Dogma as an “Instrument of Freedom”
Flannery O’Connor once wrote “for me dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind” (The Habit of Being 92). O’Conner proclaims that dogma, that often maligned and mistreated word, is in fact an essential aspect of human freedom. How often do we hear that ‘dogmatization’ is wrong, limiting, restrictive, and contrary to our creativity, freedom, and personhood? Dogma has become an antique evil that needs correcting. The reality, for the catholic Christian, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Robert Imbelli’s Rekindling the Christic Imagination includes a fantastic subsection on ‘Dogma as Mystogogic” where he argues that the heart of dogma is the very essence of divine mystery. We, as Christians—clergy, laypeople, scholars, businesspeople, or children—approach the mysterious depths of God’s infinitude through the vehicle of dogma. We move into the world of contemplation, action, and existence with dogma as our map, signpost, and guide. Dogma is our Beatrice leading us mortals through the sublimity of heaven. Imbelli argues that “Dogma and doctrines are mystogogic: they point us in the direction of the inexhaustible mystery and invite us to ponder more fully that we may have life. They are not roadblocks, but guard rails that direct our journey safely” (39).
Imbelli identifies three dogmas that localize and actualize our pursuit of the mystery of God. The first deals with God as such- that God is “not one being among others”; rather, God is “Ipsum esse subsistens, Be-ing itself.” God’s very being is “Tri-personal, and calls forth the emergence of personhood in created reality” (40). Through the dogmatic understanding of God as personal and, in bringing humankind into being, relational, we see the depths of the Trinitarian mystery. We glimpse a mysterious insight into the Trinitarian life of Love, Fellowship, Creativity, and Participation. We see all of existence in its created glory pale in comparison to the infinitude and otherness of a God who remains the source of all existence and yet is personal, loving, and desirous of humanity. We owe our very existence to God, and we are lost without Him, we subsist in His will and providence; yet, He brings forth humanity as an image of himself: a mirror of the divine personhood. The dogma of God’s personhood and unicity drives us deeper into the mystery of his being.
Secondly, we move from God as being itself to the reality of personhood in the Trinity. As mentioned above, there is an essential connection between humanity as created (personhood) and the personhood of the Trinity. The Church has “long understood ‘person’…in terms of relations” within the Trinity. This is not tri-theism; rather, it is the affirmation that “the ‘Three’ of the Godhead are not separate beings, but are constituted by their very relationships of generous giving, truthful expressing, and joyful sharing” (40). The very essence of personhood, as gifted to the creature, is found in the personhood of God. Man’s existence mirrors the ontology of his Creator in a teleological way. By God’s gift, we are like Him and capable of a future with Him.
The reality of personhood within the Trinity is the core of the Nicene affirmation: there is ‘One God’ in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The persons are consubstantial and mutually indwelt (perichoresis). Thus, we see a unified action of creation, redemption, and sanctification. The dogma of the Trinity is not dry theology or dusty scholasticism; rather, it is the very essence of the Christian mystery. Through Christ, man is invited beyond intellectual contemplation or speculation and into actual Trinitarian participation. Our being is transformed by grace as our existence takes on the Trinitarian shape. Thus, the implication of the dogma is nothing less than the conversion of the individual.
Lastly, we see that once our life becomes Trinitarian, through the regenerative waters of Baptism and realized in the life of grace, our prayer and liturgical life takes on that Trinitarian reality as well. Koinonia becomes real and substantial because it is ultimately a gift given by God. We are joined to each other and to God himself in the most real and actual communion possible. The Eucharist is the pinnacle of this reality here and now. We are made the living Body by partaking in the Living Bread!
Our Lord says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35) and later “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (John 6:55-57). These are two instances of what humanity is being brought into. We see that, in Christ, we are given the most astonishing gift: a filial inheritance. Christ not only acts on behalf of mankind in the redemption of the world; He actually invites man into that very reality. We are substantially changed in and through the salvific work of Our Lord. This dogma, and all others, do not stop at an invitation to ‘know’ but are extended as an invitation to be.
We are freed from any notions of dogmatic rigidity when we begin to see that dogma propels man deeper into the limitless infinitude of God himself. We are free because we are in Christ and therefore see the world through Christic eyes. This means we see things as they are intended to be, not as we wish them to be in our finitude. Dogma is the most beautiful gift because it gives humanity language and orientation. We are free to plumb the depths of mystery because we are guided by the Spirit-filled life of the Church and the self-revelation of God in Holy Scripture. That which grounds us and keeps us orthodox is also that which moves us further up and deeper in. Dogma does not limit the object of its quest, which is God himself; rather, it acts like the rapier blade with which we are equipped to penetrate an infinite and limitless mystery. Let that be our guide as we freely attempt to grow in faith, understanding, and holiness.
Creighton McElveen is a postulant in the Diocese of the Eastern United States in the Anglican Province of America. He holds a B.A. in Intellectual History from Kennesaw State University and a M.A. in Theology from St. Joseph’s College of Maine. His thesis is titled “Henri de Lubac and the Debate on Nature and Grace: The Natural Desire for the Supernatural as Hermeneutic of Being”. His interests include Anglo-Catholic History, Nouvelle Théologie, Liturgics, Scholasticism, and Philosophical Theology. Creighton also loves art, poetry, and pipe smoking. He is a member of The Society of Mary, Guild of All Souls, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He is also a member of the American Academy of Religion.