The Tragedy of Dogma
Dr. Clark Carlton · August 2, 2007
No one wakes up and decides to become a heretic. It happens gradually.
Hello, and welcome again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is The Tragedy of Dogma. Orthodoxy is known for her doctrinal conservatism, for her strict adherence to the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the dogmatic writings of the Church Fathers. So what I am about to say may seem a bit counter-intuitive. Dogma represents a profound tragedy within the life of the Church. What I mean is this: The dogmatic teachings of the Church are a direct result of sin and of the loss of faith. Or to put it another way, if Christians, from the very beginning, had devoted themselves to the therapeutic method of asceticism and prayer, given by our Lord and his apostles, there would never have been a need for conciliar definition or words like homo-ousios, or hypostatic union.
The reason for this is simple: The Orthodox method of therapeia is diametrically opposed to trying to understand God, or figure out why or how He does what He does. We have mentioned before that the fathers tend to distinguish between the mental faculty of conceptual thought, the theonia, and the faculty of intuitive awareness, or apprehension, the nous.
According to the Fathers, God is known only to the extent that the nous is purified form all earthly attachments and descends into the deep part, where it encounters Christ. In this method, rational or conceptual thinking about God, even if the thoughts are correct, is an obstacle to pure prayer, which is a communion of the nous with Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Does this mean that we simply turn off the rational faculty of the soul? No, we can’t. That is why we have psalms and prayers, and especially the Jesus prayer—to occupy the theonia, and focus the attention of the soul upon the heart.
But if you are like me, the minute you start to pray, your mind starts to race. Sometimes I start to think about the now matters, like my laundry. Sometimes thoughts pop into my head—the fathers call these logismi—that I can’t even describe on a family podcast.
Other times, however, I get to thinking about how God did this, or why Father X said Y. It is these last logismi that are the most dangerous of all, because they often appear under the guise of piety.
But here is the point. If my mind is focused upon these thoughts, it is not focused upon prayer. Let’s face it. Prayer is hard work, and I will admit that I am not very good at it. But at least I learn from my mistakes.
One thing I know for sure, there can be no prayer without concentrated ascetical effort. That means fasting, alms-giving, confession—all those things that I don’t particularly like. So instead of doing them, I think about them, I analyze them, I write books about them, and I tell myself that I am a good Orthodox Christian because I am occupying my mind with these things rather than other things. But where are the fruits of the spirit? Where is prayer? And by prayer, I mean real communion with God, not just mouthing the words in front of an icon.
Over the years there have been many people just like me. They prefer talking about the cure rather than taking it. Since conceptual thought plays such a big role in this alternative therapeutic method, or should I say, pseudotherapeutic method, it isn’t long before some folks decide that certain aspects of Christianity don’t make much sense—the Trinity, for example. Try as we might, there is no way to make three equal one. Makes much more sense to say that there is one God who reveals Himself in three modes or characters.
Then there is all that business with the incarnation. A crucified God doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. Much better to say that Jesus was a man who had some sort of special connection with God.
Do you see where heresy comes from? Almost all heresy? No one wakes up and decides to be a heretic. It happens gradually, and it almost always happens the same way—when we decide to treat Christianity as an ideology, rather than as a therapeutic discipline.
Let’s switch metaphors for a moment. Think of Orthodoxy as a narrow way, just as our Lord described it. This way consists of our participation in the mysteries, ascetical effort, and contemplative prayer. As our Lord said, it can be difficult. Heretics are those who have decided that there is another way. Some have tried to find a shortcut, others want a path that is a little less arduous, and some just want to meander about on their own.
Seen in this light, heresies are detours from the straight and narrow way. If enough people start taking a detour, the Church puts up one of those traffic courses with the orange light and prominent sign that says, Danger, Road Closed. You see, that is what doctrinal statements are, and that is all they are. They are warning signs that tell us not to go down a particular path. Dogma does not define God. Dogma does not explain God or His ways. Dogma does one thing, and one thing only. It warns us away from false paths. It warns us back onto the straight and narrow way.
Now do you see why I speak of the tragedy of dogma? Every dogmatic definition marks a spot where thousands, if not more, have gone off the road. They are sad monuments, like the white crosses that one sees along the highway marking the scene of a fatal accident. And yet, providentially, they serve as reminders to us of the dangers of thinking that we can make our own way to the Kingdom of God, just as a grouping of white crosses indicates that we are on a particularly treacherous stretch of road.
This explains, too, the doctrinal conservatism for which Orthodoxy is so famous. It is because we have yet to truly purify our nous and our heart. It is because we do not yet know how to pray that we must stick to the road that our fathers have marked out for us. Only in this way can we be sure to find the Kingdom promised to those who seek Christ with their whole heart.
There remains, however, one danger—a danger far more subtle than the heresies themselves. This is the danger of mistaking the road signs for the road. It is the danger of turning the dogmatic definitions and canons into idols and using them as a bludgeon for our brothers and sisters. It is the danger of assuming that knowing the right formulas equals the knowledge of God.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us strive at each moment to consciously stay on the road, and when we find ourselves drifting either to the left or to the right—and religious conservatism, if embraced in the wrong spirit, can be just as dangerous as religious liberalism—let us come back to ourselves, like the prodigal, and commit ourselves once again, to the straight and narrow way.
Speaking of road trips, I’m off to Oxford for a conference next week. God willing, I will be back in two weeks with another podcast.
Until then, may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, who indicated to the native Alaskans the way to the Kingdom of heaven, and of the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.