A sermon preached in anticipation of a sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed. A few themes from this sermon are borrowed from Timothy Keller’s book, The Reason for God. (Sermon date: January 18, 2009)
As we continue to prepare for a sermon series on the Apostles Creed, we turn from thinking about doubt last week to thinking about dogma this morning. And as we do so the first thing to notice is that our society’s perspective on doubt and dogma, are two side of the same coin.
If, as we said last week, doubt is in fashion, then dogma is very much out of fashion.
If doubt is considered sophisticated, then dogma is considered simplistic, naive.
If doubt is thought to be responsible then dogma is thought to be the height of irresponsibility.
In this vein we find Christopher Hitchens, the hyper-sceptic, the evangelical atheist, saying:
“To choose dogma over doubt is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”
For Christopher Hitchens, doubt is a nice bottle of California Pinot Noir,
while dogma is a juice pitcher full of
coloured sugar water.
Doubt and dogma are but two sides of the same coin. Our society’s doubtful attitude toward religion goes hand in hand with a refusal of religious dogma.
This week we take up the question of dogma for the same reason that we took up the question of doubt last week. We do so because the attitudes and perspectives of those who live around us have an impact on us. We don’t live in a bubble, sealed off from Canadian society. We are part of that society. We can’t expect ourselves to be immune from questions or criticism or different ways of thinking.
When it comes to the specific question of dogma, our society often sends the message that those who hold to religious dogma are out of fashion, are naive, or are even irresponsible. And in hearing this we very quickly begin to think that we are out of fashion, that we are naïve, that we are irresponsible. As we stand to speak the words of the Apostles’ Creed on a Sunday morning we may even feel that we are going contrary to what is acceptable.
As we begin thinking about dogma this morning, we should clarify what exactly we’re talking about. The word ‘dogma’ has a few meanings but when we talk about religious dogma we’re really talking about what the church believes – we’re talking about what the church claims to be true about God, about the world, about ourselves. Here it makes sense to think about the Apostles’ Creed. When we stand to recite the creed we confess our belief, among other things,
that God created the world,
that Jesus is God’s only Son.
We confess that there is something called the church,
that God forgives sins.
These are religious dogma. They are Christian dogma – these are claims about what is true, and Christians have held to them over many generations.
Of course in the present age religious dogma has gotten a very bad name. And in large measure dogma has a bad name because of what has been done in the name of dogma, in the name of religion, in the name of Christian faith. Think of the so-called wars of religion in Europe in the 16th century. Think of the church’s complicity in the slave trade and in apartheid. Think of the troubles in Ireland – Protestant against Catholic. Catholic against Protestant. Think of the crusades.
With all of this in mind, many philosophers and poets and political theorists have concluded that religious dogma is the problem, or at least a major part of the problem in our world. “If people would only give up their dogmas, if they would only give up their claims about the truth of God or the truth of the human, then our world would be a more peaceful place.” It’s assumed that when people hold to dogma, when they hold dogmatically to their faith, that other people end up getting hurt. Most radically, someone like Christopher Hitchens will say: “Religion poisons everything.” Or, dogma poisons everything.
Now, how are we to respond to all of this? How are we to respond to this attack on dogma – to this idea that we shouldn’t hold firmly to Christian teachings. Should we respond by defending religion? Should we respond by defending Christianity against these attacks?
Perhaps. Or, perhaps not.
On the ‘perhaps’ side, we could perhaps defend Christianity by suggesting that the problem isn’t really with religion or with Christianity. Maybe the problem is with human beings. After all, the greatest atrocities of the last century – think of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, think of the millions purged by Stalin, think of the millions killed in the Holocaust – these were not done in the name of religion. Often, in fact, these were carried out by institutions that were explicitly anti-religious. So religion and religious dogma aren’t necessarily the problem.
Continuing on the ‘perhaps’ side, we could perhaps also defend Christianity by pointing out that much good has been done in the name of Christianity. The peaceful protest of Martin Luther King Jr. against civil rights violations was deeply rooted in his Christian faith. The end to the slave trade owes much to the evangelical faith of William Wilberforce and others. Here in Canada, Tommy Douglas’s defence of national medicare was no doubt rooted in his socially conscious Christian faith? Much good has been done in the name of Christianity. Then perhaps we can defend Christianity from this attack on dogma.
But on the other side there is the ‘perhaps not’ – perhaps we should not defend Christianity against the charge that it is complicit in much that is wrong-headed – that it is complicit in much that is violent and unjust. Indeed, it seems self-evident that the Christian religion is implicated in these realities – no matter what we say, a dark cloud hangs still hang over us.
But if we are to stay with the ‘perhaps not’ – perhaps we cannot defend Christianity – we have to ask whether there is any way forward. If we accept the criticism that Christianity is implicated in injustice and violence, is there any way we can stand and a make public declaration of what we believe about God and the world? If we accept this criticism of religious dogma, can we still stand to confess the Apostles’ Creed?
