Friday, October 22, 2010

The Dogmatic Identity of Christianity

I recently participated in a panel at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. We had quite a crowd, thoughtful responses to the question, and challenging and stimulating conversation. It was an honor to be a part of the evening. The following are my thoughts on the question to which we were asked to respond.

“How can Christianity overcome its dogmatism without losing its identity?”

I take issue with this question. I take issue with the question because it doesn’t end with “overcome its dogmatism.” Perhaps the fear of losing identity in the forfeiture of dogmatism is simply dogmatism wearing a thin mask because now we have no clear distinction, no line in the sand, between us and the other. Identity is important, inevitable, necessary. Identity is our sense of self, giving us meaning and mission, as much performative as it is informative. But the formation of identity often stems from a desire for power, a fear of doubt, and a need to make enemies: we need to know who is different from us so we can protect ourselves.

I take issue with the question because people are still kicking and screaming about how to define Christianity after two thousand years and I only have five minutes. And I take issue with the question because it assumes Christianity actually exists. There is really no such thing as Christianity, only Christianities in different times and cultures. Church history is filled with councils and reformations, wrought with power plays and accusations of heresy, all in the effort to pin down identity. Creeds were written, doctrines set in stone, and dissidents burned at the stake for the sake of finally figuring out the definitive nature of Christianity. Change is too discomforting for institutions. Perhaps we could agree that dogmatism, the arrogant claim that one’s opinions are the Absolute Truth, has an acidic taste, a dissonant ring. But when our own opinions are questioned we uncoil and strike with venomous ferocity because someone shook our certain identity.

But identity is not so certain. Each second changes who we are, and our identity is new every morning. We grow old and lose our memories, forgetting faces and names and our life’s work. Our identities are not static. The only way we make sense of life is by living within a story that orders the flux. When our memories and concrete sense of self fade away, relationships remain. Whatever else Christianity has become, it began as a relationship to stories prejudiced by a love for the poor and poor in spirit, stories that subverted the accepted religious and cultural identity of their day, and for those who have ears to hear, perhaps ours. As long as Christianity is worried about losing its identity then it cannot overcome its dogmatism. Christianity is dogmatic because it needs to have an ultimate identity other than emptying itself for the least of these without blessed assurance.

The Greek word kenosis, in Christian theology, means “self-emptying,” exemplified in Paul’s recitation of a hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (“Your attitude should be that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant”). Kenosis is arguably the most unique aspect of Christianity: the Father self-emptied into the Son, who emptied himself for his own small corner of the world (a particularity which achieves universality), and who his followers are to imitate. Kenosis is not about metaphysics, but about performative identity. Christian identity here is not based on the self but is found by losing the self, by emptying the self for others. Aphorisms like “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” and “Whoever wishes to save his life must first lose it” spin the desire to maintain our own identity on its head. Because in order for us to find our identity we must first lose it. And not because after losing our identity we will find it, but because the act of losing is finding. We have sold everything to posses the pearl of great price, but the only way to experience its wealth is by giving it away.

Christian identity must be willingly tenuous in response to the fragile event of the kingdom of God. The only dogma this kingdom knows is love, is justice, is compassion, is hospitality, is forgiveness. We invite in the stranger who might overstay their welcome; we clothe the naked who might take our cloak and our tunic; we feed the hungry who might eat us out of house and home; we forgive our transgressors who might not even be sorry; we love our real and invented enemies, men who might kill us in our sleep or who might even sleep with other men, or for that matter women with women, or women who demand equality with men. All of our doctrine and dogma and creeds must be like chaff to this wheat. Even those who know nothing, or want to know nothing, about the kingdom participate in its incarnation: “Lord, when did we see you? Whatever you did for the least of these . . .” If we are to be dogmatic, then we must be dogmatic about the madness, the illogic, the impossibility, the audacity of the kingdom of God.

Jesus had the audacity to take his entire religious wisdom tradition to the threshing floor and this is what he said remained: “Love God, love your neighbor,” which are inseparably one and the same. He knew the law and the prophets. He knew the commandments, purity codes, and Sabbath rules given by God that gave his people their identity, things he never abolished or rejected out of hand. But he knew that the only way he could remain faithful to this tradition was by betraying it when it favored the powerful, the wealthy, the holy, the clean, and the insiders. The prophets said that even God kept subverting God’s laws, saying mercy trumped sacrifice and liberation unseated fasting. Jesus said the voice in the burning bush who said “I-shall-be-there-however-I-shall-be-there” shall be there as love. And love is only love when it loves the unlovable. If the imperfect vessel of the law meant to direct love, prohibits love, then love disobeys to commune with sinners.

