that lead Celestine to renounce the papacy.  To oversimplify just a bit, Dante felt that the Pope was so concerned with not doing something bad that he forfeited the opportunity to do anything good. His “neutrality” was not a lack of a lack of spiritual will, which Celestine had in abundance; it was a lack of spiritual understanding. He was obsessed with avoiding sin, with joining the Medieval equivalent of the Not Even Once Club—and this obsession caused him to confuse a sinless life with a moral one.

But for Dante, moral goodness must mean more than just the absence of moral badness. Not only is “not bad” different than “good”—it does not exist on the same moral spectrum. Goodness requires an affirmative commitment to a set of moral principles; “not badness” requires only an essentially selfish desire to avoid being punished for one’s sins.

This distinction between “good” and “not bad” has been all but lost among many religious people today—including most Latter-day Saints. Theologically, Mormons have access to a wealth of affirmative definitions of moral behavior. In practice, however, we have reduced “morality” to the observation of a narrow set of boundary-defining behavioral prohibitions. This is especially true of the way that we teach and interview our youth, who are consistently encouraged to define “morality” as “not having sex.”

Imagine a temple recommend or other worthiness interview that said nothing about sex, pornography, masturbation, coffee, tea, or alcohol—or even paying tithing or affiliating with apostate groups. Imagine instead something that started with questions like, “do you love God with all your heart, might mind and soul, and do you love your neighbor as yourself?” and then asking for some examples: “Who have you mourned with?” “Who have you comforted?” and “Whose burdens have you recently borne that they may be light?”

My guess is that most of us would do substantially worse with these questions than we do now on the “Big Three” (Law of Chastity-Word of Wisdom-Pay Your Tithing) that currently dominate our understanding of worthiness. And that is a problem, as these are the sorts of questions that might lead us to a spirituality capable of building Zion on earth—which would be a much prettier sight than a bunch of dirty, naked people running around in circles before the gates of hell.


  1. LDS Scoutmaster says:

    Well put Michael. Dante always reminds me that there’s no good and bad to begin with, or is there?

  2. That reminds me of a talk Truman Madsen gave about 50 years ago. As I recall, his proposed Temple Recommend interview had four questions, but, like yours, they focused primarily on the question whether one was living a Christ-like life, loving and serving God and neighbor.

  3. Some would prefer a self assessment approach. Many members on the bloggernacle don’t feel there needs to be any discussion or questioning at all, leaving all issues of worthiness between the member and the Lord. However, I like the basic approach that exists now. If done right, it does allow for exploration into the areas mentioned. I do think the present approach is akin to the Law of Moses. I don’t think we’ll have to get TRI’s during the Millennium.

  4. Jason K. says:

    I love how much more poetry there has been around here since you came on board, Mike. I cheered your arrival even before it happened, but I’m even happier now. Thanks for another great post.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    Interesting thoughts. Not bad.

  6. Those “liberals” with their insufferable moral compasses at it again!

    Thanks, Michael!

  7. The TR questions serve in part to help evaluate moral readiness for the temple, but they’re also there, perhaps predominantly so, as cultural markers – are you part of our tribe? As such it’s little wonder that the big shibboleths of Wow, etc. predominate the discussion. I don’t see that as a negative, but as a cultural necessity. But if you want a set of TR questions that get purely as worthiness, I think your direction is the way.

  8. Shawn H says:

    Reminds me of one of my favorite parts of any book, from El libro de buen amor. Distinguir entre el bien y el mal, y escoger lo mejor, or translated, distinguish between the good and the bad and choose the best. That has guided me in everything for a long time now.

  9. Imagine instead something that started with questions like, “do you love God with all your heart, might mind and soul, and do you love your neighbor as yourself?” and then asking for some examples: “Who have you mourned with?” “Who have you comforted?” and “Whose burdens have you recently borne that they may be light?”

    I’m afraid the bar will have to be lower than this for me. It’s a good thought though.

  10. Yes to “Not only is “not bad” different than “good”—it does not exist on the same moral spectrum.”
    I can’t get past the temple recommend questions as boundary marker. I flirt with ‘law of Moses’, ‘minimum requirements’, or ‘least common denominator’, but none are accurate or satisfying. The questions you pose are a good start for a different purpose. See also any of the “Examination of Conscience” lists from Catholic sources. One I like has the headings “Duties to God”, “Duties to Church”, “Duties to Family”, “Duties to Society”, and “Duties to Self”. It is easy to fill in with five or ten questions under each heading, appropriate to LDS tradition and teaching.

  11. Nice post and nice thoughts, but I don’t think the replacement questions serve the purpose of the temple recommend. They’re too open-ended, and those most qualified to enter the temple by those standards are also the most likely to find themselves deficient. I also don’t think the recommend questions as currently constituted are generally misunderstood as the qualifications for exaltation, but perhaps I’m wrong about that.

  12. Emily U says:

    “This distinction between “good” and “not bad” has been all but lost among many religious people today—including most Latter-day Saints.”

    Yes. And as my friend said in sacrament meeting, we’re not hear to learn how not to be bad, we’re here to learn how to be good.

    I agree with the above people who’ve said TR questions are cultural markers, but I think we need cultural markers less than we need actual goodness.

