Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Religion, Faith and Dogma

[This paper was first published in the on-line edition of Witness Magazine, which has since ceased publication. My attempts to locate it in various archives were unsuccessful, and I thought it worth re-publishing here.]


In December 2004, Bill Moyers received an award from The Center of Health and the Global Environment at Harvard. In his speech of thanks he addressed some of the difficulties that face a journalist reporting on environmental matters. The most difficult challenge, he noted, is “the ideology that governs official policy today. One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality”.

The cast of mind that is portrayed here is strongly conservative, particularly in matters of religion and doctrine. Both theses words are frequently used inter-changeably, and both have different shades of meaning. The common assertion of conservative theology that doctrine and practice are a ‘given’, and are immutable, needs careful examination. Doubtless, its proponents will defend the position quite as strongly as their predecessors in the mid-nineteenth century insisted on the immutability of the species in spite of the clear evidence of the fossil record, but some attempt to clarify the usage of the words and the connected issues is worth pursuing.


Reasonably reliable statistics repeatedly tell us that the USA is one of the most religious of the western industrialized nations with a vast majority of those polled affirming some kind of belief in God (or, perhaps, god(s)). In contemporary American English, the word religion is used in so many ways that fundamental distinctions are frequently blurred. It covers personal piety, public forms of worship (or rejection of any forms), attitudes to social questions, running day-care centers, and assertions about God, heaven, purgatory and hell, and, more recently, crystals, labyrinths and ley-lines.
Since the Enlightenment, repeated attempts have been made to produce a definition of religion. Very broadly, they fall into two groups: those which have some theological base (stating or implying the objective existence of a Transcendent, or, at least, transcendence), and those which have anthropological, sociological or psychological bases.

Definitions of Religion

In the first group are absolutist theories, propounded by a religious body: the only ‘true’ religion is this organization, and to be a member is strictly to adhere to all its requirements, (e.g. worship, doctrine(s), discipline, patterns of behavior). Usually it is quite explicit that these requirements are the revealed will of God by holy books, holy men or special visions. This, it would seem, is the position of the relatively new Pope.
Still in the first category, theories shade off into a more relativist approach. Religion is envisioned as the human search for some transcendent reality, but taking many forms. Such theories imply that there is a universal longing for the “Ultimate”. Some suggest that their particular religion is the best way to God, or is the way God has most clearly revealed true religion, while allowing that other religions all have some of the truth. Finally, other theories suggest all religions are ways to the transcendent, the vast array of differences resulting from cultural and linguistic factors.

In general, all the other theories of religion, give up any premises of theology, and, in the light of anthropological study and a more accurate appraisal of world religions, commonly hold that religion in some form or other seems to have been universal in human behavior. Barbara Smith-Morgan in an interview in Science & Spirit said, “I believe that as a species we are religious by nature, just as we are musical by nature”.

Religion: A human activity

Karl Barth gave a theological reading of the view that religion is a natural human activity of (fallen) humanity:
“Religion is is the one great concern of godless man”. And again, “Religion is never true in itself and as such”. On the other hand, religion can be redeemed and sanctified; “like justified man, true religion is a creature of grace”. (Church Dogmatics, quoted in McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, p. 323)
As always, Barth seems extreme and paradoxical, but his remarks resonate with contemporary experience. Certainly, religion does not seem to be a very good influence in many parts of the world: in its name, people in Ireland have been killing one another for centuries. In the Middle East, religion lies behind terrible, continuing and bloody conflicts, and the genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo was fueled by religion; and in the US, as Bill Moyers points out, religion is a powerful force for a political polarization that threatens paralysis.

In spite of the great diversity of the religious scene in the USA, it seems that there is a kind of national religion, or, perhaps, more accurately, a religiosity, and it may well be that the fierce polarization over the ethics of sexual behavior and issues of birth and death are much more the result of cultural/religious positions, than of theological ones.


The confusions in the uses of “religion” are compounded when we consider how the word and concept of faith are used. In Roman Catholic usage, ‘the faith’ signifies rational assent to the authoritative teaching of the church enshrined in creeds, dogmas, authoritative statements of Councils and Popes, and, ultimately, in assent to unchangeable propositions. The epicenter of the Reformation earthquake was a powerful rejection of this view and an attempt to understand anew the biblical meaning of faith. Luther’s re-presentation of the Pauline teaching has continued to influence much modern biblical study with its emphasis on faith in the gracious God, rather than faith that dogmas enshrine what we need to know of God.
The emergence and continuing growth of historical criticism has made it increasingly difficult to base faith on undeniable “facts” of history and the conviction that absolute truths had been transmitted to us. Anselm’s credo ut intellegam , “I believe in order to understand”, may sound as though faith in, commitment to, the living God is primary. But Anselm was a rationalist and the content of belief in his adaptation of Augustine’s original statement was supplied by the dogmas of the Roman church, understood to be the distillation of an ancient faith.

Absence of ‘propositions in earliest Christianity

Before there were any Christian writings there was a handful of followers who recalled the words of Jesus and tried to make sense of what had happened to him, who believed that they had a real and continuing relationship with the one they now called Messiah. In this situation, faith must have seemed a very risky business, much more like a Kierkegaardian leap in the dark than a rational assent to propositional doctrines; even some versions of the Reformation “faith alone” removed much of the element of risk with the other bank reassuringly delineated; the faith needed to make the leap seems like an offering as a condition for forgiveness.


