It Is Impossible To Teach Christianity Without Teaching Dogma!

Oxford-educated Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was one of the most popular authors of the Golden Age era. Born in England in 1893, Dorothy Sayers received her degree at university in medieval literature. Following her graduation, besides publishing two volumes of poetry, she began to write detective stories to earn money. Her first novel, “Whose Body?” (1923), introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, the character for which she is best known.

Dorthy Sayers

Sayers was also a committed Christian. Below is an excerpt from a talk she gave to one Christian group. The subject she addresses, if possible, is even more relative to the conduct of modern church life:

And when he is come, he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and ye see me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11)

[I]f we really want a Christian society we must teach Christianity, and that it is absolutely impossible to teach Christianity without teaching Christian dogma. . . .

Writing the other day in The Spectator, Dr. Selbie, former Principal of Mansfield College discussed the subject of “The Army and the Churches.” In the course of this article there occurs a passage that exposes the root cause of the failure of the churches to influence the life of the common people:

“… the rise of the new dogmatism (he says) whether in its Calvinist or Thomist form, constitutes a fresh and serious threat to Christian unity. The tragedy is that all this, however interesting to theologians, is hopelessly irrelevant to the life and thought of the average man, who is more puzzled than ever by the disunion of the Churches, and by the theological and ecclesiastical differences on which it is based.”

Now I am perfectly ready to agree that disputes between the Churches constitute a menace to Christendom. And I will admit that I am not quite sure what is meant by “the new dogmatism”; it might, I suppose, mean the appearance of new dogmas among the followers of St. Thomas and Calvin respectively. But I rather fancy it means a fresh attention to, and re-assertion of, old dogma, and that when Dr. Selbie says that “all this” is irrelevant to the life and thought of the average man, he is deliberately saying that Christian dogma, as such, is irrelevant.

But if Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what, in Heaven’s name is it relevant? — Since religious dogma is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrine concerning the nature of life and the universe. If Christian ministers really believe it is only an intellectual game for theologians and has no bearing upon human life, it is no wonder that their congregations are ignorant, bored and bewildered. And indeed, in the very next paragraph, Dr. Selbie recognizes the relation of Christian dogma to life:—

“… peace can only come about through a practical application of Christian principles and values. But this must have behind it something more than a reaction against that Pagan Humanism which has now been found wanting.”

The “something else” is dogma, and cannot be anything else, for between Humanism and Christianity and between Paganism and Theism there is no distinction whatever except a distinction of dogma. That you cannot have Christian principles without Christ is becoming increasingly clear, because their validity as principles depends on Christ’s authority; and as we have seen, the Totalitarian States, having ceased to believe in Christ’s authority, are logically quite justified in repudiating Christian principles.

If “the average man” is required to “believe in Christ” and accept His authority for “Christian principles,” it is surely relevant to inquire who or what Christ is, and why His authority should be accepted. But the question, “what think ye of Christ?” lands the average man at once in the very knottiest kind of dogmatic riddle. It is quite useless to say that it doesn’t matter particularly who or what Christ was or by what authority He did those things, and that even if He was only a man, He was a very nice man and we ought to live by His principles: for that is merely Humanism, and if the “average man” in Germany chooses to think that Hitler is a nicer sort of man with still more attractive principles, the Christian Humanist has no answer to make. It is not true at all that dogma is “hopelessly irrelevant” to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that it is, present it for consideration as though it were, and, in fact, by their faulty exposition of it make it so. The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if He is only God, then He is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all. And in that case, it is wholly irrelevant to chatter about “Christian principles.” If the “average man” is going to be interested in Christ at all, it is the dogma that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has never been offered the dogma. (“Creed or Chaos?”)

Dorothy Sayers On Deserting Doctrines

Dorthy Sayers

It is my pleasure, if you are not familiar with her already, to introduce you to Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers is the author of some of my favorite fictional crime novels. In particular, I recommend for your reading pleasure her “Lord Peter Wimsey” series. Dorothy Sayers also became a Christian and a very articulate Christian thinker and apologist. Below, you will find an excerpt from one of her talks:

And when he is come, he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and ye see me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11)

It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ. If you think I am exaggerating, ask the Army chaplains. Apart from a possible one per cent of intelligent and instructed Christians, there are three kinds of people we have to deal with.

