On our trip to England in September, my family and I stopped by Porchester Castle for some family pictures shortly after my brother-in-law’s wedding. The castle was built in the 11th century, and within the fortress walls is a beautiful Norman church surrounded by an ancient graveyard.
The church intrigued me much more than the castle.
On the stone wall that closed in the graveyard, there was a banner draped over, advertising The Alpha Course—a non-denominational “introduction to the basic doctrines of Christianity” course used for outreach in several countries now. The church’s website describes the pastors as having evangelical affiliation.
I was inspired. Here was an ancient church, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, determined to never be just a museum. The sign outside of the church communicated on message strongly: We believe this story, and we want you to believe it, too.
Where C. S. Lewis Went to Church
Two days later, we visited Beaconsfield and Oxford, where I visited the homes and graves of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church in Headington, an old Anglican congregation that prides itself on its connection to Lewis and points visitors toward the Narnia window. The churchwarden treated us kindly and directed me and my son to the pew where Lewis and his brother, Warnie, would sit.
Out of curiosity, I looked up this church online as well. But the difference between the Porchester church and Holy Trinity was striking. Consider this excerpt:
We come with open minds and open hearts doing our best to reflect honestly on the meaning of the story of Jesus for our day and to welcome all who may want to travel with us without questions about past, background, orientations or beliefs. This is not a church where you will find a fixed set of dogmas but rather an encouragement to wonder, to question and to value the views of others.
That last line, about not finding a fixed set of dogmas, but instead being encouraged “to wonder,” threw me back on my heels. Boy, would Lewis have a few things to say to that! I thought. No one who reads Lewis can imagine him setting up a dichotomy between “wonder” and “dogma,” as if “a fixed set of dogmas” is a bad thing.
C. S. Lewis vs. Minimal Religion
In an essay in God and the Dock, Lewis decried a “minimal religion” that seeks to shed dogma. “The minimal religion in fact cannot, while it remains minimal, be acted on,” Lewis said.
“As soon as you do anything you have assumed one of the dogmas. In practice, it will not be a religion at all; it will be merely a new colouring given to all the different things people were doing already. . . . The minimal religion will, in my opinion, leave us all doing what we were doing before.”
Lewis found the doctrine-less and “undogmatic” Christianity to be severely impractical, and merely a religious veneer for blessing your life as it already is. He also found that religion without dogma left us with a tame God, certainly not Aslan— unsafe, but good—whose image is visible in the Narnia Window.
“The god of whom no dogmas are believed is a mere shadow. He will not produce that fear of the Lord in which wisdom begins, and, therefore, will not produce the love in which it is consummated. . . . There is in this minimal religion nothing that can convince, convert, or (in the higher sense) console; nothing, therefore, which can restore vitality to our civilization. It is not costly enough.”
Dorothy Sayers: The Dogma Is the Drama
Dorothy Sayers, one of Lewis’s friends, went to the heart of the matter:
Official Christianity, of late years, has been having with is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.
Now, we may call [Christian] doctrine exhilarating, or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation, or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, the words have no meaning at all . . .
Sayers made a similar point to Lewis, how doctrine-less religion leaves us without a God to worship:
. . . . for the cry today is: “Away with the tedious complexities of dogma—let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!” The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular . . .
It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.
G. K. Chesterton: The Dogma That Unites
Most likely, the folks at Holy Trinity Church believe that a “fixed set of dogmas” won’t go over well in a pluralistic society, that harping on Christian doctrines may prove divisive. But what if the opposite is true? What if dogma is what brings people together? After all, the pursuit of truth is the only common bond worth arguing about.
And what if disdaining a “fixed set of dogmas” merely replaces one set of dogma for another, and leaves us blind to just how dogmatically anti-dogma we are?
“The dislike of defined dogmas,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “really means a preference for unexamined dogmas.”
The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas.
The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas.
Tale of Two Churches
I don’t know what the future holds for the church in Porchester or the church that C. S. Lewis attended. I do, however, know which church I’d rather visit, and which church has the closer connection to Christians all over the globe and the Christians who have gone before us. I know which church is closer the global and historic witness of the church because of the dogmas and doctrines we hold in common.
Dogma vs. wonder? Don’t you believe it!
What’s truly wonder-filled and awe-inspiring is not the vague generalities of societal “inclusiveness,” but belonging to a people all over the world and throughout the corridors of time, who read the same Bible, recite the same creed, and believe the same, let’s say it, dogma.
The Church of C. S. Lewis and the Dogma that Makes the DifferenceSHARE
“We have in our day started by getting the whole picture upside down. Starting with the doctrine that every individual is ‘of infinite value,’ we then picture God as a kind of employment committee whose business it is to find suitable careers for souls, square holes for square pegs. In fact, however, the value of the individual does not lie in him. He is capable of receiving value. He receives it by union with Christ. There is no question of finding for the individual a place in the living temple which will do justice to his inherent value and give scope to his natural idiosyncrasy. The place was there first. The individual was created for it. He will not be himself until he is there.”
C. S. Lewis, “Membership,” in The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, 1974), pages 41-42.
No wonder, then, that when we join a healthy church, we feel refreshed, reinvigorated, more alive. We may have looked for our church as if we were shopping, like consumers. But God is better than that and was up to something deeper. He was fitting us into his temple as living stones. It is in discovering the larger reality for which we were created that we come alive. Not by getting our own way, but by fitting into something sacred, ancient and massive.
Church membership is glorious.