Monday, September 24, 2012

Dogma, Certainty and Curiosity

Not too long ago I had a conversation with an Evangelical Protestant that I have a lot of respect for as he is someone with an intellectual curiosity on pretty much any subject. Somehow the topic of purgatory came up. He asked me some general questions along the lines of what exactly it is and how it relates to the faith. As the conversation went along he also asked me if purgatory was something that Catholics had to believe in. This wasn’t posed in a vindictive sort of way. I think he just wanted to know how I came to believe in purgatory and if that belief was universal within Catholic orthodoxy.

So…Purgatory is a dogma. And in these post modern, post, post whatever times, dogma  is generally a bad word.
At least, in the modern west, which is kind of funny because we are an emphatically dogmatic culture, (as a matter of fact, I think that subject deserves its own post that I will try to get to before too long here).

In any case I did my best to touch on the highlights of what purgatory is and is not. For the curious, some really good reading can be found at the Vatican link to the Catechism’s definition here:
and, (a sort of Catholic Wikipedia without the wiki-sketchiness), here:

However, the subject of this post is not purgatory but more so the question of knowledge, dogma and certainty. The thing that was really helpful in that conversation is that it dawned on me that dogma, rather than limiting knowledge or much less inhibiting curiosity, served to actually open the realm of inquiry and open the mind to further possibilities.  

Modern conventional thinking turns its nose up at dogma, as if it is something established by baddy patriarchs with the specific purpose of limiting freedom. However the actual experience of someone who embraces Catholic dogma is that your curiosity is actually piqued and your capacity for knowledge and wisdom is expanded.

How so? Well, I’ll stay with purgatory as an example. When I was a Protestant myself I really actually didn’t have much of a sense of what happened after death. For a while, I had a vague notion that because Catholics must be wrong about purgatory it reduced the possibilities of the afterlife to a quick trip to either heaven or hell, pretty much like stepping through a door. Once you crossed the threshold, well, there you were, face to face with the Almighty, the Beatific Vision, the I Am. The thing is though, I know myself. I know that as much as I want to be as close as possible to God the idea that I could shortly upon death, simply waltz on up to the Lord, in all His glory and give him a “howdy do!” might be a bit presumptuous. I know I can tend to carry on with a few things that our Savior might have to take issue. For example, arrogance. I can be one arrogant bastard. Much as I’d like to be more humble, I really am impressed with me at times and I pretty much don’t see the need to take into consideration the experience, feelings and needs of the rest of the population on planet earth, (sometimes anyway). So I’ve always had enough sense to know that that if that me, (the one who is sometimes caught up in love of self), were to come immediately face to face with the Holy of Holies, it might end up something like that scene right near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I’m not going to link to that face melt picture because it still grosses me out. Hopefully I’d do a little bit better since I’m not a Nazi but you get the point. But could it be that God in His mercy, offers me a more gentle and gracious way to be purged of self love in order to be prepared to come into the presence of His full glory? Wait, did I just say purged? Hmmm, maybe there is something to this idea of a purgatorial state that has been knocking around within the Christianity since pretty much its beginnings. Beside that 1 Cor 3 always really confounded me: 
If it [the builder’s work] is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. 1Cor 3:15

That being said though, wouldn’t it also be a relief to be rid of arrogance and every vain thing that I have constructed? Purgatory, rather than a second chance at Christianity, seems to be more like a Christian being made ready to meet his maker. Much as we try we know we can only go so far in preparing ourselves. Even that has to be done for us. So the idea of death and what occurs seems even more grace filled. Much as we could ever want to be near God, he wants us more. And after death, the adventure of finding God…continues. Wow, this purgatorio really requires some thought. I mean, perhaps even a book or two, or um, three. Maybe even one of the greatest literary works in Western Civilization.

So the authentic cultural experience of dogma is creativity and witness. How about that?
On multiple occasions GK Chesterton goes so far as to link dogma and doctrine to sex in that they breed.

What you find when you embrace dogma is that rather than closing you off to possibility and reality it, (dogma that is), in a real way, heightens your senses of a topic and concentrates your focus. Going back to my earlier threshold analogy, Chesterton spends a great deal of time in “The Everlasting Man” relating dogma and doctrine as a key in the door.

We are certain that this is a door with something on the other side.
We have a vague idea of what is on the other side.
We know that the door has a keyhole that is required in order to open it and like all keyholes, it requires not just any key, but the correct key.
Dogma could be best understood as a key.
It is used to open a conversation, rather than close a conversation.
Update: I should also link the this post on Certainty over at "Called to Communion" which I read and thoroughly enjoyed. It's not exactly on the same topic but it certainly had me thinking about the question of "what can we and can't we know of certain" and the role of curiosity with regards to doctrinal and spiritual development. It a terrific read and well worth the time.   

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