There are the frank and open heathen, whose notions of Christianity are a dreadful jumble of rags and tags of Bible anecdote and clotted mythological nonsense. There are the ignorant Christians, who combine a mild gentle-Jesus sentimentality with vaguely humanistic ethics—most of these are Arian heretics. Finally, there are the more or less instructed church-goers, who know all the arguments about divorce and auricular confession and communion in two kinds, but are about as well equipped to do battle on fundamentals against a Marxian atheist or a Wellsian agnostic as a boy with a pea-shooter facing a fan-fire of machine guns. Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope. We are not happy in this condition and there are signs of a very great eagerness, especially among the younger people, to find a creed to which they can give whole-hearted adherence.

This is the Church’s opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people’s readiness to listen goes; she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real, and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of “laissez-faire” is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a “recall to prayer.” The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.

The task is not made easier by the obstinate refusal of a great body of nominal Christians, both lay and clerical, to face the theological question. “Take away theology and give us some nice religion” has been a popular slogan for so long that we are apt to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning. And however unpopular I may make myself I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches are discredited to-day is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology.

Dorothy Sayers On Christian Dogma

Dorthy Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers (13 June 1893 – 17 December 1957) is one of my favorite mystery writers. If you have never read her “Lord Peter Wimsey” series of books, I would suggest to you that they are great summer reads. Later in life, Sayers became a Christian and the article below is an excerpt from an address she gave at a biennial church festival. The theme of the speech is as relevant today as when she first delivered it:

And when he is come, he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and ye see me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11)

Something is happening to us to-day which has not happened for a very long time. We are waging a war of religion. Not a civil war between adherents of the same religion, but a life-and-death struggle between Christian and pagan. The Christians are, it must be confessed, not very good Christians, and the pagans do not officially proclaim themselves worshippers of Mahmoud or even of Odin, but the stark fact remains that Christendom and heathendom now stand face to face as they have not done in Europe since the days of Charlemagne. . . .

[A]t bottom it is a violent and irreconcilable quarrel about the nature of God and the nature of man and the ultimate nature of the universe; it is a war of dogma.

The word dogma is unpopular, and that is why I have used it. It is our own distrust of dogma that is handicapping us in the struggle. The immense spiritual strength of our opponents lies precisely in the fact that they have fervently embraced, and hold with fanatical fervor, a dogma which is none the less a dogma for being called an “ideology.” We on our side have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole rational foundation for those values. . . .

All I want to say on this point is that, however deeply we have sinned—and God knows we have done plenty of evil in our time—we have not gone so far as to have altogether lost all claim to stand for Christendom. There is a great difference between believing a thing to be right and not doing it, on the one hand, and, on the other, energetically practicing evil in the firm conviction that it is good. In theological language, the one is mortal sin, which is bad enough; the other is the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is without forgiveness simply and solely because the sinner has not the remotest idea that he is sinning at all. So long as we are aware that we are wicked, we are not corrupt beyond all hope. Our present dissatisfaction with ourselves is a good sign. We have only to be careful that we do not get too disheartened and abashed to do anything about it all.

While there is a superficial consensus of opinion about the ethics of behavior, we can easily persuade ourselves that the underlying dogma is immaterial. We can, as we cheerfully say, “agree to differ.” “Never mind about theology,” we observe in kindly tones, “if we just go on being brotherly to one another it doesn’t matter what we believe about God.” We are so accustomed to this idea that we are not perturbed by the man who demands: “If I do not believe in the fatherhood of God, why should I believe in the brotherhood of man?” That, we think, is an interesting point of view, but it is only talk—a subject for quiet after-dinner discussion. But if the man goes on to translate his point of view into action, then, to our horror and surprise, the foundations of society are violently shaken, the crust of morality that looked so solid splits apart, and we see that it was only a thin bridge over an abyss in which two dogmas, incompatible as fire and water, are seething explosively together.

Now in this assembly I may take it for granted that we are generally agreed as to what is good and what is evil. However little we may have lived up to our beliefs, I take it that we are ready, if challenged, to cry, like the paladins in the Song of Roland: “Paiens unt tort e Chrestiens unt dreit” (Pagans are wrong, Christians are in the right). The thing I am here to say to you is this: that it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.

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