Only a few letters separate the Greek noun "dogma" from the Greek verb dokeo, but there seems to be a world of difference between the two. The former, which came to us from the world of politics and government, means a "decision" or "decree". The latter, which came from the realm of philosophy, means to hold an opinion, to believe, or even to just "suppose". The tragedy is when, in the realm of religion, such opinions or beliefs are turned into dogmas or litmus tests of faith.
I say this because when one reads the Gospels, for the most part one looks in vain for any such thing. Jesus seems to have been much more concerned about how people treat one another than whether or not they held strictly orthodox views concerning the nature of God. And even if he did himself believe in the resurrection of the dead (not all Jews in his time did), still the point was to emphasize the reward that awaited those who live a godly life. And it was this promise (of eternal life) and the example of his followers love for all humanity and for one another that gradually converted the pagan world.
Yet even as that conversion progressed we can find this other ugly dogmatic side of religion beginning to emerge. There are even hints of it in some of the other writings in the New Testament -- which shouldn't surprize us, because by the fourth century, even before the official list of books in the Bible was fixed, we find various factions within Christianity not only at odds but even occasionally killing one another over the question of the correctness of their beliefs. Among them were such esoteric questions as to whether or not the Son (Jesus Christ) was of the "same nature" as the Father or only "similar" to him -- a difference of only one tiny letter in Greek (homoousios versus homoiousios)! And then it took the intervention of an Roman Emperor to enforce the former -- a clear case where religious beliefs had entered into the world of politics and dissenters did so at the risk of their lives. But considering the fate of Jesus, whose religious teachings threatened the political order, should we be surprised?
I have long held that religion is so important to people because it is what gives ultimate meaning or purpose to their life. But let's face it: if a particular religion seems to justify the persecution or destruction of others, then no matter how theologically correct its beliefs may seem to be, it will turn out to be a curse on the human race. On the other hand, no matter how strange some beliefs may seem, for example of the Jains in India -- who believe every living thing, including tiny gnats and bugs, contain divinity and consequently go to great lengths to avoid killing them -- they may reflect, in their own bizzare way, the kind of love that Jesus had in mind. So too, the kind of world-transforming pacifism that the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi preached and practiced was inspired both by the gospel of Jesus and the writings of the Russian religious dissenter, Leo Tolstoy, but no doubt also by the example of the Jains.
There are those, of course, who see such a blending of ideas as a kind of dangerous kind of religious "syncretism" that could lead to moral "relativism". Well, perhaps. But in the face of dogmatism, then, I say, perhaps the world needs more of this kind of tolerance of and even the occasional blending of beliefs!
R W Kropf 10/2/05 Dogma.doc 05-10-02.html