- archaic : teaching, instruction
A: something that is taught
B: a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.
- a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted
- a belief or set of beliefs that is taught by a religious organization
- Full Definition of DOGMA
A: something held as an established opinion; especially: a definite authoritative tenet
B: a code of such tenets <pedagogical dogma>
C: a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds
D: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church
I sat in the meetings listening to the sermons of some of the more famous and gifted in our church fellowship, but I was really not listening. There was something going on inside my head and I could not ignore it.
I had been a part of this fellowship most of my life and I revered and loved the people around me. I had learned much from the leaders and had been faithful to follow their lead. But it was as though I was being pulled upward and above it all in my mind, and I was no longer there as a participant, but was viewing the setting from a distance. I was not mentally ‘in the meeting’ but beyond the meeting observing the context rather than being in the setting.
I was having an epiphany –
a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking; an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure; a revealing scene or moment.
Maslow called it a ‘peak experience.’ It is a moment in time when you understand. It is that occasional and unusual time when you understand. It is a revelation of truth that you were not contemplating or studying. How it happens or why, I do not know. But I do know when it happens.
This experience can be, as it was at this meeting, dramatic, overwhelming and overpowering. Or it can be more subtle, minuscule, or incremental. That is, there are times when there is simply a moment of understanding; a sense that something has settled into your mind that you previously did not understand. It is the ‘ah-ha’ moment.
But this time it was as though the window through which I saw the world had been rearranged. It was not that the world had changed, but my perception of it had. It was the rearrangement of my world view. The pieces of the puzzle were still all there, but they had been rearranged to fit together differently so that I saw things in an entirely different frame of reference.
As I sat there, I realized that I was setting down while everyone else was standing and singing. Then I was not participating in the meeting at all. So, I got up and left the meeting altogether and went to my room at the conference center. In that more quiet and comfortable setting I began to define the changes that had just occurred.
The issue before me was our belief system. Yes, the entire system by which we defined truth, belief, our foundations of doctrine, our interpretation of scripture. I was threading on dangerous ground, so to speak, but I seemed powerless to resist the re-set of my moorings. Revelations does that. It does not ask for your cooperation, it just happens.
What I understood was pivotal. It was the understanding that it is possible to believe that which is incomplete, or to absorb ideas that are presented as fact, without those ideas being true. It may be as subtle as taking an idea or truth to an illegitimate extreme, or as dramatic as moving from sound doctrine to dogma. It is something that we do when we get together in a church service and listen to a sermon. It may be accurate and true or it may be motivated by the need to control, and not even understood as that by the presenter. It can be the seed of truth in a ground of error and we feed on it, without understanding the process. It is what we do in group think.
The irony of it is that we come together to understand truth, which means that we are learning something we did not know before, presumably. We are changing, growing, assimilating – understanding. And yet, if we are not careful, we are not really growing and changing but simply using the experience to affirm what we already know and to prove that we are right.
The vast majority of group activities is oriented to that goal: To be right! The problem is, if we are to grow and change we have to acknowledge that we are changing our beliefs and understanding along the way. This acknowledges that what I gave up in understanding to know more and to grow in understanding requires that I give up what I understood before the understanding. That means I was accommodating error in my understanding.
There is a wonderful old book entitled Flatland, an 1884 satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott. In it he starts with the perception that those who live in Flatland can only see the world through one dimension. They see the edge of the page but cannot see what is on the page. It relates to the phenomenon of the entire human race under the perception that the world is flat and if you go too far you will fall off of the edge of the earth. To understand that the earth is a globe and that gravity keeps us from falling off, is a revelation, a change of perception, of world-view.
That is what was happening for me. As the process moved along, I became increasingly uncomfortable, for I began to see that our meetings, our gatherings were not growing and enlarging our understanding but reaffirming our rightness. We had arrived at a place where were determined to remain in forever and that, it seemed to me, was dangerous ground. The goal of Christianity was not to be right but to be real. It was not designed to be a religion but a relationship.
Religion, by definition is a set of ideals that men construct about their understanding of God. In that definition, all religions are on equal ground. That is why our secular world tries so hard to treat all religions the same and to give to them the same rights. It is an accommodation of individualized beliefs that is paternalistic, demeaning and intrusive. It sets the secular above the divine and the natural above the spiritual. It accommodates the eternal within the mortal – an impossible accommodation.
Christianity started as a relationship with a person. That person, Christ Jesus, did not tell us that He understood the truth, or that He was instructing us in the ancient doctrines of the truth. He said that He was the truth. Truth, if that is the case, is not dogma but a relationship with the eternal; a living in a new dimension of reality; a spiritual experience of knowing Him and what He is.