It is hardly surprising that the confusions in talk about religion and faith are not found in the case of dogma, for the very word suggests absolute clarity and order; perhaps used less than at one time, ‘dogmatic’ is often applied pejoratively to those with whom one disagrees. It is, however, still quite central to Roman Catholic discussions of church teaching, and its Protestant equivalent, the Confession. In conservative Evangelical circles, confessionalism is very much alive. The dissenting group within the American Episcopal church, for example, aims to make itself a “replacement jurisdiction with confessional standards, maintaining the historic faith of our [Anglican] Communion”. (Mr. Chapman writing on behalf of the American Anglican Council – Washington Post 1.14.04. My italics). This is revealing since one of the great differences in the English Reformation was that the C. of E. has avoided Confessions of the Lutheran or Calvinist kind.

George Lindbeck & the status of Doctrine

The precise status of doctrines and confessions is at the center of the divisions and crossed lines of communication between various branches of the Christian church: doctrines develop, but how much can they change and can they become obsolete? Can ‘new’ ones, such as the Assumption of the BVM, emerge? How is teaching about central beliefs connected to teaching about practice? For example, does the earliest church’s absolute pacifism – no soldier could even be baptized – have the same status as the later statements about orthodox Trinitarian belief?
A land-mark book by George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, 1984), provided new and clarifying insights. He outlines the two major ways in which doctrine has been understood:
(a) a cognitive approach which emphasizes that doctrines function as propositions giving us information about God, the world and our place within it;
(b) an approach that treats doctrines as expressions of deep religious experience. This assumes a basic religious experience common to humanity that can be expressed in endless ways, closely parallel to an understanding of religion noted at the beginning.

A new paradigm

Lindbeck offers an alternative which might give hope of rapprochement between many diverse traditions. He suggests that the form of a given religion (belief/practice system) is what structures our experience, rather than the experience producing the belief/practice.

"[R]eligions are seen as comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world" (Lindbeck, 32). The fundamental paradigm for this approach emerges from the work of linguistic philosophers, and a comparison is made between the way in which a language shapes a particular culture and the way in which Religion provides a frame-work that gives shape to experience.
Religion "is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities" (p.33). Just as one learns a language by being exposed to it and practicing over and over again, so with religion, one internalizes the experience of the living community which one joins: what one learns, or perhaps, more accurately is "conformed to" is a tradition deeper and richer than could possibly be articulated in propositions. "Sometimes”, writes Lindbeck, “explicitly formulated statements of the beliefs or behavioral norms of a religion may be helpful in the learning process, but by no means always. Ritual, prayer, and example are normally much more important." (p.35).

Responding to new contexts

Among the many advantages of this approach, one is that it facilitates consideration of change and development in doctrinal positions in response to changing situations. In the midst of current tensions and controversies surrounding ethical issues of sexuality, life and death, what Lindbeck has to say is worth attending to:
“Religious traditions are not transformed, abandoned, or replaced because of an upwelling of new or different ways of feeling about the self, the world, or God, but because a religious interpretive scheme (embodied, as it always is, in religious belief and practice) develops anomalies in its application in new contexts”. (p.39, italics added).

He goes on to point out that faithfulness to a doctrine does not require slavish adherence to a fourth or fifth century formula; rather, it calls for new formulations within the guide-lines of the old. Traditionally, a grammar book gives the form of a basic ‘regular’ verb or noun. This is a paradigm one then applies to new vocabulary. It will get you nowhere endlessly to repeat the paradigm unchanged. Lindbeck comments, “amo, amas, amat " operates as a paradigm when one says, e.g., "rogo, rogas, rogat," not when one insists on parroting the original." (p.81).


The reasons why an absolutist, politicized kind of religion is becoming dominant in the USA are complex and need treating at length, but it is clear that a great deal of ‘parroting’ is going on be it of biblical verses wrenched from the context, dogmatic Trinitarian and Christological formulae or disciplinary rules of antiquity. The great majority of lay Christians are unlikely to know or care about Chalcedon or about the details of a particular theory of atonement, but specific, and usually anachronistic, formulations of Christology or Atonement can be made into rigid, immutable requirements for membership in a church and also into offensive weapons with which to fight “heretics”.

Limitations of Doctrine

Lindbeck’s approach might make us more aware of the limitations of doctrine. The absolutist position (RC - Fundamentalist) assumes that doctrine is perfect, final and all-surveying. On the contrary, it is frequently imperfect and inevitably culturally colored. It is also clear that faith positions have changed. Luke’s early chapters of Acts can plausibly said to reflect an 'adoptionist' type theology: Jesus is not the eternal Word, as in the Fourth Gospel, but God’s chosen son/servant (pais), a highly unorthodox teaching judged by the standards of Nicaea and Chalcedon. In a living language, vocabulary certainly changes and grammar gets modified. If we are to have a living faith and religion, not tied to Aristotelian categories, but underpinned by teaching that makes sense in the light of an entirely changed world-view, doctrine must be re-stated and faith must be strong enough to make some blind leaps, leaps where the precise location of the other bank may not be at all clear.

No comments: