Our Beloved Dogma

Our Beloved Dogma December 11, 2019

“Dogma is like Sandy Dog – it doesn’t change,” I told my 11-year-old trying to remember the difference between Church dogma and discipline for a Religion test. Sandy Dog is her beloved stuffed pet that has been her daily companion since she was 6 months old. In the beginning, Sandy had soft fur the color of white sand; now it is gray like the winter sky before a snowfall, and matted to the texture of industrial carpet. My daughter noted this change of color but affirmed that otherwise Sandy has been the picture of constancy during her life. As I thought about it more, I realized this was more than an easy mnemonic—it’s a fitting metaphor for the nature of dogma and the place it holds in our lives as we grow and change.

Sandy on the Shelf / author’s own image

Dogma doesn’t change because it isn’t a living, breathing thing. It is basically inert after being assembled by human hands. That doesn’t make it any less “real” or significant in our lives than a living creature. It does limit its usefulness as we mature, however.

The affection my daughter has for Sandy Dog is intensely real, as is the comfort that Sandy Dog gives to her. A stuffed friend is a common and worthy companion for toddlers and young children learning to navigate the complexities of a relational world. Children experience the mutuality of giving and receiving with their favorite stuffie, without any risk of their companion biting them or getting upset or retaliating over the child’s “mistakes.” Yet it is quite possible to lose or destroy a stuffie, so children learn that objects of their affection and attachment need to be treated with care or else they can lose the thing they love. Their stuffed friend teaches them foundational relationship skills in an uncomplicated form, and a child who never has a special stuffie may struggle more to gain these skills in “real life” situations.

As a child matures and gains more comfort with the give and take and negotiation of interpersonal friendships, their stuffed friends usually recede in present significance until they are all but forgotten. It’s not that the typical teenager has animosity toward or wants to destroy their stuffies, but they would be embarrassed to be seen carrying them around all day anymore, or discussing them with their living friends, except perhaps as a passing nostalgic memory. If the stuffie was in the presence of the child at a time when they were abused, however, it could become a trauma trigger and be actively rejected. Usually they end up on a shelf, but the present paucity of attention does not detract from their foundational importance to their owner’s development.

It’s not the typical case for an 11-year-old to still be carrying around her stuffie on a daily basis, but my daughter is neuro-atypical, so it is natural and good for her. It is a signal to her peers that she is less emotionally mature than most of them, however, which means they’re unlikely to seek her advice or assistance with their middle school interpersonal dramas. And sometimes her anthropomorphizing imaginative “dialogues” with Sandy Dog so consume her attention that she has trouble stepping back out of character to attend to real life needs. Her intense devotion to her stuffie at her age is not a cause for either praise or derision; it’s indicative of a mild dis-ability, which shouldn’t be a matter of shame or blame, but recognizing emotional intelligence just isn’t her strong suit. And the longer she feels the need to cling to this one companion, the more worn down Sandy Dog becomes. Eventually, this stuffie is likely to fall apart from over-wear. We’re thinking it might be a good idea to get her a real dog to occupy a bigger space in her heart before that devastating day comes.

Dogma is like this for a “baby Christian”: it is a simple model of some of the easily lovable features of God, rendered in human language by human processes. It is good and true and helpful for what it is: a reliable starting place for learning about the infinite complexity that is God. But without more, it is incapable of sustaining us through the challenges of a lifetime. People who cling to it too much and too long are not the best spiritual guides; in fact, without something more dynamic to supersede its importance, their faith is likely to disintegrate eventually. And there’s nothing wrong with putting it on a shelf as we mature in faith, rarely to be spoken about anymore, and the vast difference between affection for dogma and loving God readily acknowledged. It’s not even strictly necessary for developing a mature faith, though its absence may well make it harder. For victims of church-affiliated abusers, though, its symbolic destruction may be crucial for healing and growth. Recognition that dogma plays a different role for different people at different times is not relativism but uncompromising realism.

The question is: are we willing to put in the extra work and sacrifice required to upgrade our affection for dogma to a living faith? Or do we try to cling to a childish faith because it demands less of us? As parents, my husband and I are not exactly looking forward to scooping poop or taking a real dog to the vet, but I wonder, are we impeding our daughter’s maturing by this laziness? Is that not unlike the poor parenting we often get from “Holy Mother Church” when ministers keep recycling dogmatic teachings as “Catholicism 101” and “apologetics,” never willing to help scoop the poop of a real life in Christ? This is a challenge posed to all of us.

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