Does faith in God differ from dogma & morality?

You know the secrets of the universe? Great. How does that help me love my neighbor?

This week, Texas Faith asks:

In a conversation last week with Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Martyr, Prophet, Spy and now Socrates in the City: Conversations on Life, God, and Other Small Topics, he brought up the distinction between faith in God and dogma and morality.

As an example, he pointed to how dogma can become an idol of its own. People worship the tenets of their faith, not the God who is behind it.

Likewise, moralists can be pinched sourpusses. Their rigid code becomes a substitute for religious faith.

Of course, people of any faith need some guiding beliefs. Otherwise, their faith is grounded in nothing more than their subjective ideas.

So, as part of our ongoing debate about how people of any religious tradition balance faith and dogma, how would you respond to this question:

Is there a distinction between faith in God and dogma and morality?

As a naturalist, I can answer this one of two ways. I can address the difference between faith in God and dogma and morality as naturalists see it in theists. Or, I can address what the distinction between foundational beliefs and dogma and morality are for the naturalist. But both can be answered in that this question, either way, ultimately boils down to our approach to knowledge and to ethics.

There can certainly be found many naturalists plagued by the hubris that is so hard for all human beings to avoid. Some of them say things like ‘reason shows’ as one would claim to know what ‘God says’. The Spiritual Naturalist’s aim is to have an approach to knowledge that places humility at its core. A humble approach to knowledge means that we accept our limited ability to know all things; we do not make claims for which we have no evidence. We instead attempt to discipline ourselves to recognize there are many things we simply don’t know.

Dogma technically means simply the doctrines of a church, and this version of the word is fairly innocuous, or at least it could be. But dogmatism is thought of more as a rigid belief-based mindset whereby we become convinced in our own infallibility. Often we fail to recognize this because we claim that the sources to which we refer are infallible, and imagine that we can simultaneously recognize our own infallibility and therefore escape criticism of hubris. But this approach fails on two accounts: first, we can make mistakes in choosing which sources are wise to defer to. Secondly, sources are all ultimately written by some human hand, and as such, subject to imperfection as well – even if there may be a perfect ‘message sender’. Rationalists meanwhile make claims about rationality, but fail to keep in mind that – although rationality itself may dictate something – they are imperfect in their ability to be perfectly rational at all times, even when they think they are. So, whether theist or atheist, if we are not guilty of personal hubris, we are guilty of hubris with respect to humanity when behaving in this manner. This is why all knowledge should be held to be provisional, subject to reconsideration upon new information.

Ethics refer to those principles on which we act. For the Humanist, these principles should be derived from the needs of human happiness and well-being. They are similarly judged by their objective effects on that objective. But to prescribe certain behaviors and principles requires we make a judgment about ‘how things are’. If knowledge is provisional then, so are the ethics we derive from them.

We are all traveling on a boat that we’re having to build and work on as we travel. This means we cannot wait for perfect knowledge before we establish ethical standards. We must endeavor to act ethically, but recognize that none of us are perfect in our ability to know the best ethics. We must do the best we can – not being nihilistic, not claiming to ‘know nothing’, and not claiming that all knowledge is hopelessly biased and subjective. But, at the same time, we must keep an open mind, be willing to reexamine our beliefs when reasonable challenges are made to them, and always be ready to correct our course – not flippantly or based on self interest, but with careful and earnest moral deliberation.

For those who believe in God, remember that while such a being would have definite qualities, your knowledge of them is subject to error. For those who have no such belief, remember that your knowledge of whatever is true is equally prone to misunderstanding. This humility is what is important for all of us. Rather than concerning ourselves so much with what our brothers and sisters believe or don’t believe about the ultimate mysteries of existence, we should be considering something more within our immediate control and down to earth; namely: how compassionate and humble are we acting toward them?

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