from William Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence"

My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
--Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
"How is it that you live, and what is it you do?"

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Doctrine, Dogma, and Losing Your Way

Doctrine and dogma are important and have a firm purpose in most religions--after one has come to believe, doctrine and dogma define the parameters of that belief--they codify and crystallize what it is that one must believe to be a member of that faith.  They define the community of faith--they tell the truths of the faith.

But too often it seems they become the end of the faith.  Rather than believing in God or Jesus one believes the doctrine of the Church.  One states a dogmatic creed that defines the contours of the story of the faith and sometimes the faith does not go below the surface of that creed.  Doctrine and dogma are important, but they can become stultifying.

It would seem that the approach one should take in these matters is strive to understand the doctrine and dogma that define the faith and then, let them go.  Don't worry about them--if you believe what is stated, then it seems best to turn your mind elsewhere and rather than worrying the details to death, arguing and apologizing, living your faith is the best exposition of it.  The faith, if true, needs no defense.  The errors of others are their errors and will either be remedied in time through deepening understanding, or will remain forever.  Either way, arguing the matter isn't likely to change most people's minds.

A focus on doctrine and dogma is the surest path to losing your way entirely.  It is the certain path of losing all compassion because one's obsession becomes being right rather than right action and right disposition. A good understanding of what one believes is essential, but a constant discussion of the fine points of the nature of that belief can be distracting from what we are called to in this life.  Living a faith of compassion, loving-kindness, and caring for others and for ourselves.


  1. If we look at the big picture, doctrine and dogma play almost no role in most people's lives. 85% of Catholics use contraception, more than half don't go to Sunday Mass, the health and wealth prosperity gospel is popular in many Christian circles, so it seems like the battle to get people not to focus on doctrine and dogma has already been won.

  2. Hello again, Steven!

    I think I'm a bit closer to your way of seeing things than even I might have anticipated! Doctrine is valuable as grammar is valuable, but we shouldn't be the type that goes around correcting other people's grammar all the time (and there is such a thing as the charming malaprop, the "wrong" utterance that comes out right in the end!).

    And Tom, if I may, I don't think Steven is saying that we should all be flouting sound doctrine, or that we should rejoice in the phenomena to which you allude -- rather, he's saying that love covers a multitude of misunderstandings and misapprehensions (and yes, sins). The scowling rigorist is perhaps nothing more than the flip-side of the reckless libertine. If we preach doctrine, let it be with our lives primarily!

    So, Steven, I think you're on solid ground here. Thank you for this post.

  3. Dear TS,

    Ah, but do we equate rejection with ignorance. Surely it beggars the imagination to think that all of the people rejecting it are ignorant of it. Rather, it seems that they have not yet come to the realization that it is hubris of the first water to equate our own understandings, the accumulation of perhaps 50 or 60 years of a single life to the depth of the accumulated understanding of thousands of teachers and saints over thousands of years.

    It is one thing to ignore or misunderstand or be ignorant of the doctrine of the immaculate conception--but most people know precisely what the Church teaches when the rubber hits the road (so to speak--pardon the pun)--they choose otherwise.

    Dear Dylan,

    You have struck precisely upon my meaning. I also intend to say that for some doctrine and dogma can prove a dangerous detour in the road of faith and love of God. I believe it was Saint Francis who enjoined us--"Preach always, use words when necessary." Doctrine and dogma are at their best when understood, internalized, and not dwelt upon constantly. They are the internal tracking system that lets us know when we've gone off track, but if they become the track itself, we have replaced God with an Idol that looks a lot like Him, but is really only about Him.

    Many thanks to both for your thoughtful comments.



  4. Seeing doctrine as a dangerous detour is akin to seeing guardrails on the highway as a dangerous detour. Foreign to my understanding - and, much more importantly, likely the Church's as well, but then we live in a time where doctrine has been devalued so it's to be expected. We're a long, way from those early Christians who were tickled pink when Mary was given the title, "Mother of God", ha.

  5. Steven, I took your comment out of context since you did say doctrine is an internal tracking system. Doctrine is a species of the good news - that we know, for example, that Christ is both God and man is good stuff. We know that he can both have true empathy for us (being man) and have true power (being God). Doctrine is a gift, as all knowledge is. Doctrine ill-used is not the fault of doctrine is all I'm saying.

  6. Dear TS,

    "Doctrine ill-use is not the fault of doctrine. . ."

    Agreed, and yet it is a danger of the formulation itself. That is what I am saying. Doctrine is necessary and reliable--it keeps us on the track so long as WE do not allow it to become the track. That is the danger of dwelling on doctrine rather than on God. Not the fault of the doctrinal formulation, but all the same, something to be aware of with respect to one's own proclivities.



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