Jesus reveled in vulnerable communion by sharing meals with disabled, dysfunctional, disassociated people. His open commensality infuriated the religious elites because he didn’t require purity and assimilation before association. They called Jesus a glutton and drunk, probably accusing him of sleeping with prostitutes. And we have no record that he cared.

His hometown congregants were impressed when he told them that the Jubilee was fulfilled in their hearing; they tried to throw him off a cliff when he said unclean foreigners were in on it too. He bumped up against the cultural bigotry of his identity when he called one of those foreigners a dog, but she made him eat his words when she said dogs are hungry too; without hesitation he swallowed his words and said her daughter was free because she had freed him.

He invited terrorists and imperial brownnosers to join him; he overturned patriarchy by honoring women and receiving children; he challenged the scribal authorities by reinterpreting the narratives they championed; he told stories with Samaritans as good guys and fathers embracing stained sons before they repented. The law required the death penalty for adultery, but Jesus said only the perfect man could throw the first stone.

As long as Christianity protects its identity with authoritative doctrine from living face to face with the suffering world, as long as it refuses the call of responsibility from an encounter with the other by citing scripture, then dogmatism insidiously persists like an unholy ghost.

After all, the Sabbath was made for man . . .


  1. While moral authoritarianism doesn't really have much place in the Church, I do think there are certain principles Christians need to live by, and should be held accountable to one another for, and you touched on those.

    But I think the question still makes a good point. While iron dogma can be an evil, used as a weapon to secure power or banish self doubt, the opposite extreme -- having no principles by which we judge matters -- is also a problem. If salt loses it's saltiness, what good is it?

    Holiness does not mix with unholiness. While we've foolishly horded the things we've received from God, building our fortress churches that are better at keeping the world out than letting it in, that is something we have to keep in mind.

    I think the person was really asking you what you wanted to tell them. How do I be light and salt, without being a dirtbag (dirtbag!)? How do I tear down the walls between myself and the world without loosing myself (or rather, loosing Christ)? Or perhaps the best way of putting it: how do I remain holy and embrace the world at the same time?

    The answer we'd come back to, of course, is love.

    These were the random musings of a traveler. As always, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.


  2. Drat, I wish the comments had an edit button. I spelled losing wrong.

  3. Thanks man. I appreciate your comments. I do think losing ourselves is necessary, and not something to be avoided. I believe Gandhi said "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." My point is that holiness, whatever we mean by that, is only holy when it mingles with what we call unholiness. This seems to be the narrative arc of the stories about Jesus.

    I love the metaphor of salt. But salt does not overpower something. Too much salt is a bad thing. Not only does salt preserve, but salt brings out the indigenous flavor, enhancing it and making it more apparent . . .

  4. Johathan I'm way behind on my reading and sorry I have not had the opportunity to read this until now, but I applaud unreservedly your comments. They are so on target there is really nothing I can add, except to imagine what a different world there would be with non-dogmatic, Jesus-centered community life existed. Will you be in Nashville over the holidays?

  5. Kind sir, I take some issue with your post, which is otherwise decent.

    I was once talking with a person who fancies herself an anti-dogmatist. She said, "I wish the Church was not so anti-body, anti-sex, anti-material, anti-this world. We should have a tradition that is earth-affirming..." etc, etc.

    I told her that one of the ways the Church has done that is by denouncing the Manichees and gnostics. It had not occured to her that affirming something good involves dogmatic denunciation of its opposition, and vice versa. To promote "openness" means disagreeing with the closed-minded. Even the dogmatists of "openness" have to suffer from getting dirty with dogmatism. That is, no one can escape dogma any more than you can escape langugage or culture.

    The modern heresy is to assume neutrality. This is apparent in the people who say, "I like Jesus, not the Church," or, "I'm a Christ-follower, not a Christian," or, "I am non-denominational," or, "I don't interpret the Bible, I just do it." To say you are non-denominational is about as prideful as saying, "I don't have an accent, but everyone else does." This is why false neutrality, the invention championed in the age of burgeoning nation-states, is the ideology of imperialism, not "openness," as its lies would hope us to believe.

