Creed or chaos?
Ours is an age of anxiety—a time of uncertainty when the fundamental nature of our society is being contested. The term “culture wars” is often used to describe some of the more prominent flash points. A woman’s right to choose is pitted against the right to life, in the battle over abortion. Same-sex marriage focuses the cultural struggle over the definition of the family. Beyond the culture wars, there’s the political question about the role of government. Individual rights are pitted against a more prominent role of government in caring for its citizens. In economics, the contest is over whether our economy should be more socialist or more capitalist.
But the debate in each of these arenas is more fundamental—much more foundational—than what’s reported in the news and discussed on talk radio.
In a 1940 talk, Dorothy Sayers referred to such debates as “dabbling about on the surface of things.” The historical setting for her talk, “Creed or Chaos,” was the run-up to World War II, a historical moment reflected in her illustrations.
The people who say that this is a war of economics or of power-politics are only dabbling about on the surface of things. Even those who say it is a war to preserve freedom and justice and faith have gone only half-way to the truth. The real question is what economics and politics are to be used for; whether freedom and justice and faith have any right to be considered at all; at bottom it is a violent and irreconcilable quarrel about the nature of God and the nature of man and the ultimate nature of the universe; it is a war of dogma.
Today, some would call this a battle of worldviews. It is a contest over the essential nature of reality. And it is from these foundational commitments—whether called dogma, worldview, philosophy, doctrine, or theology—that ethical and cultural decisions flow. For Sayers, Christian dogma is the “sole rational foundation” for Christian ethics, both private and public. But it was a foundation that Christians had failed to build on.
The word dogma is unpopular, and that is why I have used it. It is our own distrust of dogma that is handicapping us in the struggle. We on our side have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole rational foundation for those values. The immense spiritual strength of our opponents lies precisely in the fact that they have fervently embraced, and hold with fanatical fervour, a dogma which is none the less a dogma for being called an “ideology.” The rulers of Germany have seen quite clearly that dogma and ethics are inextricably bound together. Having renounced the dogma, they have renounced the ethics as well—and from their point of view they are perfectly right. They have adopted an entirely different dogma, whose ethical scheme has no value for peace or truth, mercy or justice, faith or freedom; and they see no reason why they should practise a set of virtues incompatible with their dogma. …
Dorothy Sayers’s analysis of English society in the 1930s offers striking parallels to the situation in which Christians find themselves in contemporary American culture.
The thing I am here to say to you is this: that 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 a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. 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. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practise it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country 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. If you think I am exaggerating, ask the Army chaplains. Apart from a possible one per cent of intelligent and instructed Christians, there are three kinds of people we have to deal with. There are the frank and open heathen, whose notions of Christianity are a dreadful jumble of rags and tags of Bible anecdote and clotted mythological nonsense. There are the ignorant Christians, who combine a mild gentle-Jesus sentimentality with vaguely humanistic ethics—most of these are Arian heretics. Finally, there are the more or less instructed church-goers, who know all the arguments about divorce and auricular confession and communion in two kinds, but are about as well equipped to do battle on fundamentals against a Marxian atheist or a Wellsian agnostic as a boy with a pea-shooter facing a fan-fire of machine guns. 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 and there are signs of a very great eagerness, especially among the younger people, to find a creed to which they can give whole-hearted adherence.
This is the Church’s opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people’s readiness to listen goes, she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real, and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of “laissez-faire” is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a “recall to prayer.” 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.
Dorothy Sayers concluded “Creed or Chaos” with a discussion of seven of the important dogmas about which she found the most “ignorance and misunderstanding”: God, man, sin, judgment, matter (the material universe), work, and society. The same “ignorance and misunderstanding” exists today, and “Creed or Chaos” offers an excellent starting point for recovering these vital doctrines.
Altogether, Dorothy Sayers writing offers a very useful starting point for sorting out the public dimensions of Christianity. Many of her most important essays are collected in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Dogma. In addition to “Creed or Chaos,” several essays that touch on the same issues are available online: “Strong Meat” and “The Dogma is the Drama” can be found here. “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” and “The Triumph of Easter” can be found here.
Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a graduate of Oxford University, was a British author, playwright, and scholar. She is the author of the famous “Lord Peter Wimsey” detective series. Sayers was an associate of C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Williams.