  13. Wow, this post really smacked me across the face. [still shaking my head]

  14. Reminds me a bit of Lowell Bennion’s story about a fireside he did, from “What it Means to be a Latter-day Saint.

    Weary of talking one evening, I decided to do something different. We had a small group of young people in attendance seated in a circle, and, starting from the left side of the circle, I said to the first person, “I would like each one of you in turn to tell us one thing you do not do because you are a Latter-day Saint.”
      The first person said, “I don’t smoke.”
      The second one said, “I don’t drink.”
      The third one said, “I don’t drink coffee.”
      The fourth one said, “I don’t drink tea.”
      And then there was a long pause before the fifth one thought of something. He finally said, “I don’t go to shows on Sunday.”
      And the sixth one said, “I don’t swear.”
      And then there was a still longer pause and I turned to the other end of the circle and said, “Please tell us each in turn what you do do because you are a Latter-day Saint.”
      The first one said, “I go to church.” The second one said, “I go to priesthood meeting.”
      The third one said, “I go to Sunday School.”
      The fourth one said, “I go to choir practice.”
      There was a long pause before the fifth one could say, “I pay tithing.” And they thought of one or two other things, and then there was another pause. I used block and tackle and couldn’t draw anything else out of this group. I thought perhaps I had caught them off guard. So a few weeks later I went to another fireside and tried the same method and got roughly the same answers. Once in doing this with a younger group of Explorers, I obtained a new answer. One of them said on the positive side, “Because I am a Latter-day Saint, I collect fast offerings.”
      Brothers and sisters, I have nothing against the things that were said. I am deeply grateful for the Word of Wisdom. I pay tithing, and I do it gladly. And I believe in going to church and worshipping God there and enjoying the fellowship of my brothers and sisters. I delight in church service. The thing that grieves me about these answers is not what was mentioned but what was unmentioned. I do not know how you folks feel here, but in Salt Lake under the shadow of the temple and where I teach, I find that many students and many young people have reduced our religious life to a pattern of performances and of obedience to a few rather unique things in our gospel.

  15. The final TR question of “Are you worthy?”–in spirit–seems to want to reach (barely) to these deeper, open-ended questions. I think your proposed questions would surely deepen our inner-self reflection/examination.

    Also, for the record, I’d rather go to Dante’s freezing hell than to Steven Peck’s library from “A Short Stay in Hell.”

  16. OurLadyofMeatPies says:

    It would be interesting to compare the philosophy of Pope Celestine with Pope Francis. And with President Ucthdorf. I have a sense that we are seeing a “schism” of sorts in the Church. I’m not sure how to phrase this, so please bear with me. But at the same time as I am seeing a rather strict retrenchment on the part of some leaders and members, a retreat into the thou-shalt-nots, I am also seeing the emergence of a re-emphasis on Christian living, service, and a “do the best you can and know that it is good”. (Although Mark’s mention of Truman Madsen’s 50-year-old idea makes me wonder if it has always been this way.). Which direction will the Church go? I am hopeful, but, I will confess, I have retreated a bit to the sidelines to watch.

  17. I think that even now that kind of questions could be used for example in interviewing people for callings. I think Steve is right about the current TR question defining cultural markers.

  18. John Mansfield says:

    Is Dieter Uchtdorf’s teaching on Christian living and service much different from Thomas Monson’s? Or Gordon Hinckley’s or Howard Hunter’s? Uchtdorf’s is fresher than Monson’s that we’ve already heard for decades, and that’s a useful thing, but exhortations to service and examples of it are a long-running staple of conference talks.

  19. perception is an interesting thing. While WOW, tithing and chastity are important questions in the TR interview they are only 3 of many questions. Also if you look at all of the General conference talks of the past decade those topics would only make up a small percentage of them. We really don’t talk about those things nearly as much as people think we do. Faith, Hope and Charity, as well as the atonement are things that are talked about far more frequently.

  20. Mary Bliss says:

    OurLadyofMeatPies, I think it’s always been this way. My father remembers it going on among both general church leaders and members in when he was a teen in the 1940s. I remember it going on when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. My children watched it while they were growing up. My grandchildren will undoubtably do so as well. I think each generation has its version of this as individuals in every part of our religious community sort through what sings to their souls the most. I believe that there will always be that dichotomy among us and that agency and vision will teach us who wish to know how to live with each others’ different views peaceably. Neither one view or the other will “win the day”. Neither one will independently set the course of the church. There will be voices reflecting both views on all levels. That is the nature of agency. I believe our choice must be, as we engage in our church work, that we learn to speak what we believe with charity, listen with wisdom, learn the peace that casts out fear of things that do not sit well with us, and do as much good as we can. And that, I believe, brings us closer to Zion.

  21. bmcarson says:

    I think I would have answered Lowell Bennion’s questions in ways similar to those in Ben’s story. If the question is what I do/don’t do as a Latter-Day Saint I will answer with the things that make us unique from other people, including other Christians. Because I’m a Christian, I try to serve and uplift and follow the New Testament teachings of Jesus. Because I am a Latter-Day Saint Christian, my service often takes certain forms unique to us: Visit Teach, fulfill a calling, attend the temple. Also because I’m LDS, I participate in certain ordinances that I believe have saving powers, I study the Book of Mormon, and I follow the Word of Wisdom and Law of Chastity.

    I love that we are taught we don’t have a lock on goodness and truth. One benefit to that is that it ought to keep us humble. We just aren’t quite as special as we are sometimes tempted to believe. I know my efforts at service and prayer pale in comparison to that of some of my friends of other Christian faiths.

    I like the proposed TR interview questions about loving God and our neighbor as questions to ponder personally. But as I don’t think I’ll be able to answer them adequately in this lifetime, I’m glad for the lower bar of the current interview questions. Temple service is a part of our spiritual progress. We can’t ask for perfection before entrance.

%d bloggers like this: