Updated: Jan 19, 2021
In our culture of unbelief, or worse yet, bland belief, dogma is the bogeyman. Our culture prizes freedom of expression (though we are not free), self-asserted rights (though if you have to assert them, they were never your rights to begin with — think about it), and personal happiness (though what is personal happiness without communal well-being?). We lie to ourselves into believing that each one of us really does have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and so we rail against anything that appears to take that away. Dogma takes that away — or at least appears to. And so dogma is the bogeyman.
Clearly, we no longer know how to think straight. Truth has become a popularity contest. Take, for example, my statement above that self-asserted rights is essentially a contradiction in terms. Immediately you will say, “Well, that’s not correct. Look at the Civil Rights Movement. They had to assert their rights.” But who decided those were their rights to assert? Some unwritten moral code? Can someone please tell me where it is written that all men are created equal? Oh, right, the Constitution. But what gives the Constitution moral import to make such a claim? It’s a political treatise and nothing more. What gives it the status of holy writ? It’s a political and moral statement that, at best, half the population was willing to uphold. And if they (our forefathers) had to assert it, what gives them the right to do so? Some Constitution written prior to 1776? Maybe the Magna Carta, which itself was a political document that essentially asserted that the King must give his subjects (well, those who were free) some rights, and that his will to do so was not arbitrary. But who says?
You see, this whole notion of rights is simply a precedent-claiming impulse that dates back to — what? — the Constitution of Medina? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived.” Did you get that last statement… “the shape of morality as it is currently perceived.” Which means, of course, that rights can change at any time — and often have. So this idea that we have some “inalienable rights” to anything — rights that will never change — is untenable. It’s simply a way to make a provocative claim against the powers-that-be.
The opposite side of the coin of “rights” is the notion of “gift.” That our lives, our liberties, and our various pursuits of happiness are not rights in and of themselves, but rather, gifts afforded to us either by our Creator or, short of that, by a particular political affiliation, is a basic tenet of gift-logic. We owe our allegiance to a god or to a country by virtue of their affording us things we don’t naturally have. And so, our lives, liberties, and happiness are not things we can claim but, instead, are things we must celebrate.
But how is all of this related to dogma? I had to establish that we don’t think straight (which, ironically, is where the etymology of the word “rights” comes from — straight thinking) in order to make the predicative claim that dogma, far from being something we should avoid because it constrains our natural liberties, is something we should embrace because we don’t have any natural liberties to begin with and only dogma, a set of normative truths set down by God for the benefit of the community, can safeguard the mysteries of life. Sure, there is much dogma that is useless and, worse yet, destructive. But the Christian Church in the orthodox main has, I believe, stayed the course of God’s will in aiming true the basic dogma of the faith.
Dogma, of course, only makes any sense in a world shot through with Divine Intention. A world bereft of holiness has no room for dogma since — let’s be honest — it has no room for liberty. If it really is just dog-eat-dog and our existence is one big cosmic accident, than any notion of “rights” can only and ever be understood as claims made based on “the shape of morality as it is currently perceived.” They can change at any time, in other words.
And so dogma protects us from ourselves, from our mercurial ways, our selfish genes, our bankrupt notions of freedom. Great minds down through the ages have understood this basic, underlying reality. People like Dorothy Sayers, for example, who resisted the tempting claims of modernism, which purported to give us greater freedoms by insisting, for example, that humans, along with everything else, were just aggregates of atoms. By reducing us to mere accidental animals, we could suddenly be as free as animals; that is, guided only by our instincts and not by any arbitrary set of rules. Of course, these moderns did live by an arbitrary set of rules called “rights,” which gave them the false security to talk about the virtues of the jungle. It’s always easy to talk about the virtues of the jungle in a zoo, where the threats to one’s “rights” remain locked behind bars.
The Anglican Church, Sayers observed, was much like the person claiming the virtues of the jungle in a zoo. It dumbed down the gospel and made it tame, and then preached the virtues of belief. Sayers, however, saw through this chimera:
“Official Christianity . . . has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist on too much doctrine. . . . The fact is the precise opposite. . . . The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man . . . and the dogma is the drama” (see Christopher R. Armstrong’s book Patron Saints for Postmoderns (IVP Books, 2009).
I conclude this entry with a long quote from Sayers herself, which sums up the point I’m trying to make here: that dogma, far from being the thing that inhibits our freedom, is the thing that allows us to claim any freedom to begin with:
“It is . . . startling to discover how many people . . . heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine: that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting and so dramatic can be the orthodox Creed of the Church.
Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-nature bore — and this in the Name of the One Who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through the world like a flame.
It is the dogma that is the drama — not the beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death — but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.”