In Defense of Dogma
The following article was originally published on the Roads from Emmaus weblog in March of 2011. It has been revised for this publication.
An encounter by my wife with a Unitarian Universalist has set me thinking again upon what I believe is one of the great Christian evangelistic questions of our time: We now have to make the case for dogma. We no longer have the luxury of assuming that the person in front of us believes that there is Truth, that there is an objective reality and an objectively appropriate way of living in that reality to which we are all responsible, whether we like it or not.
This attitude is yet another iteration of the pietism that informed a bit of social media theology I read recently, namely, that “faith” is supposedly far more important than “religion,” that the latter is naturally quite bad while the former is good. (Yes, I know social media is not really a credible theological source, but this nevertheless represents a rather common attitude.) But if one is to have “faith,” then one must naturally ask “Faith in what?” It’s the what that trips us up here and seems to send us careening into pietistic relativism. Once one asks about the what, then one is in the realm of dogma, and that’s about religion, no?
Now, it is not as if, in earnest conversation with such a person, he is likely to tell you, “See here, now—I am a relativist, and therefore any positive truth claim you may make to me will fall on deaf ears.” (I suppose it is possible one may find such a rare chap now and then, but he is exceedingly rare.) It is more likely that you will hear something like this: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to believe.”
That anti-authoritarian attitude regarding philosophical and spiritual truth has ironically become something of a dogma in its own right, but instead of turning its adherents into dyed-in-the-wool, doctrinaire relativists (he says, with particular irony), the doctrine instead plays itself out into a moral and spiritual system. That is, it dictates behavior and attitudes and even piety. Or rather, one might say it engenders a sort of allergic reaction. When in the presence of dogma, he will react immediately to it and seek some sort of balm or pill to deal with the symptoms. He rarely asks whether its claims are actually true, because doing so would open up the possibility of becoming responsible to those claims.
Yet one of the inherent ironies of this position is that the believer typically will still place authoritarian, dogmatic faith in another kind of priesthood, something called “science.” “Studies show” that “science” is always right. (Though there is that problem of credentialing: What does one call a “scientist” with whom one disagrees? It is not enough that he has impressive degrees from otherwise trustworthy institutions—institutions that we trust because, well, they’re trustworthy, you know.) He will accept that he is responsible to the claims of “science,” but his will (unfettered, or rather, unstrengthened by other dogma) will still probably not help him to lose weight.
But let us dispense with the irony and face this question head-on: What do you say to someone who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? I don’t know what you say to them, but I typically tell them that they can believe anything they like, well, because they can.
Why? At the heart of the anti-authoritarian dogma is the desire for freedom. I believe a lot of people who feel this way believe that they’re being put into some sort of straitjacket when someone tells them what is true and what is not. Yet if we are Christians (“little Christs”), then we look at the example of the Christ: He preached the truth—and well He should, for He is the truth—but He never compelled anyone to believe in Him.
Orthodox Christians often make the point that the truth is a Person, not a set of propositions. That is not really something one can wrap one’s head around (ever try to wrap your head around a person?). Yet there are things one can say about that point, and one of them is that the encounter with a person, especially the divine Person, is precisely the opportunity for freedom. We can engage or not. We can love or not. We can hate or not. We can ignore or not.
And that brings us back to dogma.
Dogma comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem,” and its use in Christian theology begins in the New Testament itself, from that first council of the Apostles, when they laid down some dogma, saying that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.”
Dogma is therefore not the speculations of ivory tower academics or professional philosophers. Rather, it is what has been revealed by God as true. The Apostles did not say that their pronouncements merely “seemed good to us.” Rather, it was an act of the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Trinity Who inspires flawed human beings to see the Truth, Who is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This same “seems”—dogma—has also been pronounced down through the ages by those whom the Spirit has similarly inspired.
Now, of course the anti-authoritarian crypto-relativist will not believe any of that, and no one will make him or even could make him. But he is usually not very thoroughgoing in his relativism. He probably believes that it is better to be kind than to be cruel. He probably believes that it is better to love than to hate. He probably believes that human beings have an inherent worth to them. But none of that is apparent from a merely scientific examination of the material world, which might well value a senseless lode of platinum over a human life.
Scientific observation can say that humans are composed of certain kinds of elements in certain amounts, that certain kinds of behavior make for longer life, more efficient energy processing, etc. But such observations cannot make pronouncements of value. Why should kindness be better than cruelty? Because it makes more people live longer? Why is that a laudable goal? Why should we honor the value of every human person? Says who?
The answers to these questions are precisely all dogmatic claims. To say that life is better than death is to make a transcendent claim over and above the observable facts of material reality (assuming we even have the ability to observe all that’s there). It is to say something about that material reality beyond merely what is to what should be. But most people would find countering such dogma so absurd that they would not even countenance mounting a defense for it. So such dogma remains unarticulated or at least ungrounded in any sort of compelling transcendent narrative. Yes, life is valuable, but why? Because you happen to like it that way? So what?
Anti-dogmatism therefore finds itself defenseless against well-grounded materialist ideologies, such as militant communism, which has a proven record of not valuing human life above its own philosophical dictates. If millions must be sacrificed, then so be it. Since there is no God, there is no One Who is going to enforce the value of human life, neither now nor in the next life. The Kingdom Come becomes the Kingdom of Now, and in the Kingdom of Now, whoever has the biggest gun wins. But few of those who do not believe in truth will actually admit this terrifying reality. Nietzsche knew, of course, and he was willing to face the horror of unmooring humanity from transcendent dogma.
That brings us once again back to our practical question: What are we supposed to say to the person who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? Don’t tell him. He won’t believe you. But at the same time, there really is no verbal defense against love. If you love someone—that is, if you sacrifice yourself for him in meaningful ways without expecting anything in return—then you are communicating the One Who is Truth to him. When you love, then you are displaying the image of God within yourself, connecting to the image of God within the other, which is what makes us all worth the king’s ransom that we each are. As St. Gregory Palamas once wrote, “For every argument there is a counter-argument, but who can argue against life?”
No matter what he might say, everyone believes in something. Some only believe they’ll have another drink. Okay, fine. But why is it worth it to make yourself feel good that way? What are you worth? Why?
And that’s dogma.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.