We had a family friend (we’ll call him Dean) who began as a conservative Bible-believing Protestant Christian, but ended by neither practising nor believing the Christian faith. When I asked him about this he said the problem was dogma. He saw Christians quarreling over dogma while neglecting their social and domestic duties to love and care for others. He ended his days saying that “All that really mattered was loving one another.”
I had a certain amount of sympathy for his views, and have had my own share of experiences of Christians who argue about theology and exclude others and have not a scrap of compassion, care or good humor. However, I don’t think that the problem was that they were dogmatic, but that they treated dogma as an end rather than the means to an end. Dogma is not the final step on the journey, but the first step. Dogma is a necessary part of a fully fleshed out religion. On it’s own it is at least mere theory and at worst a legalistic and negative system.
I would argue that Christianity has to be dogmatic because of the incarnation of Our Lord. Once the Son of God became man the general became particular. Things came into focus. He ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ meaning he came here at a particular time to a particular people in a particular way to reveal a particular truth and save particular individuals. As a result the Christian religion must be particular too, and that means that the particular truths can be specified. Of course the Truth is larger than the dogma, but the dogma does faithfully articulate the truth.
Religion without dogma, on the other hands, lapses into sentimentality. By ‘sentimentality’ I don’t just mean puppies and kittens and sunsets on beaches and songs like “I walk through the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…” Instead by sentimentality I mean that one’s religious beliefs, if not dogmatic, can only be personal and subjective, and if personal and subjective, they must ultimately be determined by how one feels about a particular doctrine or moral teaching. The sentimentalist has no fixed authority or external given, therefore his beliefs can never be more than a matter of opinion, and that opinion, no matter how well formed, and thought out, can never be more than his own opinion, and if his own opinion, then merely his own instinct.
This must be so, for as soon as you establish for yourself any sort of external, objective authority you must start moving into dogmatism. If that authority is your General Synod or the Bible or the Book of the Prophet Zog of the Church of the Fifth Dimension you will start to develop and hold to dogma of some sort, and if you do so unconsciously the hold that dogma has over you will be even more profound for the very fact that it is unknown to you.
Therefore one either has dogma (either consciously or unconsciously) or one lapses into sentimentalism. If one does lapse into sentimentalism, then of course dogma becomes the enemy. Then the one virtue is that you respect everyone else’s sentimental views for none has the right or authority to declare any dogma to be true. When this happens, of course things become delightfully absurd because now the anti-dogmatist must affirm one basic dogma–that there is no dogma, and he thus becomes dogmatic.
So, if we must be dogmatic one way or the other, then it is much better to affirm that we are dogmatic and understand what dogma is for and use it properly. Dogma is like the ladder on which we climb. It is the map for the journey. However, it is the climb and the journey which matter most–not the ladder or the map.
One could climb without a ladder and one can undertake the journey without a map, but why would you want to do that? If you are going on a journey wouldn’t it make sense to take a map? If this is the case, and this is what dogma is for, then it only remains to ask which church has the clearest, most comprehensive and reliable map?
One of the reasons I became a Catholic was because I found the ‘Catholic map’ to be most comprehensive, detailed, ancient, trustworthy and true. Catholic dogma and moral teaching is expressed clearly and cogently. It has been developed over 2000 years through the hearts, minds and lives of the greatest theologians and saints.
Of course the ‘dogma map’ may be difficult for some people to understand. It may be even more difficult to obey. In that case we only have two choices: to follow the map or to set out on our own. To extend the analogy–if the journey we are on is one that is full of risk through a dangerous and inhospitable landscape like Death Valley–then to disregard the map which many have found indispensable and choose to find our own way could very well be disastrous.