Thursday, January 12, 2012

Creed or Chaos by Dorothy L. Sayers

Creed or Chaos: Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe) is a collection of essays by Dorothy L. Sayers that was first published in 1949.

I first heard of this collection by Sayers at a Sunday dinner at the home of my friends, the Garton-Zavesky family, in 2011. When the conversation came around to the Athanasian creed, and they discovered I didn't know it, the oldest son, fifteen year old Nicholas, fetched me the book of Sayers's essays, which has the Athanasian creed printed on the last page. The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are on the front pages. These creeds are appropriate framing for a book about the necessity of sharply defined dogma to counteract the threat of chaos, the much-to-be-deplored fuzzy thinking so common among many of today's Christian believers.[1]

Remember the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who told Alice that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast? Equally preposterous to me is the idea that Christians should preach only a religion of love without teaching the actual doctrine that is central to the Christian beliefs.

In case you haven't heard about Sayers before, I'll give you a brief introduction. She was a versatile and brilliant British academic, author, and translator in the early 20th century. Her works range from a translation of The Divine Comedy (that effectively used the terza rima[2] of Dante's original Italian) to the Lord Peter Whimsey mysteries, which are charming and well-written in an entirely different kind of way.

The introduction to Creed or Chaos is ironic because it credits Dorothy Sayers with having led the author of the introduction and his wife from atheism to Catholicism. Converting people to Catholicism is an odd accomplishment for a writer who was a "high Church" Anglican who never joined the Catholic Church. The conversion began when the wife was struck by Sayers's insistence in her introduction to her translation that The Divine Comedy "can only be understood as 'the drama of the soul's choice' between good and evil, revealing 'the terror and splendor of Christian Revelation'" After pondering this, the wife made a choice of her own, and joined the Catholic Church, where her husband followed her and joined too.

As an example of the topics in these essays, in the chapter titled, "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged is the Official Creed of Christendom," Sayers examines the Church's teaching about Jesus Christ as God made man and contrasts the historical facts about Jesus as described in the Gospels against a popular idea that dogma is boring, and that preachers who preach dull dogma are driving people away. Apparently the idea that a church should be doctrine-free had wide currency in her era.

I believe it's a lack of these solid teachings that provide Truths that are worth believing in and giving one's life for that is driving people away. Here are a interesting couple of sentences that indicate Sayers thought so too, which contain a rather reluctant bit of praise for the Roman Catholic Church:

I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology. The Church of Rome alone has retained Her prestige because She puts theology in the foreground of Her teaching.

Two other essays of special note from this collection are "Why Work?," and provocatively, "The Other Six Deadly Sins."'' Apropos of the latter, I've observed that for many, including many priests, the only significant sins are related to the sin of Lust. Not so.

All sins can be deadly, and even if venial, all sins diminish and weaken the Christian life. The seven deadly sins are also commonly called the seven capital sins, because they are the source (capital comes from the Latin "capus," which means "head") of all other sins. Here is one example. Just this past Sunday, our fine new rector, Canon Fragelli gave a good sermon on the sinfulness of talking about others. He said that when people come to him and say, "Father, God doesn't answer my prayers," he says to them, "Stop gossiping." I don't think he has any special knowledge about that person's failings in that area. It's just that gossiping is such a common vice. He knows that prayers are only answered when a person is righteous[3], and that righteousness includes not just chastity, but also abstinence from all other evils, including the specifically mentioned hateful sins of backbiting (slanderously revealing another's faults to someone who has no business knowing about them), and calumny (lying about another person), which in their turn are due to the cardinal sin of Pride and Envy, the latter of which St. Thomas Aquinas refers to as sorrow for another's good.

Summing up, I can't say this is close to my favorite Sayers book, mostly because the issues of her day are not the same as the arguments of our day. But the essays are interesting because her writing is always interesting. And although the issue of keeping dogma out of the Church is not spoken about so much now, the belief that one can believe whatever one wishes is rampant today.

Thanks be to God, we have the sure and certain teachings of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, which still teaches us what we need to know about the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, True God and True Man.

Check out Creed or Chaos by Dorothy Sayers if you have a chance.

[1] Speaking of Creeds, here is a blog I wrote about the Christian creeds and what it means to say "Credo," "I believe."
[2] If you like digressions (I sure do), you might like this article, which is a discussion about the many various attempts to translate The Divine Comedy into English, using terza rima, other rhyming schemes, or no rhyming at all.
[3] I learned the King James Version of this verse (James 5:16): "The effective fervent prayers of a righteous man availeth much." But this other translations from the Revised Standard Version may make it more clear: "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." Not righteous, then your prayers are either not going to be powerful or not effective, or both, right? Righteousness means abstaining from all the deadly sins. Therefore, gossip not, and sin not in other ways if you want your prayers to be heard. And don't think I'm being holier than thou. The finger points also back at me.
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