Literary Witness 12

Dumbing-down Dogma

By David Mills

As a young student at Oxford, Evelyn Waugh listened to a Protestant minister question the Bible and speculate about who Jesus actually was. This did not reconcile him to Christianity. “When he had removed the inherited axioms of my faith I found myself quite unable to follow him in the higher flights of logic by which he reconciled his own skepticism with his position as a clergyman.”

This kind of theologian — and even the Catholic Church has suffered from them — claims that God has not spoken clearly, or that the Church does not speak for Him with authority, or that Jesus was only a very good and gifted man, or that the way the Nicene Creed describes the Trinity only expresses the thoughts of the winning side in a political fight. And then they tell you to go to church every day, say your prayers, follow the official line on all sorts of political matters, and put money in the offering plate.

It doesn’t happen. As Ronald Knox put it, “Dogmas may fly out at the window but congregations do not come in at the door.”

When religious leaders talk that way, he continued, “The uneasy impression is left on the average citizen that ‘the parsons do not know their own business’ . . . that if Christianity is still in process of of formulation after twenty centuries, it must be an uncommonly elusive affair.”

“The average citizen,” he continued, “expects any religion which makes claims upon him to be a revealed religion; and if the doctrine of Christianity is a revealed doctrine, why all this perennial need of discussion and restatement? Why should a divine structure send in continual bills for alterations and repairs? Moreover, he is a little suspicious of these modern concessions, these attempts to meet him half-way. Is the stock (he asks in his commercial way) really a sound investment, when those who hold it are so anxious to unload it on any terms?”

C. S. Lewis, an Anglican, once warned a group of Anglican seminarians that if they taught the average man the doctrine fashionable in their circles — “a theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels” — they “will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist.”

“If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is. If he agrees with your version he will no longer call himself a Christian and . . . in his crude, coarse way, he would respect you much more if you did the same.”

One common example of this process of discussion and restatement is “the conception of a ‘historical Jesus’ to be found by clearing away later ‘accretions and perversions’ and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition,” as Lewis put it. Jesus is not important for who He is, but for “some peculiar theory He is supposed to have promulgated.”

This kind of writing substitutes for the reality of the Lord revealed in Scripture “a merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago,” someone who was at best only “a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian.” He may be up to date, as the historical Jesuses usually are, but He is also imaginary, and “Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped.”

The new alternatives to orthodox Christianity “are suited to the new world; and this is their most damning defect,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. “Their very acceptability makes them inacceptable. . . . Thus they all profess to be progressive because the peculiar boast of their peculiar period was progress. . . . They say they want a religion to be social, when they would be social without any religion. They say they want a religion acceptable to science, when they would accept the science even if they did not accept the religion.”

“They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already. They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it.”

This not what the average man wants, as Knox and Lewis realized, and it is not what we have to give him. “Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ,” wrote Dorothy Sayers. “It is the dogma that is the drama — not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death.”

The Christian drama is “the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.”

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Dumbing-Down Dogma” appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Lay Witness.

The quotations can be found in: Waugh, “Come Inside,” in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh; Knox, The Belief of Catholics, chapter one; Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” in Christian Reflections; Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXIII; Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, chapter 5; Sayers, “The Dogma is the Drama” in Creed or Chaos?.