Dogma and Relationship

There is a charge which is leveled against the catholic Church from time to time--and specifically against the Magisterium--which goes something like this: faith is about a relationship with God, and all these dogmas of the Church hinder that relationship. The Church is too concerned that people are believing the right things, and not concerned nearly enough helping them to develop a good personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or with any person of the Trinity for that matter. Oddly enough, the unspoken sentiment is just as often that these doctrines aren't true as that they aren't important--the anti-dogmatist is quite often only a subconscious dogmatist who believes in a different set of dogmas.

This claim against the Church is lately made most frequently by Protestants--though the atheist and the agnostic have their variations on it--many of whom have tried to jettison all dogma to have a "simpler" relationship with Christ. There are, of course, many other Protestants who see the reasonableness of a dogma, whether they be "Bible only" Protestants or whether they draw on the Bible and some of the Church fathers, or the creeds, or the early councils. After all, a dogma is nothing more than a conclusion, whatever it may be grounded in, whether in the authority of the Church or Tradition or the Scriptures. The Protestant statement that the Bible alone is authoritative is every bit as dogmatic as the infallibility of the pope; the secularist statement that nature cannot alter her course is every bit as dogmatic as the statement that Christ is true God and also true man.

"Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human."
Dogmas are inescapable in human life, as Chesterton here reminds us. Every definition is a dogma, as is every axiom. To think is to rely on any number of assumptions, many of which are quite dogmatic in the sense of being quite conclusive.
"The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. It may be said even that the modern world, as a corporate body, holds certain dogmas so strongly that it does not know that they are dogmas."

If the dogma is the end of one thought, then it is the beginning of several more. But along with thoughts can come devotions. We are devoted to Christ because He was God: so we know by the dogma which was promulgated by the Council of Nicea, and codified in the creed which takes that council's name. We are devoted to Him because He was also fully human, indeed more perfectly human than are we--for He was a Man whom met the very end for which men were made.

A dogma is the conclusion which we might draw given the raw data of Revelation; sometimes it is even explicitly revealed to us, so that little hermeneutic or exegesis is necessary. Other times the dogma is drawn form a doctrine which unfolds slowly, which was revealed to us as through a glass darkly. But in all cases the religious dogma is necessary, and even necessary to having a better relationship with God: because each dogma ultimately points back to God and tells us something about Him.

We may believe that we can better understand, and in turn understand that we better believe, but this understanding should also allow us to better love. It does this by allowing us to love God as He is--at least to the extent that He revealed Himself--and not only God as we ourselves make Him to be. The Catholic dogmas remind us that we are made in God's image and likeness, and not the other way around. They remind us that God is real, and that there are some things which we really can know about Him. This may mean that the rosy picture of God that we first have, the one with which we may first fall in love, proves to be inaccurate; it may mean that our faith is tested a little. But this results in something greater, which is both the reward of a stronger faith and of a truer one, a more perfect one (see James 1:2-6).

The dogma of the Creed means that we love not just any God, but a very specific God. It means that the "personal relationship" which we develop is not merely with a Christ who was maybe a man or maybe God or possibly neither, but with Jesus Christ Who was both God and Man. It means that we believe not merely in God as a Creator, but also as a Redeemer; not just as a Lord but also as a Father; not just a Son but also a Brother. It means that we believe in a Holy Spirit who did not only come down in tongues of fire upon the apostles, but Who also spoke through the prophets before them. Without some dogma, we cannot distinguish whether we have a relationship with one God in Three Divine Persons, or with a God who is only One Person in different guises. Indeed, it is dogmatic to state that God is love, and thus to know that we can have any relationship with Him at all.

Trackback URL for this post: