November 18, 2005

Some thoughts on dogma as behavior

Filed under: Theology (other) — Camassia @ 1:41 pm

I’ve had some further discussion with people in church about the original sin thing. One problem that John pointed out is that Mennonites, in contrast to the well-developed Roman Catholic distinctions of dogma, doctrine and theology, don’t have a very strict idea of what beliefs make up the core truths of the faith. “For Mennonites,” he said, “the real dogma is behavior.”

I’ve been thinking about this at some length, since this is a distinction I keep running up against throughout American Christendom. On the one hand, following a version of sola fide, there are people (usually conservative) who state that the primary element of Christian faith is right belief, and that the main question humanity needs to answer is which god to worship. On the other hand, there are the (usually liberal) advocates of centering faith around good behavior, to the point where what you believe about God, or even whether you believe in God, becomes irrelevant. That was essentially the bone of contention in the debate over the follow-up post, as well as what Graham is talking about here.

Now, the first thing that crosses my mind about all this is that the old distinction between faith and works, or the more modern contrast between belief and action, is to some extent artificial. Behavior requires constant improvisation, as we always have to deal with novel situations; and so behavior cannot be as unchanging as, say, the Nicene Creed. (This may be one reason the Mennonites produced the Amish: if your religion is based on behavior, it’s safer to keep the environment exactly the same.) So what people really mean when they talk about “behavior” in this context is certain principles governing behavior, such as pacifism, loving your neighbor, helping the poor and so on. But once we’ve gotten into the question of principles, aren’t we already in the realm of ideas?

From the other side of it, believing in and worshipping God still constitutes doing things. Even totally mental actions are still actions. I remember once at my Lutheran church, the pastor was giving a recent convert the good old Lutheran assurance that she didn’t have to earn God’s love with works, she just had to believe in and accept Jesus. She responded, “But isn’t that a sort of ‘work’?”

So I think the distinction lies elsewhere, and I was getting an inkling of it in that discussion over original sin. It’s not a question of beliefs vs. actions, it’s a question of actions that serve God vs. actions that serve people. In other words, actions like worship, prayer, sacraments and so on please God but have no direct apparent impact on your neighbor, while things like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and so on quite obviously affect those people without any apparent supernatural element. That’s why evangelism tends to be the domain of conservatives, although it’s certainly “behavior”; it’s aimed toward the proper worship of God, rather than serving your neighbor’s earthly needs.

The Anabaptists were (and still are, at least at my church) reacting against a Christianity that emphasized the former over the latter, which is why the movement was allied with the humanism of Erasmus et al. But I think it’s another matter that requires a proper balance, because going too far the other way also has problems. It can turn into another way of displacing God — making humanity the real center of things, with God just benevolent wallpaper.

Thinking about this has collided in my mind with something else that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while. A while ago a blog called Mystic Bourgeoisie discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I hadn’t thought about Maslow since we briefly went over him in one of my college psych courses, but apparently I would have heard a lot more about him if I’d gone into marketing. Brian Millar’s discussion of it in the second half of the post (under the subhead “Crossing the Line: the Curse of the Pyramid”) is nice and concise, so rather than repeat it here I urge you to read it yourself.

Now, Maslow is not as influential in society as a whole as he is in marketing. But looking at his pyramid again, I saw that like many philosophers he managed to spell out a lot of assumptions of the society at large. They are, essentially, materialist assumptions: that the most important needs for a person are the needs of his body, followed by the less-physical-but-still-earthly social needs, followed by the totally metaphysical spiritual needs.

As Millar aptly points out, this highly logical scheme really doesn’t track with actual human behavior. It would come as a shock to anyone from an honor/shame culture — which is most of the planet — that “esteem” ranks so far up the pyramid, when they were weaned on phrases like “death before dishonor.” In fact, quite a lot of people in world history have preferred suffering and death to social humiliation. More to the point of the subject at hand, if spiritual needs were really at the apex than rich people would be a lot more spiritual than poor ones, since their more basic needs have already been taken care of. But if anything, the reverse is true.

Now, I don’t think most Mennonites adhere to the hierarchy of needs quite that rigidly. But I do get the feeling that a lot of the “behavioral dogma” believers assume that God holds a hierarchy of priorities something like that. That is, the most important thing Christians can do for others is to serve their physical needs, and secondarily their social needs; and only after that is taken care of are they free to worry about whether their neighbors are having the proper relationship with God.

But the Bible, in fact, frequently inverts this assumption. God is concerned about how people treat each other, but he’s also interested in people’s relationship with himself — not as the endpoint, but as the starting point. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation,” says Habbakuk. But my point is not to assert that the physical needs of one’s neighbor are irrelevant; after all, we still have Matthew 25:31-46 to deal with. It’s not that I would turn the pyramid upside down; it’s that I don’t think you can so neatly stack human needs in that way. Our physical, social and spiritual needs are all tangled together.

