I confess to being not well-versed in Chesterton. I did delve into some “Father Brown” in high school. And then in college an idiosyncratic Jesuit (a pleonasm?) coerced us sophomores into reading The Everlasting Man. I hasten to add that this was long ago and far away—before Vatican II was even a glimmer in Angelo Roncalli’s eye. So it was with the delight of a neophyte that I recently came upon this from G.K.:
When the journalist says for the thousandth time, “Living religion is not in dull and dusty dogmas, etc.” we must stop him with a sort of shout and say, “There—you go wrong at the very start.” If he would condescend to ask what the dogmas are, he would find out that it is precisely the dogmas that are living, that are inspiring, that are intellectually interesting. Zeal and charity and unction are admirable as flowers and fruit; but if you are really interested in the living principle you must be interested in the root or the seed.
Now I have run into my share of dogmatists, from both the political and the theological tribes. And it goes without saying that said tribes can be found powwowing on either the port or the starboard side of the deck. But a trait they very much share in common is their aversion to really listening and their fervor in administering the apodictic coup de grâce that decapitates further discussion.
So Chesterton’s “journalist,” whatever his protestations, strikes me as a dogmatist of this sort. He is, if I may risk trespassing on Chesterton’s domain, dogmatically anti-dogmatic.
However, were he (or, increasingly, she) to respond to G.K.’s invitation “to ask what the dogmas are,” what might one offer? Here I find Henri de Lubac presents an intriguing suggestion. De Lubac writes:
One could no more separate the revealed truths from the very Person of the Redeemer, than one could conceive a true and complete idea of the transcendent newness of Christianity if one did not recognize that, in this Person of Christ, such as the Apostles already show him to us, … the reality of charity and the truth of dogma are indissolubly united. Charity constitutes the reality of this dogma, as this dogma itself constitutes the truth of this charity.
Am I being overly simplistic in finding here the affirmation that the “dogma” is “the very Person of the redeemer” in whom truth and charity form, indeed, a seamless garment? And that both the root and the fruit of the Christian life manifest a distinctive Christo-logic that the “revealed truths” necessarily articulate, but never exhaust?
The root, then, is the Paschal Mystery of the Lord, and the fruit and flower are the transformed lives of Christians.
So perhaps one way to move beyond a debilitating polarization in the ecclesial realm (I dare not proffer any suggestions regarding the political realm) is for all my fellow dogmatists to aspire to become mystagogues. To rejoice in the mystery of our redemption and the Person who effected it. And to share humbly something of what we have seen and what we are striving to become.
Our Gospel-inspired common ground might well be Paul’s provocative assurance to the Colossians: “The mystery is this: Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Would I be terribly off the mark in translating this for our jaded journalist thus: “The dogma is this: Christ in you, the hope of glory.” It is a dogma that should impel all dogmatists to alleluias of awe and gratitude. And perhaps even spur them on to become mystagogues of the new evangelization. What have we to lose besides the chains of our untransformed selves?
Fr. Robert Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.