BOOK BLOG | The Dogma is the Drama (Sayers - Letter 3)
“…for the cry today is: ‘Away with the tedious complexities of dogma – let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!’ The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular.”
In this, the third essay in Dorothy Sayer’s Letters to a Diminished Church, we turn again to the central theme of the collection, namely that doctrine is by nature not dull. Sayers posits that what people find dull is not Christianity in fact, but rather some popular – but false – perception of what they think Christianity is. This distinction is crucial to Sayer’s larger point, since whether doctrine is, in fact, dull hinges on whether we have the “real deal” or a counterfeit religion going about masquerading as the True Faith. Impersonations, after all, never quite fully capture their subject.
In characterizing the doctrine of the church as the world-at-large widely perceives it, the essay resorts to a sardonic catechism, perhaps reminiscent of Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Sayers offers a cool dozen; here are two of my favorites which convey the spirit of the thing:
Q: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
A: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.”
Q: What is meant by the Atonement?
A: God wanted to damn everyone, but his vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of his own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ or who never heard of him.
This sort of “slipshod thinking” and “trashy sentiment” are the very sort of things Sayers would root out of the Church – because if we were professing our doctrines as they actually are then the world (not to mention the pious) would be “startled…into some sort of vigorous reaction”.
“If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.”
It would be hard not to see the timeliness or relevance of this sort of message. Increasingly, I suspect this the line which seems to divide two distinctive sorts of churches, the de facto line between so-called liberal and conservative theology -- a line which boils down in the end to questions over authority and inspiration.
“It is the dogma that is the drama – not beautiful phrases, nor confronting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death – but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.”