I think another problem here is that, in our modern empirical way of thinking, we tend to see service to our neighbor only where we can trace a direct path from our action to our neighbor’s benefit. So giving a hungry person food obviously serves him, whereas munching on a communion wafer doesn’t have such an obvious effect. Yet there are plenty of intangibles that go with common beliefs and worship; special communal cohesion, meaning, direction and so on. The fact that it is difficult to observe and quantify the exact pathways of such intangibles doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

So anyway, getting back to the question of dogma, I think that God’s expressed desire in the Bible is not just that people obey him, but that they know him. And while stuff like Trinitarian theology can get pretty arcane (quick recite the Athanasian Creed!) I think that at its best, dogma declares things about God’s character that make his commands make sense. It seems strange to me to set out commandments while throwing a sort of veil over their source. The point of the Incarnation, as I see it, is that God was thus unveiled, and it seems to be denying quite a basic human need to refuse the gift.

(Mystic Bourgeoisie link via AKMA.)


  1. Hmmm… to agree or disagree?

    (Firstly, I wasn’t essentially trying to say that what we believe about God – or whether we believe in God – is irrelevant. I was instead trying to suggest that what we believe is only important as if flows out of, or gives birth to, behaviour.)

    I think I would have disagreed with this post if it were not for the sentances, ‘It’s not that I would turn the pyramid upside down; it’s that I don’t think you can so neatly stack human needs in that way. Our physical, social and spiritual needs are all tangled together.’ As I was reading, I was thinking, “Yeah, but what is a ‘relationship’ with God and what does Jesus suggest that ‘knowing’ God means?” I still think that they are important questions to ask of this post.

    Comment by graham — November 19, 2005 @ 9:30 am

  2. Hi. I’ve been told that Maslow later changed his mind about his hierarchy of needs and realized it was upside down. (Incidentally it is also taught in environmental studies.)

    It seems to me that it’s faith that empowers one to act charitably towards others. I don’t see it as faith versus works, but rather, the more faith I have the more works I can do.

    The fact that not all brands of faith lead to charitable acts does not negate this equation. Whatever people believe in, charitable or not, will be reflected in their actions. I don’t know that liberal/progressive Christians believe in works or if they just believe in Jesus as he is represented in the Gospels, who said that we must (among other things) take care of the needy.

    Comment by Sylvia — November 19, 2005 @ 10:05 am

  3. Nice post. I’ve been thinking about a lot of these issues lately myself. I think the lack of balance on the part of both evangelism-focused Christians and the social justice-focused Christians can lead both sides to miss the big picture that both approaches can be connected and both are required by the two great commandments to love God and our neighbor. I’m glad you mentioned the passage from Matthew because that illustrates nicely that how we treat other people is not separate from our relationship with God – it is a part of our interaction and relationship with God. Or from James, what good is faith if we don’t have works? It can be detrimental to focus on works too much or too little, but I think it’s important to see the spiritual growth that can occur through our concrete actions as well as through worship or prayer.

    Comment by kim — November 19, 2005 @ 10:57 am

  4. Seems to me that our understanding of the character of God will inform the character of our “works” and in the absence of a robust account of who God is (which is what the creeds, confessions, etc. are usually trying to safeguard), our works will likely be informed more by whatever notions of “justice,” “compassion,” etc. prevail in society at large.

    To take the obvious example, Mennonites and other Christian pacifists usually ground their pacifism in who they think God is. But if God isn’t that way, then pacifism may appear to be monstrously unjust because there are times when it appears to leave the weak at the mercy of the strong.

    Comment by Lee — November 21, 2005 @ 9:21 am

  5. I think the attraction of saints is they combine both the dogmatic and the behavioral, and no doubt we could use a few more of them. I’ve heard it said that the Cross is an emblem that is both vertical (me to God) and horizontal (me to neighbor) and both have to be there. Pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism seemed to have going for it doctrinal seriousness but also the tremendous outpouring of energy it in the form of starting American Catholic hospitals, foreign missions and a parallel school system.

    Comment by TSO — November 21, 2005 @ 10:50 am

  6. Something that changed my orientation on this whole questions was looking at ministry and social action as different ways of being heralds of the Kingdom of God. So things like evangelism and feeding the poor no longer get bifurcated into categories of “ministry” or “social action.” Rather, the emphasis becomes being people who proclaim and enact the Kingdom of God in all it’s full-orbed goodness.

    Comment by Jason — November 21, 2005 @ 1:02 pm

  7. I would have to say that the Word cannot be limited. The Word is absolute, but our understanding of it is relative. My understanding of it today, hopefully, will increase and unfold tomorrow. For any one group or person, other than the Word made flesh, to say they know the absolute meaning of the Word, leads to fanaticism, to disunity, to egotism, and to separation from God. The Bible says God is love. It says to love God is to love your brother. And it is impossible to love your brother without love of God. It’s a catch 22. I don’t recommend it, but try loving people without the love of God. People are imperfect, annoying, and just don’t think like me, and I’m supposed to love them? It takes a power greater than myself to perform such a task. That power is the love of God. I’ve seen it said that it is impossible to get communities of differing belief system together except on the most non-intimate levels, a passing tolerance. Yet, Jesus Christ came and brought people of widely divergent beliefs and nationalities together, intimately, loving one another. Maybe what we need is another spiritual paradigm shift of the magnitude of the Word being made flesh.

    Comment by Billy S. — November 21, 2005 @ 3:06 pm

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