    In the face of this heresy, to honor and observe a tradition is to be "sectarian." Hence, for example, conventional discourse despises the traditions of the Amish: "why can't they just be normal"--that is, neutral, undogmatic, like those of us who eat at McDonalds culture. The anti-dogmatist is therefore, in the name of mondern diversity, the destroyer of diversity.

    In light of this, I see no reason to consider "encounter with the other" in opposition to "authoritative defense of dogma."

    Perhaps all I have done here is say that white is a color, not a lack of color; that anit-dogmatism is, too, a dogma. No one gets out of the argument clean. If you say, I'm just meddling with language and definitions, I might then reply, "well, yes I am."

    p.s. Romand Coles recently wrote an essay on how "Jesus is Lord," is the most "open" phrase available to our language. ("The Wild Patience of John Howard Yoder: "Outsiders" and the "Otherness of the Church." Modern Theology, July 2002, 18:3, p 305-331). I'd be happy to send it to any body via email. hawchris at g mail dot com.

  6. Actually, what I will say to you is Amen, let it be. In the end, I’m not sure we’re too far off the same trajectory.

    I absolutely agree that to affirm good means to denounce its opposition, and so on. I think it would be difficult to extract an air of relativism from my presentation. “If we are to be dogmatic,” I say in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, meaning that we must be dogmatic about the kingdom of God, which is the central message of the central figure of Christianity. While definitions abound, I think summing it up as love, justice, compassion, hospitality, and forgiveness (perhaps peppering that with the salt of trust) is adequate, as long as the extremely political (as in, engagement with the systems of the powers that be, including ourselves) nature of it is wholly recognized.

    By tearing down a common conception of dogma(tism), I attempted to reframe the position from which we see what is worth being dogmatic about. I’m sure that could’ve been clarified more, but sometimes straightforwardness is too pedantic and paternalistic.

    I wholeheartedly agree that neutrality is a heresy. I have had many conversations concerning balance and neutrality in relation to Israel/Palestine. Balance/neutrality always supports the side of the strong, the oppressor. Fairness and equity are where we must go, and only find equality in the midst of equity. As one of our great prophets said: “Let us acknowledge that the objective or disinterested researcher is always on the side that pays best.”

    As long as your dogma necessitates exposing yourself to an encounter with the other and letting that encounter do its terrible and holy work, then I see no opposition either. Considering that the connotative understanding of dogma is something closed to any possibility of otherness, I think my point still stands. It can be argued that Jesus is very dogmatic (considering his condemnations and his citing of the same narratives to legitimize his words/actions), but not in the connotative sense.

    Perhaps, you might say, I’m meddling with definitions and shades of language. And I might say “We’ve got that in common, and we’ve got that in common with Jesus.”

  7. Good word, I say. And nice Wendell quote, I say!

    Though this whole discussion is somewhat tangential to our greater goals in thinking, we both then agree that the connotation of "dogma" has mutated, with the aid of imperial culture, to do violence to our language and culture.

    Why not let's be long winded and copy this quote from Chesterton's Heretics:

    The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of
    something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut.

    Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas.
    As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which
    the expression is capable, becoming more and more human.

    When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by
    that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

  8. I might ammend Chesterton, because I think to say that becoming more and more human is a process of constantly layering is fairly modern. At some point, and at every point, we must expose ourselves to the threshing floor and allow our convictions to shiver in the wind. This is a contant cycle which must be open to wisdom from unexpected places which might very well blow away what we thought was wheat. In the connotative sense, it would be dogmatic to reject this exposure. I want to be dogmatic in embracing this exposure, allowing what I think to be settled, situated, and definite to acknowledge contingency, flux, and differ(e/a)nce. At the same time, I want to do this from a place of rootedness and particularity. This is what I mean by remaning porous and being tenuous in response to weak breath, to broken questions, to the fragile other. I am with Vanier here: embracing fragility and brokenness is wholeness . . .

  9. And I might also add that I think the Jewish prophets (including Jesus) would disagree with Chesterton that God, in a narrative sense, holds no dogmas . . .