Most people seeing this post’s title would either curse against it or scroll on, depending on their mental state. I’d like you to hear me out for a moment, though, because I believe this can be helpful.
Okay. Now that I’ve got your attention, you’re probably asking How the hell is dogma good for anything, let alone spirituality? I think the best answer can be found by exploring, What is dogma?
What Is Dogma?
When most people think of the word “dogma,” their minds conjure images of narrow-mindedness, rigidity, fanaticism, and refusal to think for oneself; in fact the popular meaning of the word entails all these things. Fortunately, I’m not using the word in its popular sense but in its technical one.
In its technical sense, the word “dogma” has none of the meanings found in the popular use. Rather, it simply means what a person or group asserts to be true.
Yes, that’s it. In the sense of an individual, your dogma is what you personally believe to be unshakably true. In my own case, for example, my highest dogma is that I believe free will is absolute and sacrosanct. The flip side of this is my rejection of determinism in every way, shape, and form; in fact my belief in free will forms the backbone of my opposition to statism, forced ideological conversion, collectivism, and social engineering.
As another example, if you talk to the average Neopagan or Newager – people who claim to have no dogma whatsoever – you’ll find that most of them have an unshakeable belief in reincarnation. This unshakeable belief is their personal dogma, and likewise has the potential to shape any number of their other beliefs on religious, spiritual, and social issues.
What I’m saying is that every person has at least one unshakeable belief, therefore every person holds at least one dogma. Even if their dogma is the insistence on being non-dogmatic about everything: there is no person who lacks a core belief or a core principle.
Now that we’ve covered individual dogma, we can talk about corporate dogma, a term I’m using to describe “official dogmata” of a church, group, or organization.
Corporate dogmata differ little from personal dogmata except that it’s the official expression of a group of people. When Christianity affirms “there is one God in three persons” or Buddhism asserts that “The cause of suffering is desire,” each is expressing the corporate dogma of their respective religion. In fact there is nothing wrong with this insofar as we’re talking about expressions of belief (what dogma is) without falling into fanaticism (something dogma can lead to).
How Is Dogma Formed?
From the “what is dogma,” we should move to “how dogma is formed.”
In a healthy-minded individual or group, dogma is formed as one of two ways: either by experience or by extrapolation from a set of underlying principles. The simplest is a case of experience, in which a person or group experiences the same phenomenon as true over and over again; this could be a mundane phenomenon or a spiritual one, and repeated experience makes it a part of the belief system.
Dogma can also be formed by way of extrapolation from a set of known principles. This is the case in dogmatic as well as systematic theology, where theology is “faith seeking understanding” or “rational inquiry into the contents of one’s faith” and the underlying principles are what the individual (or group) knows themselves to believe up to this point. While not all these extrapolations may hold value – for example I once attempted to reconcile reincarnation with purgatory and the theory had too many holes to stand – at least some of these extrapolations can become dogmata.
An example of this process can be found in the history of the Catholic Church. We often hear anti-Catholics claim “Such and such a dogma wasn’t declared until such and such a date! That’s how we know it’s a false teaching!” We likewise hear post-Vatican II theologians proclaim something like “Limbo was never officially taught by the Church!” Both statements show either an ignorance of the process that leads to dogmata, or a willful avoidance of discussing with others who may not be familiar.
In the Church’s history, a dogma is usually not defined until a general belief of the Church is seriously challenged. For example, we can demonstrate that Christianity believed in a Trinitarian Deity and Jesus’ divinity from the very beginning, but these beliefs weren’t declared an “official dogma” until Arius challenged them 325 years later. Another example is the Real Presence in the Eucharist, which likewise can also be traced to the beginning but wasn’t defined as “official dogma” until it was challenged by Berengarius, Waldensians, and Albigensians between 1,000-1,200 years later. We can say the same about the permanent character of Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination though it wasn’t “official dogma” until the Protestants challenged it 1,500 years later. And so on, and so on, and so on.
In each of these cases, as in most dogmata outside the four Marian ones, what happened was that the Church realized a generally-held belief was being seriously challenged, and then she goes through her documents and asks the question “What have we believed since the beginning,” and “Does this belief logically flow from what we’ve believed since the beginning?” If this generally-held belief is traced through history or logically consistent with other beliefs that have been, then it becomes declared as an “official dogma of the Church.” There are exceptions to this rule (some of them BIG exceptions), but this is the general process: a re-affirmation of something that can be traced to the first century.
Of course this brings us to an aside, my earlier comment about Limbo, specifically the “Limbo of the Children.” In our day “modern” theologians try to brush the subject aside by claiming “it was never an official teaching of the Church,” yet that claim ignores the process by which a Church teaching becomes official. As to the Limbo of the Children, it’s a necessary logical conclusion of two official doctrines: 1. Baptism is necessary to be admitted into heaven, and 2. God is merciful and doesn’t condemn the undeserving to hell. Extrapolating from these doctrines gives us a “pocket dimension” where unbaptized babies can go since they can’t get into heaven, have no personal sins to burn away in purgatory, and a loving God would not condemn to hell. There’s also the fact that we can trace the concept of Limbo (by name) in catechisms and theology books going back to at least the patristic period. This means that by the process the Church uses is determining whether a belief is official doctrine, the Limbo of the Children more than qualifies if we follow this process to the letter.
How Can Dogma Be Good for YOU?
Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough so let’s get to the point. Let’s talk about how dogma can be good for you.
In the first place, you benefit just by understanding what dogma is and how it’s formed, because that in itself gives you a call to self-evaluation to keep yourself from falling into narrow-mindedness and fanaticism.
In the second place, understanding the concept of dogma gives you the opportunity to discern your own personal dogmata, i.e. what your personal core beliefs are and if there are any beliefs behind the beliefs. If you look at the example I gave of my own beliefs above, you’ll notice that one core belief can influence a person’s other beliefs about any number of spiritual or social issues; so try to look not just as your various beliefs, but see if you can find one main belief from which your other beliefs spring. That “main belief” will be your personal dogma, and getting in touch with that is a huge step to growing in self-knowledge and self-wisdom.
In the third place, understanding dogma (and in particular dogmatic theology) can help you in your spiritual quest. It’s common knowledge that it’s potentially dangerous practicing occultism or mysticism without first having some kind of anchor, and we all know “fluff-bunnies” and “white-lighters” who’re completely out of touch with reality. Your dogmata (both your personal dogmata and those of your church) help provide you with a roadmap to discern whether a spirit’s lying to you or a “mystical experience” is a load of crap.
Finally, understanding dogma can help you understand your interactions with the world around you. Dogmatics are the wellspring from which moral teaching flows, and your personal dogma is what determines your personal sense of right and wrong. By discerning and understanding your core belief system, you put yourself more in touch with where your moral compass comes from and how that compass will guide you through the web we call life. To understand the origins of your sense of right and wrong is to grow and make a big step toward how to become the change you want to see.
As a final word, I want to point out that I’m talking about core beliefs and belief systems, not any hierarchy that’s charged with enforcing such systems. Firsthand experience shows most hierarchs are assholes who don’t even believe in the stuff they’re spewing anyway.
The reason for this is that no hierarchy as anywhere near as responsible for you as you are, and no hierarchy can do the things for you that you can. That includes you access to God, nature, and the things of the spirit in general. Now matter how good your teachers or leaders, there’s only one person who can delve into your inner being, find all the gear-wheels to put in order, and turn the darkness into any kind of light. And that one person is YOU!