BOOK BLOG | Creed or Chaos? (Sayers - Letter 5)
“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. […] It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.”
The leader quote gives a pretty clear sense of the direction of things in this sixth essay in the Letters to a Diminished Church collection by Dorothy Sayers. She works to further unpack the creeds by focusing on the underlying beliefs which inspire them. As she did in an earlier essay, Sayers reminds us that there seems to her relatively few people who actually understand what these beliefs are, in fact, claiming.
“The brutal fact is that in this Christian country [England] not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.”
Who are these clueless people? First there are the heathen. In fairness, they are making no real effort to understand Christianity anyway since they are, by profession, unbelievers; so to the extent that they understand anything about the Faith, it’s like some mix between ancient Druidism and a Greek hero myth. Second are the ignorant Christians, who confuse various shades of liberalism, pacifism, feminism, and cultural appeasement (i.e. some sort of “vague humanism”) with Christianity. Third are the Sunday School Christians, those who have been generally instructed in the basics, but who are apologetically dull. These folks can recite the creed, but don’t get what it means, and so their faith fails intellectually (and sometimes also morally) when faced with intelligent heathens. This final category of Christian has been obnoxiously visible here in this country over the past decade or two, and has been pivotal in helping to bring about the social revolution which we are now witnessing in our time.
“Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope. We are not happy in this condition…”
Moments of chaos can also be moments of opportunity, and the church has been presented with such a moment. “But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a recall to prayer.” Sayers isn’t against prayer, of course, or personal piety. But a Christian resurgence must be a doctrinal one – that is, one with binding intellectual content and rooted in incarnational realism. The revival of emotion and sentiment and pietism (which the American has seen not once, but twice in recent centuries) is ultimately short-lived; and may be rightly seen as a sort of rival to the One True Faith. This matters because of the enormity of the danger which we face, and how ill-suited the contemporary Church appears to meet that challenge.
“The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity. […] And however unpopular I may make myself, I shall and will affirm that the reason why the churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology.
These are the sorts of things upon which the historic church had a consensus. Whatever differences may have existed between Rome and Luther and Calvin, none doubted the relevance of doctrine, nor did they doubt the efficacy of doctrine to life.
…if we really want a Christian society, we must teach Christianity, and that is absolutely impossible to teach without teaching Christian dogma. […] But if Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what in Heaven’s name, is it relevant? – since religious dogma is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrines concerning the nature and life of the universe.”
But when you think this way, you quickly figure out that "you cannot have Christian principles without Christ” and that their “validity as principles depends on Christ’s authority”. And when we speak of the doctrines of Christ we’re speaking of both – relevance and authority. Take, for instance, the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ:
“The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ were only man, then he is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if he is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all. And in that case, it is wholly irrelevant to chatter about Christian principles.”
Speaking of relevance, let us remember also that many, if not most doctrines were written, or clarified, specifically in response to heresies which grew up in the Church from time to time. “Teachers and preachers never, I think, make it sufficiently clear that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented ‘a priori’ by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy. Ironically, it is as a result of Nestorianism, Arianism, the Patripassians, the Theopaschites, the Eutychian heresy, Apollinarianism, and the rest that “the average man has walked straight into the heart of the Athanasian Creed” – a creed which finds “support both in Rome and Geneva.”
That leads Sayers, at last, to conclude by mentioning seven dogmas about which, she feels, there is gross misunderstanding; and about which the world most needs to be told. She calls them “key positions” about God, man, sin, judgment, matter, work, and society. Keeping in mind that “Christian doctrine is not a set of rules, but one vast interlocking rational structure”, we ought to regard these not as separate and isolated doctrines, but rather as part of a unity – and that unity must be kept in view. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I offer Sayers’ thoughts in her own words in the form of a series of quotes.
“Of late years, the Church has not succeeded very well in preaching Christ; she has preached Jesus, which is not quite the same thing. I find that the ordinary man simply does not grasp at all the idea that Jesus Christ and God the Creator are held to be literally the same person.”
