Trading Dogma for Love

Richard Beck wrote in a recent blog post:

Certainty, conviction, and dogmatism reduces our anxiety in the face of life. Having all the answers feels good. That’s the upside. The downside is that certainty, conviction, and dogmatism makes you suspicious and wary toward people who have different beliefs. And that suspicion sows the seeds of intolerance.

In contrast, if you don’t have all the answers in the face of uncertainty and tragedy, if you can’t tie a neat theological bow on top a cancer diagnosis or a hurricane, there is an emotional price to be paid. You will carry a burden of anxiety. Meaning will be harder to secure. Life will be more uncertain and perplexing.

But there is an upside here. If your questions outweigh your answers, you’re in a much more open posture toward people who have different beliefs. If you don’t have all the answers, maybe they can be of help. In short, doubt can make you more hospitable.

He continues with a quotation from his book The Authenticity of Faith which explores this topic further:

Perhaps, then, in the final analysis, faith, dogmatically understood, must be traded off for love. Doubts are the burden the believer must carry to keep her eyes opened to the suffering of others. It is as Moltmann described it, “The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world.” What, then, might be the ultimate proof of the authenticity of faith? Perhaps it is as simple as St. Paul suggested in the First Epistle to the Corinthians:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

What Beck wrote resonated profoundly with a conversation I had the night before reading his words, about the burden it was to have to fight with others to show oneself to be in the right about doctrinal matters. It also connects with what Michael Spencer wrote in 2009 about needing to get rid of some of our theology. Here is an excerpt:

When I discovered that God wasn’t going to stop something that I believed with all my heart and mind he had to stop, I was really pulled up short. My “map” was well worn with 30+ years of telling who I was and what God was supposed to do for me.

And now, I was discovering that my map was flawed. I’d believed it, and I had a choice. I could deny what was happening around me, in me and in others.

Or I could throw out some theology.

That meant admitting some of my teachers were wrong. Or at the least, didn’t know all there was to know.

It meant that some of what I was sure God had showed to me wasn’t God at all. It was me, or someone else.

I was wrong. My theology was wrong. My collection of Bible verses was wrong.

I hadn’t quite arrived. I didn’t have all the answers.

Part of my misery in the situation I was facing was my collection of theology.

There’s a moment when you realize things aren’t as certain as you thought they were. It’s a scary moment, and you want to blame someone. This collection of verses, statements and opinions was supposed to keep this from happening. The right theology was supposed to keep the sky from falling; it was supposed to keep the trap doors from opening up under my feet.

It makes more than a few people angry to hear that following Jesus is less like math and more like white water rafting. It’s less like writing down the right answers to a test and more like trusting yourself into the hands of a doctor. It’s less like standing on concrete and more like bungee jumping.

It’s less like what you think it is and lot more like something you never thought about.

See too Ben Corey’s post about the decision that confronts each of us as to whether to allow circumstances of hardship to harden us or soften us.

Of related interest see Andreea Nica’s article in Religion Dispatches on the cost that is often paid by those who leave fundamentalist religion.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I love this article and the articles that it references. It captures a lot of my own experience, including the increase of anxiety as well as love.

    I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about the story of Jesus in Gethsemane before his execution. The gospels don’t hide from us a Jesus who is desperately anxious. He’s sweating bullets. He yells at his disciples because they can’t even stay awake with him during this trauma and says things like, “I am distressed even to death.” And he prays for hours, which is not what you do when you feel confidently resolved after ten minutes.

    There’s no divine intervention. No angels appearing to minister to him. Not even a feeling of peace in his heart. He’s about to die, and he pours out his fears and pleading for hours, wanting for it not to happen. And as far as we know, he gets nothing back. Just the silence of the night sky. It’s a clear picture of at least anxiety, and even though we aren’t told, it’s hard to imagine this scenario without doubt and uncertainty being there, too. Intensely so.

    But he still trusts because he loves.

    People can only be courageous when they are afraid. Maybe people can only have faith when they’re uncertain.

    • John MacDonald

      We’ve all been “certain” about things that we considered to be “obvious,” only to later find out our certainty was misguided or simply incorrect. When we make “Ethics First Philosophy/Religion,” we need an epistemology of patience and caution. As Paul said, Love is Patient (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

    • John MacDonald

      “Truth” defined as “Certainty, free from Doubt” was not new with Descartes, but, as Heidegger points out somewhere, originated when truth as “aletheia” encountered the Christian thinkers. In the Greek sense, “truth” or “aletheia” meant “correct,” and also “exemplary,” like a “true friend,” and also ” essential,” like the great “truths” of the human condition. Why did these poly – semantic understandings of truth get pushed to the background in favor of “truth” as “certainty, free from doubt?” Because for the Christian thinkers, what had to be “certain and free from doubt” was the “certainty” of the salvation of the soul. Truth was thus reinterpreted, and later this sense was popularized by Descartes, and it is the sense we have with us today.

      Derrida gives the allegory of the hedgehog to illustrate a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” postmodern ethics that challenges actions based on certainty and obviousness. In “Che cos’è la poesia” [What is poetry?], Derrida describes a hedgehog making the decision to cross the road, and, sensing danger barreling down on him, does what he has always done in the face of danger, and roles up into a protective ball. Now, if the hedgehog had just kept walking, he would have avoided being his by the car. But he simply took for granted that his act of rolling into a ball was the best option, and so met his demise.

      Derrida would say when we try to lead ethical lives, we make decisions and choices even though there is never enough information, time, precedence, etc. When we try to act ethically, it is a leap of faith because there is always the possibility of us giving birth to unintended violence. Maybe it would have been better not to act at all? But we make a leap of faith that while our actions may sometimes not turn out to be ethical or just, we always keep in mind the ideals of ethics and justice by always questioning our actions and rethinking our paradigms. This is, for instance, why we deconstructed our interpretation of the concept of marriage and re-imagined/created it to include LGBT love. Levinas says our idea of the infinite that points us to God is the infinite responsibility we have when we are called to be responsible by the suffering face of the Other (widow, orphan, alien, enemy), which, as Derrida says, is a surplus of responsibility that overflows our ethical precepts and certainties.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        First of all, thank you for the warm memories of my time earning a Philosophy BA. I actually had a great comic book about Derrida, although I doubt I’m a quarter as acquainted with him as you are.

        Also this:

        our idea of the infinite that points us to God is the infinite responsibility we have when we are called to be responsible by the suffering face of the Other (widow, orphan, alien, enemy)

        I will be meditating on that for a long time. Thank you for sharing it. That resonates deeply with me.

        • John MacDonald

          Glad it spoke to you!

          Postmodernism of the sort Derrida envisioned is often maligned for promoting relativism, but that wasn’t Derrida’s point at all. Derrida says “Deconstruction is Justice (like when we “deconstruct” the traditional concept of marriage to reconstruct it so as to include LGBT love),” and he did try to show how to bring into question the foundation of our ideologies, but his point was not to just leave everything in ruins. Rather , he wanted to emphasize a heightened sense of responsibility and humility when it comes to our beliefs and actions.

  • John MacDonald

    James quoted:

    I hadn’t quite arrived. I didn’t have all the answers.

    This reminds me of Derrida’s point that when we act or make a decision, there is never enough time/information/precedence/etc to make a choice, but, following Kierkegaard, when we act we make a leap of faith with the understanding that our decisions may result in violence/consequences that we didn’t intend. The metaphysics of presence (the Philosophy that aims at grounding itself in certainty) collapses under the call of the suffering of the Other (widow, orphan, alien, enemy) that calls us out of our certainty to an infinite responsibility that we can never sate.