What I began to understand is that our entire premise of the Bible was flawed. We were seeing it as prescriptive rather than descriptive. We were trying to prove our rightness by the use of the Bible rather than seeing it as the record of God’s interaction with humankind. We used proof-texts to support our dogma rather than entering the process of experiencing God as did the people within its pages. We studied to find dictate, prescription, the limitations and definitions of truth rather than becoming truth.
Having knowledge about God is different than knowing God. Knowledge ‘about’ is historic, flat, hard, cold, while the knowing God is present, alive, powerful, and brings the eternal into the present. It is this religious context that restricts rather than permits, that defines rather than presents. It produces dogma rather than truth, context rather than content. It is ‘about’ ideas that affirm rather than revelation of the eternal in our lives that releases and stimulates and frees.
A young pastor came to me for help in dealing with a group of people in his church and in the community who were doing strange things. They held trans-church, trans-denominational meeting in which things happened that he did not think were Biblical. He had searched the Bible to see if there was any occurrence of the phenomenon in their meetings and he could find none. Based on his research he had denounced the group and their meetings. Now, he needed affirmation from me that he was right in doing so. I did not give him the affirmation he needed, but did give him some guidance on his perspective. If the Bible is prescriptive, than he is right. If it prohibits the expression of God to people or in them to how God was experienced in the past and recorded in the Bible, then he was right. God it limited in the present to what others understood of him in the past. God cannot and would not allow anything other than the set patterns of the past. But of course, I contend that God is larger than my understanding and I do not need to be the arbiter of what God does.
God is larger than I am. He is beyond human comprehension, beyond our ability to understand. We are limited by our finiteness and by our context. Although some presume to have dipped their teaspoon sized minds into the infinite mind of God and have come away with the totality of truth, they are arrogantly unaware of what they do not understand.
That is not to place a stamp of approval on error, ignorance or emotionalism. It is not the elevating of human nonsense above Biblical descriptions, but to reposition myself as not being the authority of all things and not responsible for how God deals with His kids. It is to acknowledge that God is real, present and in charge of His church and that He will lead as far as we can go at the moment.
One of the great pictures of God’s dealing with His people is the story of the Children of Israel in Egypt. Their liberation from Egypt too but a few days. The liberation of Egypt from them took 40 years. It was not a matter of getting them out of Egypt, but of getting Egypt out of them. It is not a matter of our understanding what we already know that restricts the presence of God in us, but of our encamping there and being unable and unwilling to go beyond our limits. We seek comfort, the known, the usual, and the familiar. That is our nature. But where God is greater than our concepts of Him and beyond that which we already understand, we are limited if we encamp there and are not actively following on to know the unending and unfathomable depths of God’s grace toward us.
I recently saw my brother-in-law slapped by a post on a social media site. He had spoken in terms that were larger than those he encountered there, and they slapped back, not in reasoned dialogue at his concepts, but at him personally. What they did not understand is that he is so much above and beyond their understanding that they seemed ignorant in the exchange. He was raised Catholic, and remains in good standing with the church to this day. Yet, he is not bound by the dogmas of the church, and seem to not need to stay or leave his setting. He accepts it for what it is, yet lives far beyond the confines of the context. To attempt to create a more accurate context is to follow the error of the context one is leaving. It is the pursuit of being right as opposed to the pursuit of being real in our relationship with God.
Watchman Ne writes, “Paul says that since God loves us so much and is so merciful and gracious to us, we should consecrate ourselves. Anyone who wants to serve God must first touch His mercy and grace. If a man has not seen God’s love and mercy, he will feel that it is a hard task to present his body to do something for God; he will feel that this is harder than making bricks for Pharaoh. Once a man sees God’s mercy, however, it is a reasonable thing for him to present his body.”
Grace, love and mercy precede consecration. It is God’s grace and our relationship with Him that brings us to surrender to Him. Believing right dogma does not make us a Christian. Being in Christ (a Christian) brings us to right understanding. The understanding is the result not the point. It is possible to be theologically accurate while being spiritually dead. Life produces life. That which flows from the intimacy of our walk with God brings accurate understanding. But the pursuit of being right in contrast to others brings us to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, where our defining between bring legalism, suppression and death. The letter kills but the spirit brings life. Repentance does not bring grace from God. He has made it available regardless of our state. Grace brings repentance, as we realize the wonder of God and His purposes.
It is not in defining the will of God that we are released to life, but in our being released to life that we express the will of God. God is the cause, the effect and the context. Everything else is our aimless and wandering efforts to redeem ourselves.
Thank you Jesus for the love of God that you poured forth on Calvary. For it is in this and this alone, that everything that was lost in the fall is recovered. We are all that He is, not by right of our organizations, structures, doctrines, dogmas, distinctions or rightness. We are all in Him and in Him alone. The pursuit is not external in construct, but internal in release.
This is Christianity.