Beyond Dogma

“We’re beyond all that!” How common it is for a frustrated member of Christ’s faithful to hear that response from a progressivist cleric, catechist, or teacher in a nominally Catholic school. Just what we’re “beyond” is either some infallible formulation of our Faith (a dogma), a traditional liturgical expression of that same Faith, or a part of the moral law which is not subject to alteration. The routine is a familiar one.

Can we ever get “beyond all that”? The answer is yes, but for reasons radically different from the liberals’. For the faithful Catholic, dogma can never be other than true, and truth does not evolve. For the liberal, truth is in flux, cannot be adequately articulated, and must ever be subject to the zeitgeist. Today’s liberal is generally not the doctrinaire modernist that St. Pius X condemned in Pascendi — most of them lack the intellectual rigor of the modernists — but he is certainly influenced by the same movements that (a) deny the human mind’s capacity to know truth, (b) make religious principles something very personal, i.e., not mediated to us through the Church, and (c) subject everything, including dogma, to the inescapable process of evolution.

If this is so objectionable, why is it that I say we can “get beyond all that”? How can a hidebound traditionalist and “Feeneyite” ever dare to assert that it is possible in any way to transcend dogma and dogmatic formulations?

There is a perfectly rational explanation.

Our religious have been studying together the two-volume masterpiece of Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P, The Three Ages of the Interior Life. Describing the passage through the dark night of the senses, which takes the generous soul into the illuminitive way, the great Dominican cites a passage from St. John of the Cross on the “beginning of obscure and arid contemplation.” By this contemplation, says the learned Dominican, “God nourishes the soul while purifying it and giving it strength to go beyond the figures, to penetrate the meaning of the formulas of faith that it may reach the superior simplicity which characterizes contemplation.” The influence of the gift of understanding “makes us go beyond the letter of the Gospel to attain its spirit; it begins to make us penetrate, beyond the formulas of faith, the depths of the mysteries that they express. The formula is no longer a term but a point of departure.”

In the mouth of a liberal, the phrases I have italicized would be so many affirmations of the relative uselessness, or at least radical mutability, of dogma. In the mouth of a real Catholic (such as Father Garrigou-Lagrange), these phrases not only have a totally orthodox meaning, they also penetrate into the sublime inner workings of the Holy Ghost in souls.

A similar insight comes from Father Feeney. He used often to say that “Heaven will prove to be full of surprises, but no surprise will prove false any word of God.” In that ecstatic Vision, which is our heavenly beatitude, we will behold, to our surprise and great wonder, just how true every single dogma of the Church is. As Father Garrigou-Lagrange so frequently reminds us, the mystical life here on earth is a prelude to that Vision. Those souls who attain to the heights of contemplation here and now achieve a simple intuition of the mysteries of the Faith, an intuition which goes beyond the formula, but does not contradict it. And how well the friar expresses this truth! Both the dogmatic theologian and the mystic can admire his simple language: for the proficient soul, “the formula is no longer a term [i.e., and end or goal] but a point of departure.” Savor that a bit. It’s rich.

Oprah Winfrey attributes her neo-gnostic religious awakening in part to the frustration she felt when she heard her Baptist preacher say that God is a “jealous God.” According to Oprah, God is “bigger” than that. What a shallow observation! The poor thing could not figure out — or would not see — that the “big” God of Christian revelation, can, by an anthropomorphism, be said to posses arms, eyes, ears, anger, hatred, repentance, and, yes — jealousy. A child can understand these things, but, if I recall correctly, Oprah experienced this crisis at about age twenty.

I said a child can understand these things. This is no exaggeration. A few days ago, I asked an eight-year-old boy what “God is jealous” could mean. He said, “He’s jealous of the devil. He wants more people for himself in heaven and not for the devil.” Tell me if a more astute commentary on Exodus 34:14 is possible: “Adore not any strange god. The Lord his name is Jealous, he is a jealous God.”

The same sentence that scandalized Oprah into new-age pantheism, my eight-year-old interlocutor was easily able to understand.

The theologians tell us that all our knowledge of God is strictly analogical. Even what is not merely figurative (eyes, arms, jealousy, etc.) is analogous. This means that the word used has a meaning at once similar but different. Between the “being” of a rock, a man, and God, there is something the same, but something different. Creatures have only a participated and conditional being; God is the source of all being. Yet, “God is” and “I am” are both true statements. What can be said of God’s being can also be said of His mercy, justice, holiness, goodness, truth, beauty, etc. Yes, it can even be said of His “bigness,” which is not limited to spacial dimensions, as are a Big Mac or Big Bird. Somehow, the child brought up with the Faith has a nascent sense of this, even though he cannot express it in the exacting language of logic or epistemology.

The language of the Church — her scriptural, dogmatic, and liturgical formulae — should be precious to us. It cannot be “gotten beyond” in the manner of a sneering George Tyrell, a garrulous Karl Rahner, or a confused Oprah. But each and every part of it can become a “point of departure” that leads us to penetrate into divine mysteries — obscurely in this life, and with the clarity of vision in the next. “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known” (I Cor. 13:12).