Putting in a Good Word for Dogma

See the source imageHOLY TRINITY SUNDAY

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Trinity Sunday is the one and only festival of the church year that celebrates an ecclesiastical dogma apart from any particular biblical narrative. Although the term “trinity” does not appear in the Scriptures, this way of articulating the scriptural witness to God grew out of centuries of reflection by the church’s greatest pastors, theologians and teachers. The doctrine of the Trinity represents the church’s best effort to articulate the mystery of the God revealed in the Bible. That articulation is not simple or easily understood. From time to time, the church has been confronted with easier, more seemingly straightforward and understandable ways of explaining the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. These were rejected because theories that are simple and easy frequently fail to capture the depth, goodness and beauty of our enormously complex and mysterious God.

The term “dogma” has acquired an unsavory reputation over the last century. If somebody calls you “dogmatic” it is almost certainly not a complement. Dogma is popularly associated with dry, outdated and uninspired religious, political or ideological precepts. Dogmatic people, in common parlance, are ridged, narrow-minded and intolerant individuals with an annoying propensity for imposing their stuffy opinions on others. I suspect we all know people like that. I am not defending them or their conduct. I believe, however, that we need to define our terms more carefully to ensure that we are gunning for the right target.

The word dogma literally means “teaching” and one who possesses dogma is one who has been taught. Unless you think there is some virtue in ignorance, you should not be speaking ill of dogma. Being taught is not always a pleasant experience. I frequently hear people say that they don’t want to be part of a religion that “rams its teachings down their throats.” I can relate. When I was kid, my parents and teachers rammed a good many things down my throat that I wasn’t interested in learning-like math, reading, good manners and the like. Thankfully, I was surrounded by mentors that knew better than me what I needed to learn and cared enough about me to see that I learned it-like it or no.

When I was a freshman in college, I had the good fortune to wind up in Professor S’s Old Testament History class. Professor S was a hard driving instructor with high standards. Very early on in the course, a young woman raised her hand and said, “Professor S, with all that is going on today in the world, I just don’t see how any of this is relevant to our lives.” Professor S asked in a measured tone, “May I have the privilege of knowing your name.”

“It’s Janet Jones,”[1] the student replied.

“Well, then Ms. Jones,” Professor S went on, “You are not yet at the point where you have the first idea what is and is not relevant and you are clearly not ready to have the conversation with me that you would like to have. But you are obviously bright, passionate and intelligent. If you develop the patience to listen, learn and understand, I have no doubt that one day you will have something meaningful to say to me. That time is not yet.”

You might think that was a bit arrogant and off putting. Perhaps it wasn’t the best pedagogical approach Professor S might have taken under these circumstances. There are probably better ways to make your point than by humiliating people. That aside, Professor S makes an important point, namely, that anything worth knowing takes time, patience and effort to learn. Moreover, you can’t expect to converse on a complex subject you have not taken the time to learn.

All teachers worth their salt correct their students when they are wrong, chide them when their work is less than satisfactory and push them to take their learning beyond what is necessary simply to receive a passing grade. Learning is a life long task and dogma, so far from being a finite set of precepts to be learned by rote, is a growing body of knowledge upon which further learning builds. Dogma is always reinterpreting what has been learned, expanding upon what is known and pushing forward into the unknown. So says Jesus in our gospel lesson for this Sunday:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15.

Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will guide his disciples “into all the truth” indicates that they do not yet possess “all the truth.” They must be taught the truth and this “teaching” (dogma) will occur over time. Of course, the Spirit does not begin with a blank slate. God revealed God’s self to Sarah and Abraham when God called them to leave behind everything familiar to pursue the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. God revealed God’s self to Israel through its liberation from slavery in Egypt by the words and acts of Moses. God spoke through the prophets and, in the fullness of time, God revealed God’s self in Jesus, the Word made flesh. This is the dogma, the core of the church’s teaching that must be learned in light of two millennia of the church’s reflection and interpretation. It is helpful, I believe, to think of dogma as the language of faith the Spirit uses to guide each generation of the church “into all the truth.”

Education begins with learning to speak. Those of us who have learned or tried to learn another language understand that it is tedious work in the beginning. Learning the rules of grammar and memorizing vocabulary is mind numbingly boring. But it is absolutely essential if you want to arrive at the point where you can converse with people who speak the language and read the great works of literature produced in that language. If you are not willing to do the hard work of mastering a country’s language, then you will forever be struggling with a few words, rudimentary phrases and inarticulate sign language simply to find a bathroom. You are unlikely ever to feel at home, develop deep friendships or learn to conduct everyday transactions with confidence. So, too, faith without dogma is doomed to remain forever shallow and to fumble along in perpetual immaturity.

