BACK when this journal was nothing more than a mere proposal, I sought out a meeting with the distinguished church historian Martin Marty to enlist his support. Despite his frenetic schedule, he responded immediately, offering to meet me for a drink when next I came to Chicago. When we got together the conversation eventually turned to some of the writers who would become guiding spirits for this journal. We spoke of such twentieth-century figures as T.S. Eliot, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, who had re-imagined the Christian faith for a secular age. Marty pondered that list for a moment. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “that nearly all of these figures, who could write in such a sophisticated way about the complexities and ambiguities of modern life, held such conservative theological views. I’m not sure I can account for that. Someone ought to study the phenomenon.”
That comment has often come back to me, since it touches on a fundamental paradox. Why has the lion’s share of art inspired by religious faith grown out of an engagement with religious orthodoxy—with the ancient dogmas of the faith in their full-blooded form?
One author on the list might be considered an exception to the argument: Graham Greene, who can hardly be held up as a champion of orthodoxy. For much of his life he was an acerbic critic of church authority. But the novels of his that seem likely to stand the test of time are The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, and The Heart of the Matter—all written soon after his conversion to Catholicism and steeped in the central mysteries of the church.
The truth is that whatever wisdom and compassion the great Jewish and Christian artists manifest come not because they skirt around orthodoxy, but because they have entered into its depths and come out transformed.
The word dogma has few positive connotations for modern ears. In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris takes on dogma as one of the words that she and millions of others find off-putting about the Christian faith. She points out that its original Greek root means “what seems good, fitting, becoming” and relates that to the process of consensus in the church, the evolution of the church’s understanding of the truths of revelation. Seizing on the words “good, fitting, becoming,” Norris goes on to say that “the word ‘beauty’ might be a more fitting synonym for dogma than what has become its synonym in contemporary English: ‘doctrine,’ or a teaching.”
With her analogy to beauty, Norris has intuited something profound about dogma, but she doesn’t go far enough. The central dogmas of the Judeo-Christian tradition derive not from a priori theological statements, but directly from the Bible, which is predominantly a narrative, and not a work of theology. For Jews the story centers on a covenant. For Christians, the narrative continues, and is recounted in the church’s creeds. And what is a creed but a story—a cosmic story, to be sure—that moves from the Father who created heaven and earth, to the advent of the Son, whose life, death and resurrection redeemed fallen mankind, to the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, who is made known in the church, sacraments, and our fellow believers?
The poet W.H. Auden, another Christian writer, said that “Dogmatic theological statements are neither logical propositions nor poetic utterances. They are ‘shaggy dog’ stories; they have a point, but he who tries too hard to get it will miss it.” Individual doctrines are short stories from a collection of interconnected tales. You can tell them out of order, but you can’t violate what screenwriters call the arc of the larger story.
In short, dogmas are not dry bits of theological rationalism, but deeply metaphorical attempts to enshrine mystery. To vary the analogy, dogma are not so much efforts to give logical accounts of the mysteries of revelation as they are a process of creating a tabernacle for the shining mysteries within.
The tabernacle exists to protect the mystery from vandalism of various kinds, from efforts to reduce it to brittle abstraction or comfortable illusion. It is well known that the church has tended to define dogma only in reaction to the rise of particular heresies. Of course, the word heresy itself comes with its own set of oversized baggage these days. Too often we think of heresy only in terms of lurid Hollywood tableaux, complete with angry, repressed inquisitors, terrified victims, and blazing bonfires. But that is to give in to a classic stereotype of the church as mere center of power and the heretic as gallant rebel. The church’s struggle with heresy has been, by and large, not so much an attempt to repress dissent as a call to the entire church to embrace the mysteries in all their richness. One of the oldest definitions of heresy, in fact, is simply imbalance, a stressing of one term in a divine paradox over another, as in the early christological heresies that elevated Christ’s divinity over his humanity, or vice versa.
G.K. Chesterton had it right: “The whole secret of mysticism is this: that a man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid…. [The Christian] puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health….”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.