“Christianity has its enormous advantage over every other religion in the world. It is the ‘only’ religion that gives value to evil and suffering. It affirms…that perfection is attained through the active and positive effort to wrench a real good out of a real evil.”
“[O]ne of the greatest sources of strength in Christianity today lay in the profoundly pessimistic view it took of human nature. […] [The Christian] is as deeply shocked and grieved [by the barbarity and stupidity of human behavior] as anybody else, but he is not astonished. He has never thought very highly of human nature left to itself. He has been accustomed to the idea that there is a deep interior dislocation in the very center of human personality.”
“…the mere increase of knowledge is of very little help in the struggle to outlaw evil. The delusion of the mechanical perfectibility of mankind through a combined process of scientific knowledge and unconscious evolution has been responsible for a great deal of heartbreak.”
“The Christian dogma of the double nature in man – which asserts that man is disintegrated and necessarily imperfect in himself and all his works, yet closely related by a real unity of substance with an eternal perfection within and beyond him – makes the present parlous state of human society seem both less hopeless and less irrational.”
“As Lord David Cecil has said: ‘The jargon of the philosophy of progress taught us to think that the savage and primitive state of man is behind us, we still talk of the present `return to barbarism`’. But barbarism is not behind us, it is beneath us.”
“…it seems to me quite disastrous that the idea should have got about that Christianity is an other-worldly, unreal, idealistic kind of religion that suggests that if we are good we shall be happy – or if not, it will all be made up to us in the next existence. On the contrary, it is fiercely and even harshly realistic, insisting that the kingdom of heaven can never be attained in this world except by unceasing toil and struggle and vigilance: that, in fact, we cannot be good and cannot be happy, but that there are certain eternal achievements that make even happiness look like trash.”
“The final tendency of the modern philosophies – hailed in their day as a release from the burden of sinfulness – has been to bind man hard and fast in the chains of an iron determinism. The influences of heredity and environment, of glandular makeup and the control exercised by the unconscious, of economic necessity and the mechanics of biological development, have all been invoked to assure man that he is not responsible for his misfortunes and therefore not to be held guilty. Evil has been represented as something imposed upon him from without, not made by him from within. The dreadful conclusion follows inevitably, that as he is not responsible for evil, he cannot alter it…
“[Judgment] is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”
“We must not say that such behavior is wrong because it does not pay, but rather that it does not pay because it is wrong.”
“But so long as the Church continues to teach the manhood of God and to celebrate the sacraments of the Eucharist and of marriage, no living man should dare to say that matter and body are not sacred to her. She must insist strongly that the whole material universe is an expression and incarnation of the creative energy of God, as a book or a picture is the material expression of the creative soul of the artist. For that reason, all good and creative handling of the material universe is holy and beautiful, and all abuse of the material universe is a crucifixion of the body of Christ. The whole question of the right use to be made of art, of the intellect, and of the material resources of the world is bound up in this.”
“The unsacramental attitude of modern society to man and matter is probably closely connected with its unsacramental attitude to work. […] The fallacy is that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in service to society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure.”
“What is happening…is that nobody works for the sake of getting the thing done. The result of the work is a by-product; the aim of the work is to make money to do something else. Doctors practice medicine not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living – the cure of the patient is something that happens on the way.”
“If man’s fulfillment of his nature is to be found in the full expression of his divine creativeness, then we urgently need a Christian doctrine of work, which shall provide, not only for proper conditions for employment, but also that the work shall be such as a man may do with his whole heart, and that he shall do it for the very work’s sake.”
“The attempts to abolish wars and wickedness by the moral law is doomed to failure because of the fact of sinfulness. […] The law is necessary, but only, as it were, as a protective fence against the forces of evil behind which the divine activity of grace may do its redeeming work. […] That is why an intelligent understanding about sin is necessary to preserve the world from putting an unjustified confidence in the efficacy of the moral law taken by itself…
“Nevertheless, the law must be rightly understood, or it is not possible to make the world understand the meaning of grace. […] If men will not understand the meaning of judgment, they will never come to understand the meaning of grace. If they hear not Moses or the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”