The False Dichotomy of Religion or Relationship (Part 2)

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I concluded my last post by noting that there is a right way to engage in spiritualism, and a right way to develop a “personal relationship with God. “There is a right way to have even a personal relationship with Christ. And since there can be no meaningful spiritualism without actual spirits, there must be a right way to engage in spiritualism.” The implication of this is that there is also at least one wrong way to do this, which leaves us with a dilemma: how can i be sure that I am “doing spirituality” or forming my relationship the “right” way?

Enter religion, complete with all the rituals and doctrines and morals and dogma. Suddenly all of these things look a little less like a hindrance to even the “personal” side of religion, both the relationships and the spirituality. Morality ceases to be just a matter of “do this, don’t do that,” and starts to fulfill its purpose of rightly ordering us to God, to our neighbors, and even to ourselves. Rituals now gain meaning as well, both as things which draw us together as a community and as things which draw that community closer to God. Indeed, I can think of few things which draw a community together more joyfully than the two rituals which are celebrated universally by Christians of all denominations, sects, or Churches: baptisms and weddings. As sacraments, these draw us also closer to God.

And what of the doctrines and especially the dogmas, which are perhaps treated as the epitome of what so many people dislike about religion? A doctrine only means a teaching, whether moral or metaphysical or theological. Thus, doctrines go along with the territory of having beliefs. We can’t believe something which we’ve never learned, and so these are necessary for faith, not to mention for spirituality.

Dogma, on the other hand, is what really gets to people. How can dogma possibly be necessary for any of these relationships, whether individual or corporate? The general opinion today is that a dogma is where all thought ends. A more appropriate statement is that a dogma is the end of all thought. A dogma is, after all, a conclusion, and any intellectual journey worth embarking upon should have as its goal (or end) a conclusion; after all, our questions are only meaningful if they lead us to answers, and true ones at that.

Within religious thought, dogma is generally the conclusion arrived at by the authorities of the religion; I may not understand the line of reasoning which leads to that conclusion, and I may like it less still. But must I accept a conclusion about God in order to better know Him or relate to Him? Of course I must, if that conclusion is true. If I am rejecting a true conclusion about God, then I am rejecting God and substituting my own conception about Him. And to the extent that I do this, my relationship is not really with God. Thus, even the dogmas ought to enable me to come to a closer relationship with God, both individually and corporately (e.g. United in faith with the whole Church).

In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis makes a rather apt analogy between the doctrines and dogmas of a religion (or theology) and a map. Lewis writes:

Now, theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and exciting than the sort of thing that my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what comes of that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work: like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

This is especially important to know given that our interactions with God are never simultaneously direct, unveiled, and face-to-face. We often get one or two of these things, but not all three. Thus, we may meet Him directly and face-to-face in the Eucharist, but His presence is veiled from our natural senses; or we may speak directly to Him in prayer, but not face-to face.

All (or most) we know about Him must be revealed to us by Him. We can be certain of that knowledge, but nothing more. Yet, developing a relationship with someone means getting to know them (among other things). The dogmas of the Church are thus our way of getting to know God in a certain way. These dogmas are in turn to be found only reliably in religion, and specifically only in the Church which was established as a vessel through which the Holy Spirit can continue to speak to us today, and also as the body tasked with preserving the revelations which God made through the prophets, the apostles, and in person as Jesus Christ.

It is the unchanging creeds, the teachings and Traditions and Scripture of the Church in which we see preserved the revelations by which we may know God. For that matter it is here that we discover the way by which we ought to relate to Him in worship (the rituals, the liturgy), and to each other (the morality). And it is in the dogmas that we can find definitive answers about Who God is, and for that matter who we are. We then find that these are not where thought comes to an end, but rather that these dogmas are also the axioms and definitions from which thought can begin anew.

Religion may be more demanding that simple “spiritualism.” It may also seem more demanding than “only” developing a “personal relationship” with Christ (a task which should not be trivialized as it is by so many), since the Catholic religion at least demands both the individual relationship and the corporate one. But the question to ask is not “is it easier one way or the other?”, but rather “which is it the right way?” The Catholic religion with all its dogma and rituals may not be easier: but it is more complete, and hence more true. Religion really does allow us to approach God in the correct manner, both individually and corporately.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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