Dogma: the Nemeses of Faith

Being Teachable

God is never coercive. God always leads gently.

Dogma, certainty, ideas set in cement, are the nemeses of faith. The spiritually astute always feel free to ask questions, ponder answers, politely push back, and challenge preconceptions. An essential element of humility is teachableness – the realization that we have a lot to learn, and that some of what we believe may be incomplete or even inaccurate. Humility means being open to changing one’s mind.

William Sloane Coffin[1] preached:

“[There] are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what a distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties; when the very reverse, to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies, is not only more tolerant but far more Christian. For ‘who has known the mind of God?’[2] And didn’t Paul also insist[3] that if we fail in love we fail in all other things?”[4]

May God expand my sympathies. May I seek to understand rather than condemn; to empathize, not judge. May I approach other cultures with willingness to learn. May God give me the compassion that leads to sacrificial service. 

When I was in my 20s, newly endowed with fundamentalism, I had all the answers. I scoffed at my professors and the unenlightened that had not yet abandoned their traditions. I preached with certainty. I look back aghast.

 Bob Dylan sang:

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
[5]

I’m so much younger than I was 50 years ago.

And, yet, something in most of us seems to crave certainty, to prefer simplistic dogma to complex reality. Perhaps that is because it takes energy to wrestle with ideas, to stretch and learn. It is much easier to sit and absorb. Consistency and certainty make us feel safe. The world is understandable, controllable. 

Emerson wrote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”[6]

It is a foolish consistency that becomes anti-intellectual, anti-educational, and dogmatic. When religion becomes dogmatic, harsh judgmentalism results.

And that is contrary to the will and nature of God.


[1] William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) grew up in a wealthy family. His uncle was a famous preacher; his family owned a great deal of real estate in which they allowed people to live rent free during the Great Depression. Coffin was a veteran of World War II and later worked for the CIA. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister and senior pastor of the interdenominational Riverside Church in New York City. (Built by John D. Rockefeller to provide a preaching pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick, Riverside Church has roots with the American Baptists USA and the United Church of Christ, but is nondenominational. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached his famous “Beyond Vietnam” sermon there. Other guest preachers have included Nelson Mandela and Desmon Tutu.) A combination of his faith and his political and intelligence agency experience convinced Coffin of the illegality and immorality of the Vietnam War, which lead him to be a peace activist.

[2] Romans 11:34

[3] 1 Corinthians 13

[4] William Sloane Coffin, “Liberty to the Captives and Good Tidings to the Afflicted,” in Homosexuality & Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches, ed. Walter Wink (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), 106–107

[5] Bob Dylan, Verse 6, My Back Pages, Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

[6] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist Jesus Freak Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, husband, father, grandfather

Posted on January 27, 2022, in anabaptist, Christianity, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, Life Coaching, Spiritual Direction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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