Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Faith vs. Dogmatism: a personal reflection

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

- Hebrews 11: 1 (NRSV)

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ."

- M. K. Gandhi

Recently I was put to the unpleasant expedient of having to remove two individuals from my Facebook internet social networking account. Why was this necessary? Because I am a man who has come to have a limited tolerance for the dogmatic, especially when it is taken to the point of personal disparagement in a public venue. The two in question were people with whom I had become acquainted on an evangelical Christian site concerning "apologetics" (the rational defense of faith) that I had taken an interest in, and I did not really know them personally. It had however become quickly apparent to me that these two had little interest in a lively exchange of views, but only in persuading me of the merits of their own position - and in rather un-Christ like fashion, had no qualms about using labels such as "heretic" or "apostate" in describing other Christian groups with whom they disagreed on rather disputable questions of doctrine. This experience caused me to reflect at length on a matter that has occupied my inner life for some time now - the distinction between faith and dogmatism. I heartily affirm the former, but have grown increasingly impatient with the latter as I have encountered it over the years - from others - or within my own spirit.

As I see it the basic difference is that dogmatists traffic in certainty, whereas people of authentic faith deal in hope. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews expresses it, " is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen." What this passage of scripture would seem to suggest to me is that religious faith is non-rational. Notice that I did not say "irrational" - there are very good and compelling reasons for Christian faith that commend themselves to those of us who have come to accept its claims, but none of these reasons offer conclusive proof of any sort that justifies a claim to certitude or spiritual hubris. Faith addresses itself entirely to realities that are outside the range of the empirically verifiable. What any religious tradition affirms about such things as "God," "eternal life," or "revelation" (as disclosed within a particular set of scriptures, or mediated through the ritual and practices of a community within that tradition) are amenable neither to any proof, or dis-proof, that is external to that faith-community. The only "evidence" that can prove or justify the claims of any faith - Christian or otherwise - is the personal mystical experience of that faith in those who believe in it. The best that any historical evidence could do (such as the apostolic testimony of the Four Gospels for instance) is offer compelling data that our faith might be true - and therefore reasonable. But beyond this it cannot go. To use the language of both the lawcourt and laboratory, the evidence is "inconclusive." Consequently, it would seem to me that in faithful people the recognition of this reality would engender a spirit of charity and humility. As a Christian I cannot claim to know that any of what I believe is the "truth" in any absolute sense, I can but rest in hope and expectation.

Don't get me wrong, I am a man who is in love with God, passionate about his Christianity, and have some very definite personal convictions about both the doctrines I believe and the values I try to practice. I am a member of the Episcopal Church - a denomination in the Anglican tradition - and theologically my views are largely "conservative" ones with respect to the central affirmations of this branch of the Church of Jesus Christ. When I say the Nicene Creed during the liturgical service of my parish on Sunday morning, I heartily endorse without reservation the truth and historic reality of the entire corpus of this ancient affirmation of the Christian Gospel. As I see it, authentic faith must have form and content - and doctrine provides the content, and tradition provides the form. My faith has provided for me, in the words of the song "Forever Young" that 60's era folk-singer Joan Baez sang so beautifully "...a strong foundation when the winds and changes shift."

On the other hand it is not that I would disparage reason either. Quite the contrary, where matters of a "this-worldly" nature are concerned I have long been the consummate rationalist. I am very much the sort to insist on facts, evidence, and empirical data with regard to any issue that admits itself to analysis on this basis. But I have come to see that rational methods of inquiry have met their boundary when it comes to having much to say in the area of faith. Not that I think faith and reason are incompatible (for that is yet another kind of dogmatism indulged in by the "religion" of atheism) but simply that they address themselves to very different kinds of questions. As I see it faith transcends reason, but it does not contradict it.

No one believes anything without some degree of inward personal assurance that that what s/he believes is "right." If I weren't personally convinced that Christianity were "true" or "right" in its claims, well obviously I would believe in something else. This only makes sense, doesn't it? What does not make much sense is for me to fail to recognize that other people are making exactly the same assumption regarding the truths that they believe that may be very different from mine. What also does not make much sense - especially given the values of love and charity that our faith purportedly teaches us to practice - is to behave in a patronizingly superior manner toward those of a different religion (or no religion) or even of a different denomination within the same religion. Or even worse yet - to indulge the sort of outright hate that is responsible for a good many of the profound tragedies of our human history. We could be wrong, and those we patronize could well end up being right - we just don't know. As Christians we have our faith and the "witness of the Spirit" to guide us, but not the sort of concrete absolutely verifiable evidence of "certainty" that would allow us to insist on assent to our "truths" on the part of anyone else. Why is it, I wonder, so many Christians - be they fundamentalist or evangelical Protestants or very orthodox Roman or Anglo-Catholics, indeed even those who call themselves theological "liberals" - do not seem to have the humility to recognize this?

I am certainly not innocent of the sin of spiritual pride, particularly in the years of my teens and early adulthood I too indulged the arrogance of certainty of which I am now so critical. It damaged my relationships and in fact made shipwreck of my faithful witness to the Gospel. It took a long road of hard knocks and painful experiences for me to really wake up and see what the teaching of Jesus was really all about, and I'm still learning it every day. But it is life that teaches me these lessons much more than doctrine. The older I get (and I will turn 46 as of the week of this writing) the more I recognize that our witness is not in what we say, but largely in what we do. It is not our ortho-doxy that others notice and are either impressed or repelled by - but our ortho-praxy, or the lack of it.

Those for whom Jesus had the harshest rebuke were the rigid and legalistic dogmatists of his own culture and faith-community - the Pharisees. The sort that would order the stoning to death of an adulterous woman on the street, but not even bother to ask where was the male accomplice of the adulteries for which she stands accused and condemned? "You who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone at her" is what the Gospel writer records Jesus as asking the mob - and it is as fair a question today as it was then to any who are self-satisified in their own sense of personal "holiness." Jesus impacted those who followed him much more by his works of love, mercy and compassion, than by anything he ever said or taught. It was his work of supreme self-sacrifice on the cross in suffering and giving up his life that stands as the central story of our faith and that our creeds and rituals commemorate - not some particular teaching that he propounded.

St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said, "We should always preach the Gospel, and sometimes we should use words." I hope to do better at following this example, and have done with dogmatism.



  1. I can only hope to live in grace and act with compassion. It is not for me to decide what others believe is right or wrong. What distrubs me, more than anything else, is how to deal with people who claim to love Christianity and God but clearly hate Christians who refuse to conform to specific concepts with which they don't agree. It is not for me to judge. "Judge not," Christ told his followers, "lest ye be judged." I am simply here to live my life and manage my experience here on Earth as best I can. In the meantime I leave it to the hypocrits and hate-mongers to judge what is and is not right!

  2. Awesome post John! I believe you miss the message if you concentrate too much on the words.