November 17, 2011
By William McKenzie
In a conversation last week with Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Martyr, Prophet, Spy and now Socrates in the City: Conversations on Life, God, and Other Small Topics, he brought up the distinction between faith in God and dogma and morality.
As an example, he pointed to how dogma can become an idol of its own. People worship the tenets of their faith, not the God who is behind it.
Likewise, moralists can be pinched sourpusses. Their rigid code becomes a substitute for religious faith.
Of course, people of any faith need some guiding beliefs. Otherwise, their faith is grounded in nothing more than their subjective ideas.
So, as part of our ongoing debate about how people of any religious
tradition balance faith and dogma, how would you respond to this
Is there a distinction between faith in God and dogma and morality?...
MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
Of course there is a difference between faith and dogma. A religious belief that is entirely about rule, ritual, and taboo, without any experience of the living, loving God, is hollow and spiritually deadening.
Jesus himself emphasized this distinction two millennia ago, condemning the Pharisees for whom the scrupulous, public observance of ritual and law had taken the place of a real love for God and man. In contemporary culture, the "pinched sourpuss" moralist (about whom there will usually be revelations of stunning hypocrisy) has become a stock character in literature, film, and television. I think we have all been duly cautioned about excesses in this direction.
At the same time, however, it is important to remember that ours is a generally relativistic age, and that the much greater danger to people of faith today is error in the opposite direction: the complete abandonment of objective doctrine and morality.
We have to remember that, while faith and dogma are not the same thing, they are not enemies either. Are Orthodox Jews, who live by a very strong code of dogma, ritual, and morality, necessarily devoid of "real" faith for this reason? What about Muslims or Catholics who are careful to follow all of the prescriptions and injunctions of their traditions? Are these people all like the Pharisees, missing out on "true" spirituality? I would submit that the answer is obviously "no," and that dismissing the more orthodox, seriously observant members of our traditions as mere Pharisees can be a convenient way to justify our own intellectual and spiritual laxity in the practice of our faith.
Speaking from the standpoint of my own Catholic tradition, for every one believer whose faith may be hampered by excessive dogmatism and moralizing, there are five more who are poorly catechized, ignorant of some of the core teachings (or "dogmas," if you will) of their own faith, and inclined to draw their moral code as much from the surrounding secular culture as from Scripture and tradition.
Can dogmatism and moralism in some cases be an impediment to deeper, more vibrant faith? Absolutely. At their best, however, dogma and morality are real helps to the faith, giving form and structure to an otherwise inchoate yearning for God.
Any person of faith necessarily asks two fundamental questions: What is the nature of God, and what does God want for and from me? Dogma and morality seek to answer these questions, and to do so with the collective wisdom, reasoning, and revelation of millennia of human experience. The individual believer is not alone in his quest for answers to those basic questions, and should use the dogmatic and moral teachings of his faith as guideposts in a genuine journey toward closer union with God.