Rev. Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs as well as Associate Professor of New Testament at the United Methodist Church’s United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is an ordained elder in the denomination’s West Ohio Conference. This article originally appeared on his personal blog. Reposted with permission.
We’ve probably all heard by now about Senator Dianne Feinstein’s remarks toward Roman Catholic judicial nominee Amy Barrett:
Dogma and law are two different things. I think, whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different; in your case, Professor [Barrett], when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for, for years, in this country.
Let’s be clear: Senator Feinstein’s statement cannot mean, “You are dogmatic and I am not.” Rather, it means, “I prefer my dogma over yours.” Dogma and law are indeed two different things, but law is always informed by dogma, even if we don’t call it that.
While the term “dogma” is often used pejoratively, it simply refers to a body of accepted teaching. So, yes, Roman Catholics do have dogma, as do Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and secular liberals. There is intense pressure, moreover, for people in the public eye to adopt the unacknowledged dogma of secular liberalism.
Secular liberalism is not a value-neutral position. It is a value-laden position with its own set of moral and philosophical underpinnings. One of those presuppositions is the idea of “progress,” that human beings are becoming better and better as time goes on. This perspective represents a kind of social darwinism. We are becoming better in our understanding of the natural world and in our mastery of it. We are learning to understand human behavior and human flourishing better than we ever have before. We are developing a keener sense of morality than those who came before us in history. We know better than they did. We have cast off the superstitions of the past and are moving forward into an era of unfettered humanism.
The idea of human progress, however, is an untenable myth, at least with regard to our moral and spiritual development. How anyone can hold this after the global carnage of the twentieth century is a mystery. Two World Wars, the Holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan Genocide, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, 9/11, chemical warfare, the rise of global extreme poverty… It was a bloody hundred years.
Christians, at least those who hold to traditional beliefs, cannot affirm the doctrine of progress, and not simply because of the empirical evidence militating against it. Central to Christian belief is a doctrine of sin. Sin is not just something I do wrong. It is a part of the human condition. It affects the way in which I see the world. It affects my feelings, my will, and the way in which I perceive right and wrong. Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, I can begin to see things as God would have me see them, and I can begin to live in the way that God would have me live. This doesn’t mean that I will have perfect understanding, or that I will necessarily live without sin. It means that God is healing my soul. God is uncovering the imago Dei that is obscured by my sin, but which was always present nonetheless.
The upshot of our doctrine of sin is that Christians should not simply trust that the winds of culture are blowing in the right direction. In fact, we should generally assume that they are not. We do not simply trust “what everyone else thinks,” what seems to be “self evident,” or what “common sense” tells us. We must think intentionally through the lens of our dogma.
God created all things. God is love. Human beings are created in God’s image, but we live in a fallen world, and human beings are sinful. We need a savior, and our savior is Jesus. He died to free us from sin and death, and after three days rose from the dead. He sent the Holy Spirit to give us the new life made possible through the cross. He will come again in judgment and raise us in victory….
If these kinds of beliefs don’t live loudly within us… well… we’re doing it wrong. What we claim to believe has become somehow disconnected from the way in which we live.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his followers,
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).
Christian, let the dogma of your faith live loudly within you. Show the world that you are in it, but not of it. We will unavoidably live according to some dogma. Thus may we be ever vigilant that we are living in and through the teachings of our faith given to us by God for the salvation of the world.