“In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”—G.K. Chesterton
The way some people speak of dogma suggests it is a relic of a religious past—long forgotten, easily dismissed and thankfully buried under the ash heap of history’s greatest follies. But the real genius of dogma is how it deceived us into thinking its death was synonymous with the death of God.
Dogma is not an idea, it’s a way of thinking—the same way art is not a painting, it’s a way of expression.
Dogma is like a chameleon. It knows how to adapt to its environment to survive. It doesn’t marry itself to an idea. It simply chooses the partner who will serve its purposes best in every generation.
Some forms of religion served that purpose for an age and to a people. But when religion fell out of favour, dogma needed a new host. In that way, dogma is like a parasite. It lives in the body of a hospitable idea.
It takes a keen eye to see how the pure form of any idea can be damaged by the destructive presence of dogma. You can sense dogma in the air the same way you can sense the weather is going to change. You simply need to read the signs.
Dogma is almost always partnered with absolute certainty, blind disregard to contradictions, discrediting its critics, demonising its adversaries, disassociating from its dissenters and justifying its position by its popularity.
Dogma is Rooted in Identity
Many live believing the age of dogma is behind us because religion is behind us. But dogma was never rooted in religion.
Dogma is rooted in identity—it hides in what we use to identify ourselves to the world.
If it’s religion, we’ll be dogmatic about our creeds and condemn anyone who follows their own. If it’s politics, we’ll be dogmatic about what we support and demonise people who vote against us.
If it’s culture, we’ll be dogmatic about our traditions and ban people who write against us. If it’s nationalism, we’ll be dogmatic about our borders and close the doors to our neighbours when they need our help.
If it’s wealth, we’ll be dogmatic about free-market capitalism and label everyone else a communist. If it’s freeing the oppressed, we’ll be dogmatic about Marxism and scoff at anyone who drives a nice car.
If it’s sexuality, we’ll be dogmatic about orientation and exclude anyone who questions our view of society. If it’s marriage, we’ll be dogmatic about the institution and assume there’s something wrong with single people.
If it’s football, we’ll be dogmatic about the team we support and more likely to be thrown out of bars for picking a fight with our rivals. If it’s technology, we’ll be dogmatic about the brands we buy and more likely to troll the opposition on Twitter.
We become dogmatic when we equate our identity with what we love; with what we need to have a sense of identity.
Dogma is rooted in identity—not exclusively in religion because it thrives on our need to attach our worth to something outside of ourselves or anything within ourselves.
A Most Undogmatic Story
In a little over three weeks, a curious annual ritual will repeat itself.
On the cynical side of things, there will be conversations about the pagan origins of Christmas, the consumerism that controls it, the facade of happiness that surrounds it and the unnumbered songs that are sung to a refugee Saviour while millions of refugees lie homeless without any hope of a better future.
On the hopeful side of things, there will be thanksgiving for the self-giving love of Christ, the freedom and hope that comes with it, the deep joy that undergirds it and the unnumbered acts of kindness and compassion towards our neighbours that go unnoticed without a headline.
But a close reading of the Gospels reveals something quite undogmatic about the birth of Christ. Unlike the Herods, Pilates, Pharisees and Caesars of his time, He constantly revealed Himself to the world in the very undogmatic position of vulnerability.
A baby in a manger.
A child of refugees on the run.
A young boy asking questions in the temple.
A man escaping his would-be-killers.
A peaceful anarchist undermining the authority of the temple.
A homeless teacher travelling on foot through the country, holding out the hope of a better kingdom than Rome, a greater temple than Jerusalem and a more glorious city than Athens.
If all this was not as undogmatic as it appears, the Gospel writers went the extra mile to present Him as a crucified Man—a foolish thing to do if they were inventing a story they wanted their audience of Greeks, Romans and Jews to believe.
A crucified man was hateful to Jewish thinkers, defeated to Roman emperor-worshippers and foolish to Greek intellectuals.
If it was thought the message of resurrection was an exertion of power, that too was foolishness.
The idea of a resurrection was heretical to the Jewish who had no theological categories for it; impossible to the Greeks who ridiculed the idea of someone rising from the dead; and worthless to the Romans who believed if someone was released from the human body they had no reason to return to it.
The Death of Dogma
Everything about religion suits the very nature of dogma and places its followers in positions of power, authority and approval. But Jesus undermines the very nature of dogma and places His followers in positions of scrutiny, vulnerability and rejection.
The greatest gift Jesus gives to the world is to release faith in Him from the trappings of dogma.
He entered an unloving world, so we can enter a new creation.
He was treated by God like an outsider so we can be treated like insiders.
He was a refugee on the run, so we can be citizens in His city to come.
He loved us when we were His enemies, so we can be loving to ours.
The greatest gift Jesus gives to the world is to give us a new identity rooted in His self-giving love—not creed, dogma, or religious self-righteousness. The death of Christ was the death of dogma and anyone who walks in Him walks in faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.
Image Credit: Ricky Leong