Dialectics vs. Dogma

Stephen Terry


We often look at the Bible as being a uniform anthology. Perhaps this is because of a persistent desire to want to believe that God dictated the contents to His faithful human scribes. However when we examine the text, we discover many different perspectives that sometimes conflict with one another. In the New Testament, for example we have Johannine, Jacobine, Petrine and Pauline theologies presented. It may be wrong for us to try to create an appearance of unity on all fronts in the interests of uniformity of belief.

When we do this we tend to write down the final "truth" we have determined as though there is nothing more to discuss, when nothing could be further from the truth. Often these "truths" are finalized into creeds for judging one another's orthodoxy but are little more than battle flags raised by one political faction that gained dominance over another. It is the nature of politicians, both secular and religious, to deny orthodoxy to their opponents, claiming it only for themselves.

Is God pleased by all of this? Perhaps not. It is God who apparently urges us to reason with HIm. (Isaiah 1:18), and under inspiration a writer wrote "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." in Proverbs 27:17. God seems to favor a dialectic process in order to facilitate our spiritual development. In spite of the rigorous process that, over centuries, excluded many differing perspectives from the canon, we still have hints of this dialectical approach to faith in the differing gospels, the several different theological perspectives, and some of the confrontations recorded in scripture. Perhaps the most notable of these is that between Paul and Peter. (Galatians 2:11-12) Perhaps remembering this confrontation, Peter chafed in 2 Peter 3:15-16 that some of Paul's writings "contain some things that are hard to understand."

Today in several ways, we seem to have departed from the vigor of that ancient faith. We have immobilized belief within concrete creeds and statements of belief. In many denominations, dialectic has died, replace by one sided dogma presented from pulpits without opposition or concurrent analysis. Even most Sabbath or Sunday Schools do not allow much divergence from the pre-approved program, and should the class tend to wander into dialectics, there are often those in the class ready to remind the teacher to return to approved dogma, especially if they feel challenged by the discussion.

Perhaps this is why so many denominations have arisen over time. Faced with unquestionable dogma, thinking souls wishing to grow spiritually left their former denomination to found a new one where their progressive ideas could flourish in more fertile ground. Unfortunately, each denomination in turn seems to develop the tendency to move from open dialogue to protecting the unique perspective that brought them into being in the first place.

In spite of God's efforts to encourage dialectic, we may be condemned to a cycle of our own making by attempting to make scripture meet our uniform standards of interpretation. This may trap us into relying primarily ton dogma for our faith. The reasoning may be stated as 1) Christ is the truth (John 14:6), 2) the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), therefore 3) the church is the truth. However, this construct is a patchwork from different theologies that denies the basic sinfulness of all mankind, including those in the church. (Romans 3:10, 23)

So our syllogism, although properly constructed has a flaw in either the major or minor premise either in what they say or how they are understood. Few Christians would question whether or not Christ is the truth. (Although even that should be left open to dialogue for the sake of our non-Christian friends.) Therefore the flaw would appear to be in the minor premise. While the statement appears true, it may be a matter of definitions.

If we are equating the term "church" with the modern institutional church, we may be far from the truth of Christ. Our churches are too often controlled by power hungry politicians who brook no opposition to dogma, perhaps because it has become a powerful tool to control challenges to power. We see the same process in the secular world where laws are often generated with an obvious purpose of further entrenching established power structures. Gerrymandering is a prime example of such laws is secular life, while restricting ordination to a select few who support power as it is currently manifested is an example from religious life.

However, if we are equating the term "church" with that vast body of Christ that is universally ordained and transcends institutional boundaries and is in no way invested in existing power structures, we may find the syllogism to be more likely true than not. Such a diverse body by definition is more open to dialogue and the growth that ensues from a vibrant interplay of perspectives and experiences. When we, with our dogmas, exclude other Christians over matters of practice, when we shut down discussion in order to be safely ensconced in our little corner of Creation, we may be the ones to suffer most as our spirituality becomes stunted and, if allowed to continue on that course, may even become warped.

A faith based on dialectics is a stronger faith, able to stand in the marketplace of ideas. A faith propped up by dogma may become weaker through lack of confrontation and challenge. We should challenge everything, even what we might consider the foundations of our belief system, and yes, even this article. We all grow through dialogue. The may discover that truth may be in the process more than in the destination.