W. K. writes, and I reply:
I agree with most of that [Mature Religion is Open-Ended Too], except what I take to be your idea of dogma. You say that the 'dogmatic contents' of religion is 'where it is weakest' and 'dogmatics displaces inquiry'. In both cases, for Catholicism, this is not only a misconception but the opposite of what dogma is.
In the first case, the dogmatic contents of Catholicism are revealed by God, who cannot possibly err, so given sufficient rational grounds for believing that there is a God, and that he has indeed revealed himself to man, and that this revelation is to be found where it is claimed to be found, its dogmatic contents are where it is strongest. [. . .]
I can grant all your premises but one. As I see it, the dogmatic contents, i.e., the dogmatic propositions, of Catholicism are not revealed by God. They are at best human formulations of what is revealed by God, formulations that bear the mark of their human origin. As such, they are debatable, disputable, and starting points for inquiry. They are not indisputable certainties that must be accepted on pain of damnation. To discuss this concretely we need to examine some examples of dogmatic contents. Here are some:
- God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty, by the natural
light of reason from created things.
- The divine attributes are really identical among themselves and with
the Divine Essence.
- God is absolutely simple.
If these dogmas are revealed by God, where can we find them in the Bible? As far as I know, the Bible is silent on the question of divine simplicity, which is what the second two propositions articulate. The doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS), as set forth by Thomas Aquinas, has a noble philosophical pedigree, but no Biblical pedigree. I am not saying that God is not ontologically simple. In fact, I am inclined to say that God must be simple: otherwise he would not be absolute, and hence would not be God. (See my Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on this topic.) Nor am I saying that that DDS is inconsistent with what is in the Bible. Perhaps it is possible to render consistent the simple God of the philosophers with the living, acting, non-impassible God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who acts in history, takes sides in tribal warfare, hears and responds to prayers, etc. I am saying precisely this: the DDS is a human attempt to articulate in discursive terms the divine transcendence and aseity. As such, DDS is open to scrutiny and debate.
This ought to be obvious from the fact that prominent philosophers of religion such as Alvin Plantinga, who are also classical theists, though not Catholics, question the DDS, and with good reason. Questioning it, they do not take themselves to be questioning divine revelation, nor are they questioning divine revelation. They are questioning a philosophical doctrine that has much to be said for it, but also much to be said against it. They are questioning something that is eminently questionable.
At this point one might try the following response. "Admittedly, DDS is not in the Bible; but it is taught by the Catholic Church, the one, true, holy, and universal church, the church founded by Christ himself who is God, a church presided over and guided by by the Holy Ghost (I don't use 'Holy Spirit' which is a Vatican II innovation) in all it conciliar deliberations with respect to faith and morals, a church, therefore, whose pronouncements on matters of faith and morals are infallible. Since the Roman church was founded by God himself, its epistemic credentials are absolutely impeccable, and everything it teaches, including DDS, is not only true, but known with absolute objective certainty to be true because it comes from an absolutely reliable Source, God himself."
Is the Roman church all that it claims to be? That is the question. If it is then everything it teaches, including the dogmas about its own divine origin and utter reliability (see here, scroll down to VI #s 1-20), are true. But is it all that it claims to be? You are free to believe it of course. But how do you know? If you say you know it because the Roman church teaches it, then you move in a circle of rather short diameter. You are saying in effect: The Roman church is God's very church because it claims to be, and its claims are true and certain because they made by God's very church, the church that God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, who is absolutely inerrant and trustworthy, established.
To avoid the circle, one must simply accept that the Roman church is all that it claims to be. But ought one not be unsettled by the fact that sincere, intelligent adherents of other Christian denominations (let alone adherents of other faiths such as Judaism and Islam) reject the Roman claims?
"No, why should I find that unsettling? Those other denominations are just wrong. The Eastern Church, for example, went astray at the time of the Great Schism." That's possible, but how likely is it? Isn't it much more likely that the extreme claims that the Roman church makes on its behalf are simply the expression of an exceedingly deep need for doxastic security, i.e., an inability to tolerate the least bit of uncertainty in one's beliefs? Here is one of the extreme claims:
Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus. No salvation outside the church. Which church? The Eastern church? Well, no. Our church. It would be absurd to say that the true church is true because it is ours. It would be better to say that it is ours because it is the true church: we joined it because it is true. But how justify that claim in a non-circular way?
Some will tell me that the Roman church has softened on the dogma just quoted. But if dogmas are divinely revealed as my correspondent W. K. claims, how could there be any need for softening or modification? And why would any more dogmas need to be added, as they were added in the 19th century?
Consider another dogma:
The Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and from the Son as from a single
principle through a single spiration.
This proposition contains the famous filoque, "and from the Son," which was the main doctrinal bone of contention that led to the Great Schism. (See East Versus West on the Trinity: The Filioque Controversy.) Is this Catholic dogma in the Bible? Where? Does the Bible anywhere take a stand on this theological arcanum? I don't think so.
And then there are the Marian dogmas. I count three: Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth, and Assumption. According to the first, Mary was conceived without original sin. And so the dogma of Original Sin is presupposed. That man is a fallen being in some sense or other I don't doubt. But the Fall as a sort of 'fact' and the Fall as an explicitly formulated doctrine are two and not one. Here is what I mean by the 'fact':
. . . man is wretched and only man is wretched. Man's wretchedness is 'structural': man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in what Pascal calls divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. We are in a dire state from which we need salvation but we are incapable of saving ourselves by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.
Now compare the 'fact' with the dogmatic propositions that make up the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin:
- Our first parents, before the fall, were endowed with sanctifying
- In addition to sanctifying grace, our first parents were endowed with
the preternatural gift of bodily immortality.
- Our first parents in Paradise sinned grievously through transgression
of the Divine probationary commandment.
- Through sin our first parents lost sanctifying grace and provoked the
anger and the indignation of God.
- Our first parents became subject to death and to the dominion of the
- Adam's sin is transmitted to his posterity, not by imitation but by
- Original sin is transmitted by natural generation.
- In the state of original sin man is deprived of sanctifying grace and
all that this implies, as well as of the preternatural gifts of integrity.
- Souls who depart this life in the state of original sin are excluded
from the Beatific Vision of God.
I'll make a couple of quick points. There were no first parents, and there is no transmission in the manner described.(Further details and explanations in Original Sin category.)
In sum, I oppose both the critics of religion who, failing to appreciate its open-ended, quest-like character, want to pin it down, reducing it to dogmatic contents, so as to attack it where it is weakest. I also oppose the (immature) religionists who also want religion pinned down and dogmatically spelled out for purposes of self-definition, doxastic security, other-exclusion, worldly promotion, and political leverage.
In a slogan: Religion is more quest than conclusions.