This morning I would suggest that there is a way forward – and our way forward begins in the recognition that the Scriptures themselves direct a good deal of criticism at religion. (See Keller’s The Reason for God)
Our Old Testament lesson this morning is from the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 58. In that passage, God, through the prophet, takes aim at those who are religious – those who are religious but have forgotten everything that really matters. These people say to God – “We are fasting God, fasting and praying, but you don’t seem to notice what we’re doing. You don’t seem to care.” Well, God doesn’t notice their fasting, because fasting isn’t what God thinks most important. As we read in verses 6 and 7, the fasting that God requires is that bonds of injustice be loosed, that the hungry receive bread to eat, that the homeless poor be welcomed into our homes. Because they have forgotten these, the religious practice of the people is empty and irrelevant.
Or think also of Jesus in the sermon on the Mount – he also takes on those who are religious. The people Jesus criticizes are people who pray, who give to the poor, and who try to live according to the scriptures. But they do so in order to get honour and power for themselves.
Let’s be clear. Neither Jesus nor the prophets are against prayer and fasting – they are not opposed to the faithful worship of the God. But what Jesus and the prophets make apparent, is that the practices of religion don’t provide any guarantee that we will treat others with the graciousness and hospitality and love. Jesus and the prophets remind us that in the hands of human beings, even the practices of prayer and fasting and preaching quickly become less than they ought to be.
In this same vein, when men and women hold to Christian dogma, to the claims of their religious tradition, they frequently end up lording themselves over others. Holding to, and declaring the teachings of Christian religion can quickly become a basis for arrogance or impatience or unkindness toward others.
Karl Barth, a great Christian theologian of the last century, explored this question at some length. For him Christian faith is a humble acknowledgment that God has encounterd us and embraced us in Jesus Christ – it is an awareness that God speaks to us in a dynamic relationship and makes us his children. But the theologian points out that from the moment of that encounter and embrace, from the moment of God’s adoption of us as his children, faith also becomes something very human. It becomes religion – Christian faith very quickly becomes something we do, something we want to advance, and something we claim. In our hands, it very quickly becomes something we use to confront others, to elevate ourselves, to defend our own.
I said a few minutes ago that there may be a way through the dogma dilemma in the recognition that Jesus and the prophets are critical of religion. What we discover in Jesus and the prophets is that we needn’t be threatened by those in our culture who are critical of religion on account of its implication in violence and injustice. As the philosopher Merold Westphal puts it, Jesus and the prophets have beat them to the punch. Jesus and the prophets are as critical of religion as many in our culture are.
But perhaps this doesn’t feel like much of a way forward, does it. We are still in a cul-de-sac. If Christian faith can so quickly becomes something that we claim as our own, and something we use to beat others over the head (as Jesus and the prophets themselves acknowledge) how can we stand with confidence to confess the Creed? It almost feels like we have to abandon the doctrines that have been handed down to us in the church.
Well, once again, perhaps there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. As we think about a possible way out, let me begin with a longish quotation from Timothy Keller (whose book I mentioned last week). He writes:
Think of people you consider fanatical about Christianity. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding – as Christ was. They emulate Jesus’ whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.”
You may recall that through the Autumn we spent some time looking at the gospel of Matthew – and particularly at the radical call of Christ to follow him. We get a taste of that again this morning in our New Testament readings: Jesus declares:
If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
At the heart of our Christian faith, indeed at the heart of the Apostles’ Creed, is the humble servant Jesus – the one who goes even to the cross that we might live. In the creed we confess that this Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and dead and buried, he descended to the dead – and we confess that his way of humble service was vindicated in resurrection life.
At the heart of our faith and at the heart of our confession is this Jesus, who turns the values of our world upside down –
who declares that greatness is found in service…
who announces that the humble one will be given first place…
who reveals that the way of the cross has become the way to new life…
This Jesus, who is also our gracious and risen Lord, invites us to follow in his way. He
invites us to become like children,
invites us to wash dusty, dirty feet,
invites us to take up the cross of faith and service.
There is here, I think, an answer to our dogma dilemma. This answer doesn’t solve every tension. This answer doesn’t provide an iron-clad guarantee we won’t descend into human-made, human-controlled religion. This answer won’t satisfy everyone who is opposed to Christian claims about God and the world. But this answer might allow us to confess the Creed with integrity and confidence.
I suggest to you this morning that our confession of the Apostles Creed must be rooted in, and move us toward, a relationship with our humble and crucified Lord. Our confession of the Apostles Creed must be rooted in and move us toward a form of life that is defined by service, humility, and love. To put it simply, our confession of the Apostles Creed must arise out of faith in Jesus Christ. In him there is no allowance for our attempt to control others, to upbraid others, to do violence to others. He is love, he is humble service, and in him we might also be defined by love and by humble service.
Conversely, if our confession of the Apostles Creed does not arise out of faith in Christ. If confession of the Creed does not arise out of a form of life that is rooted in his service, his humility, his empathy, his love – then our public declaration of faith quickly becomes mere religion, mere dogma.
Yet by God’s grace, through living encounter with our humble Lord, it is possible for us to move beyond mere human religion in our confession of faith. By God’s grace, it is possible for us to confess the Apostle’s Creed in the confident humility of our Lord. Thanks be to God, Amen.