The poet Robert Frost once said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net.
It’s the same for those who would like their Christianity to be free from dogma. Dogma, for those who have forgotten, are the doctrines that are specified as necessary to be believed. By their very nature, dogmas are intellectual propositions that spell out certain Christian beliefs. They’re mandatory–like the net is for tennis.
There are some Christians, however, who suggest that dogma is divisive. “Dogma” they argue “restricts the faith. It’s exclusive. It puts people outside the fellowship. “Dogma destroys dialogue,” they argue. “It leads to self righteousness and legalism. Without dogma we wouldn’t have all these denominational divides. Without dogma we would all exist together happily–tolerating one another in Christian love.”
Maybe. Maybe not. The problem with Christianity without dogma is that it leads to a certain formlessness, the reduction of an intellectually vigorous and astringent faith to something sentimental and cute. It becomes what C.S.Lewis called, “Christianity and water.” If there is no dogma there is nothing to believe–just something to feel and do, therefore Christianity without dogma ends up being nothing but a religion of “spirituality and sentimentality” just “feeling good and doing good.”
In addition to good works and good feelings, the human mind needs to articulate the faith. Without dogma the articulation of this “faith” becomes a sad, ridiculous struggle with words which cannot have any meaning other than the re-interpretation of that meaning according to each person’s preferences, and about which no one can argue because all have agreed that there is no such thing as objective theology.
The practice of the faith then becomes vague and incoherent collection of good causes, passionate personal intentions of making oneself somehow better or following one’s idea of Christianity within a wilderness of personal opinion, sentimental conclusions. One is as T.S.Eliot put it, “on the edge of a grimpen where there is no foothold.”
Without dogma religion is flaky and pale. It is not a case of the blind leading the blind. It’s more like the bland leading the bland.
I have met some modernist Christians who embrace this non-dogmatic religion. They tend to see their lost condition in terms of romantic courage. They say with touching bravado, “Ah yes! we brave pioneers are willing to wrestle with meanings and meaninglessness. We often walk in darkness without seeing the great light, and is it not a courageous act of faith to walk boldly into that void where we may be sure of nothing except that we are sure of nothing?”
I remember once hearing a sermon in Cambridge by a theologian who mistook his own atheism for the via negativa–the spiritual way of negation. He piously said, “We who have no dogma and no certainty and no absolute authority to blindly obey, we are the courageous men of faith who “go bravely into that darkness which is the darkness of God.” I would never judge the state of the man’s soul, but it reminded me of the fool named Rycker in Graham Greene’s The Burnt Out Case who is in mortal sin but mistakes the darkness in his soul for the Dark Night of the Soul.
No, give me dogma, for dogma is the frame of the window through which I glimpse the heavens from my prison cell. Dogma is not the end of the questions, but the foundation for the greatest questions of all. Dogma gives structure and form. It is the ladder on which we climb; it is the map for the journey and the directions for the quest.
The irony is that a religion with no dogma is only possible because of dogma. You would never know the freedom of playing tennis without a net if tennis were not first and always properly played with a net. Likewise, the modernist can only rejoice in his religion without dogma because Catholics exist who insist on dogma. The rock which is a stepping stone for the Catholic is the same rock the modernist kicks, and then calls himself a brave martyr for having hurt his foot.
Blessed John Henry Newman observed that Christianity must be dogmatic for it is based in a real event in history. That is to say, because Christ the Lord was a particular person particular beliefs are required. Newman observed further that while Christianity must be dogmatic it can only be so if it has an infallible interpreter.
Without an infallible interpreter Christianity will fall either into the latitudinarian error or the sectarian error. The latitudinarian error is simply a long way of saying that anything goes while the sectarian error is a long way of saying nothing goes but what we in our little group permit. The latitudinarian allows any belief as long as they retain formal unity. The Episcopal Church is an example. The sectarians sacrifice formal unity in order to retain unity of belief. The thousands of Protestant denominations are an example.
Only with an infallible interpreter can one retain both unity of form and unity of doctrine, and the only infallible authority for such unity and based in dogma is the authority of the successor of Peter–the Rock on which non Catholics stumble, and the sure Rock on which Catholics build.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his website to browse his books and connect to his well known blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com Fr. Dwight Longenecker Website: www.dwightlongenecker.com Blog: Standing on My Head. His latest book is The Romance of Religion –Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty