Freedom and Fellowship, chapter 1: A Case for Theology (part 8)

Dogma and Piety

However, if we are to begin engaging theology as a rightful and proper art form then we are required to address a reality currently prevalent in the Christian faith: that theology’s purpose and potential has come under scorn. This reality is both caused by and has resulted in theologians being replaced in the Christian’s mind by two separate (though related) groups: the dogmatists and the pietists.

Just as humanity has reacted in fear to other forms of art, Christians have become fearful of theology and have retreated from this art which seeks to suggest, set free, and expand. In running away from theology we have, instead, run into the arms of dogma and piety, because they appear to be (and, in some ways, are) more controllable.

The Establishment of Dogma

One group that has sought (over the last century, at least) to take the place of theologians are “the dogmatists.” Almost all of what has been produced in the name of theology in recent memory has been, in actual fact, dogma. Rather than seeking to suggest, set free, or expand, the dogmatists seek to establish an authoritative set of principles which are taken as incontrovertibly true, yet can never be ultimately proven (as evidenced by appeals to “taking things on faith” and myth-like understandings of revelation). This dogmatic reaction finds expression in two forms–religious and philosophical–with the later springing from the former.

Religious dogmatism finds its grounding in a particular epistemological (NOTE: epistemology: the study of knowledge, or “how we know what we know”) perspective. Informed by the work of psychologist William Perry and, later, Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberg, and Jill Tarule, we can observe that religious dogmatists demostrate characteristics of a perspective based in dualism as well as the (limited) ability to recieveinformation from authorities and then reproduce those results.

At this point in a person’s development, they do not have the authority to generate/discover/discern knowledge on their own. Rather, the method by which they come to know what they know is through interaction with an established authority figure (in these cases, most likely a pastor or author). Our reference to artists “mimicing” the great masters earlier is very similar to the way that knowledge is transferred in this relationship. Knowledge only has value if it originates with (or is, in some other way, blessed by) the authority figure. Previously, the epistemological perspective of these dogmatists had been one labeled by Belenky et al as silence, the denial of an ability to direct their selves in any meaningful action, depending instead on external direction. As such, the shift from silence to the perspective of recieved knowledge brings one an amount of pride and results in fervor and zeal.

Further, because the knowledge that religious dogmatists possess comes from an authority, and is dependant upon that authority for validation, the dogmatist has no capacity to creatively pursue nuanced solutions. All that one can do is consult the rubric set out by the authority figure and pass judgement upon the validity of the object or issue in question. In other words, to the religious dogmatists, there is only right and wrong. All life is dualistic. As one demonstrates an ability to correctly ajudicate between right and wrong, reward is given. Correct judgement and reward are a cause and effect.

Because this is the way that the religious dogmatist’s brain is wired to recieve information (or, in many cases, they way they choose to gain knowledge despite the ability to inhabit a more mature and complex epistemologocal perspective), one can easily see how they might (and do) describe the structure of reality (their cosmology). First, there is always a singular authority. Someone or something has to be in charge. If there were not someone at the top of whatever pyramid we were considering, how would anyone know anything? How would anythign ever get done? Secondly, there are only two ways to approach life: the authority figure’s way or the wrong way. In fact, they do not consider that this is merely the way they see reality. They operate with the belief that there is no other way reality could be constructed (presumably because the authority figure said so).

To take yet another step forward, upon these epistemological and cosmological bases is built their desription of God and God’s interaction with creation. This description is well known to many as “religious fundamentalism,” and supposes that God has instituted, from on high, that there is a certain way in which life will be conducted, and has given the power and authority to carry out that way of life to certain individuals and groups. As such, there are rules that everyone is expected to follow and roles that everyone is expected to play (enforced by the appointed arbiters). The “cause and effect” of this worldview is obedience and sacrifice resulting in eternity in Heaven.

However, this way of thinking and communicating cannot be considered theology, for theology supposes symbolism and a genesis in feelings. Ask a religious dogmatist whether refering to God as “Father” is symbolic and you might well have a fight on your hands. And to suggest that feelings should be the impetus of theology runs directly counter to their episitemological perspective. Especially when considering God, theology cannotproceed from the religious dogmatist’s self, only from the authority.

Philosophical dogmatism rises in response to religious dogmatism and also finds grounding in a particular epistemological perspective. Perry and Belenky et al allow us to observe that this group demonstrates characteristics of multiplicity and subjective knowledge.

This shift in perspectives is usually brought about due to a failure on the part of authority figures to adequately provide for a person’s (perceived or actual need for) well being. Rather than just one perspective holding sway, teh philosophical dogmatists begins granting power to different sources. This is due, in part, to the recognition that one can produce or discern knowledge in and of themself–somethign can come to be known “in my bones” and does not require the validation of an authroty figure.

Cosmologicaly, this does away with the need to have one source of authority. For example, no longer should religion be allowed to dictate the terms by which science does its work. Ethical stances can be arrived at independently as well. (This is not to say that religion will never again have an influence in these area, just that the final say does not reside within the religious framework.) Without an ultimate authority to guide us, responsibility shifts to the individual members of society to determine the best course of action. When required, these determinations are arrived at with others, but each individual is responsible for their own achievement.

The effect of this shift on the consideration of spiritual matters is great, and in the case of philosophical dogmatists this shift is evidenced by a comfort with a broad range of spiritual sources. It is not uncommon to hear a reference to Jesus Christ, followed by references to the Bagivad Gita or the rabbinic tradition of Judaism. The defense of this practice is found in the philosophical dogmatist’s appeal to failures of the particular relgious tradition they have inhabited.

However, the irony of the philosophical dogmatists is that their attempt to reject the dogmatic convictions of their religious counterparts actually serves to solidify dogmatic convictions of their own. Even though the claim that a philosophical dogmatism is more inclusive can be sustained, part of what drives the project to so many sources is an attempt to find certainty. Discontent with the well they have always pulled from, they are on a quest for somethign more true, more pure, more complete.

Of neccesity, then, they must use language that is not symbolic. As they survey the breadth of religious and wisdom traditions from which theya re pulling, translation must occur in order to achieve their goal of a broader spiritual view. In order for that to occur, an intermediary must be in place: philosophy of religion. For the philosophical dogmatist, the particular claims of a specific tradition have value only in so far as they can be measured according to the categories set out by a broad philosophy of religion.

Again, as with its religious counterpart, philosophical dogmatism cannot be considered theology. While the case can certainly be made that the project concerns human feelings (in the corporate sense), it fails the remaining criteria of creation of form by way of symbolic language. For the philosophical dogmatist, form is never created, only found and appropriated for one’s own use. Even then, the language is neutered of its symbolic power in order to ensure compliance with broad, yet specific, categories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s