For that reason, I don’t much care that people with no faith background walk into our sanctuaries and find what we are doing incomprehensible. I don’t worry that our worship is hard for novices to follow. I think we need to stop apologizing for the fact that our language of faith and its expression is deep, nuanced, complex and difficult to learn. Biologists don’t apologize for the complexity of DNA. Physicists don’t apologize for the complexity of quantum mechanics. So why should we be chagrined because someone who walks in off the street complains that they can’t figure out how to follow the liturgy through which we praise the Triune God? Why should we tie ourselves in knots because somebody says they “can’t relate to all of our God talk?” I can’t relate to Mandarin. If I want to understand it, the burden is on me to learn it. To be sure, that would be a difficult undertaking requiring from me a good deal of time, effort and sacrifice. But that is no fault of the Chinese.

Yes, I understand that our churches are to be welcoming communities. I am not suggesting that we should make worship unnecessarily difficult by forcing worshipers to follow the liturgy through three different books and two separate pamphlets. I also understand that loving our neighbors and working together with them to build a more hopeful future does not require that we indoctrinate or convert them. I am perfectly content for people to be involved in the life and mission of the church at whatever level of commitment and understanding they bring. But I don’t think we are being honest with the people we encounter or faithful to our Lord when we substitute entertainment for worship, offer dumbed down sermons filled with profanity and colloquialisms, third grade level liturgy, musically mediocre and lyrically banal hymns all in the hope of making our faith simple and attractive enough for public consumption. A faith shallow enough to pick up in forty-five minutes probably isn’t not worth having. It takes more than a lifetime for the Spirit to lead one into all truth.

We owe everyone who darkens the door of our sanctuaries a liturgy that evokes imagination, creeds that draw us to the precipice of mystery, sermons that leave us with more questions than answers and prayer that reaches to the depths and complexities of our souls. Church on Sunday morning is no place for the incurious and intellectually lazy. Jesus calls upon us to love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matthew 22:37. Participation in something so profound as worship of the Triune God requires one to learn the language of our faith-dogma. There is no shortcut.

What goes for our faith applies equally to everything else. Our lesson from Proverbs calls us into to a holy curiosity about all aspects of life. The psalmist invites us to reflect on the heavens, the moon, the stars and the place of our own human race in the midst of this marvelous universe. We are challenged to cultivate an inquisitive spirit that pries beneath the surface of everything coming into view. To be sure, we are not all specialists in the various fields of science, mathematics, economics and other areas of learning. Nevertheless, these are realms where wisdom beckons us to apply our understanding, however limited it might be. To dismiss these varied and marvelous opportunities for learning more about ourselves and our world as being beyond the scope of our interest or irrelevant to our lives is to disrespect our Creator and spurn the “call of wisdom.” It is, in short, to be a fool.[2]

Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja expressing some divine Trinitarian curiosity. I cited this same poem last year for Trinity Sunday and do so again because I believe it captures the nature of dogma as that foundation from which we exercise our imagination, direct our curiosity and build upon our knowledge.


  1. God

You have distinct dimensions. They are we:
Encyclopedias and alphabets
Of the Big Bang, exobiology,
Inhabitants on multitudes of planets.

Our light cannot escape your gravity.
The soul is linked to yours, a diode
Through which we must return as energy
Until we flare like red suns, and explode:

We try to reconstruct you with an ode
Or explicate your essence line by line.
We canonize commandments like code
Etched within the DNA. If we are divine,

Composing simple poems, making rhymes,
Then what are others in this paradigm?

  1. Son

Then what are others in this paradigm
If not superior? We’re grains of sand.
You have a billion planets to command
With technologies that attained their prime
Before we left the alluvial slime
For land and land for trees and trees for land
Again. These chosen beings went beyond
The boundaries and laws of space and time
To greater meccas. What miracles do
They require? How many stars, their Magi?
Who, their Pilot? When, their Armageddon?
Are we made in God’s image and they too?
Do you save sinners on Alpha Centauri?
All the nebular rosaries of heaven?

III. Spirit

All the nebular rosaries of heaven
Are bound by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:

One movement we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges of which
No one will fall. Because you’re everywhere,
Its seam appears the same from every stitch:

The Father sparks the singularity.
We breed like godseed in the firmament.
The Son forgives so that eternity,
Your sole domain, becomes self-evident:

Together you complete the trinity.
You have distinct dimensions: they are we.

Source: Poetry, March 1994, pp. 316-317. Michael J. Bugeja was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and received his B. A. from St. Peter’s College. He earned his M.S. from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches magazine writing and ethics at Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. He has published several collections of poetry and was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Fiction. He was also named honorary chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. You can learn more about Michael J. Bugeja at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Obviously, a fictitious name. I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what her real name is and wouldn’t disclose it if I did.

[2] It also goes a long way toward explaining how a twenty-first century democracy could elect as its leader a man so thoroughly ignorant as to believe that vaccines cause autism and windmills cause cancer! In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

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