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  • Samuel at Gilgal

    This year I will be sharing brief excerpts from the articles, sermons, and books I am currently reading. My posts will not follow a regular schedule but will be published as I find well-written thoughts that should be of interest to maturing Christian readers. Whenever possible, I encourage you to go to the source and read the complete work of the author.

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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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