"Theologically, this country is in a state of utter chaos..."
From "Creed or Chaos?," an address by Dorothy Sayers delivered in Derby, England, on May 4th, 1940.
This insightful essay by Dorothy Sayers delivered at the outset of World War II helps me to better understand the chaos of the present moment. We are currently involved in a great struggle — a war, not only of ideas, but of competing theologies.
Something is happening to us today which has not happened for a very long time. We are waging a war of religion. Not a civil war between adherents of the same religion, but a life-and-death struggle between Christian and pagan. The Christians are, it must be confessed, not very good Christians, and the pagans do not officially proclaim themselves worshippers of Mahound or even of Odin, but the stark fact remains that Christendom and heathendom now stand face to face as they have not done in Europe since the days of Charlemagne. In spite of the various vague references in sermons and public speeches to the War as a “crusade,” I think we have scarcely begun to realize the full implications of this. It is a phenomenon of quite extraordinary importance. 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 al; 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.
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. The immense spiritual strength of our opponents lies precisely in the fact that they have fervently embraced, and hold with fanatical fervor, a dogma which is none the less a dogma for being called an “ideology.” 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 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 practice a set of virtues incompatible with their dogma.
We have been very slow to understand this. We persist in thinking that Germany really believes those things to be right that we believe to be right, and is only very naughty in her behavior. That is a thing we find quite familiar. We often do wrong things, knowing them to be wrong. For a long time we kept on imagining that if we granted certain German demands which seemed fairly reasonable, she would stop being naughty and behave according to our ideas of what was right and proper. We still go on scolding Germany for disregarding the standard of European ethics, as though that standard was something which she still acknowledged. It is only with great difficulty that we can bring ourselves to grasp the fact that there is no failure in Germany to live up to her own standards of right conduct. It is something much more terrifying and tremendous: it is that what we believe to be evil, Germany believes to be good. It is a direct repudiation of the basic Christian dogma on which our Mediterranean civilization, such as it is, is grounded.
I do not want now to discuss the ideology of Germany, nor yet that of Russia which, in rather a different way, is also a repudiation of Christendom. Nor do I want to talk about our own war-aims and peace-aims, and how far we are single-minded about them. All I want to say on this point is that, however deeply we have sinned—and God knows we have done plenty of evil in our time—we have not gone so far as to have altogether lost all claim to stand for Christendom. There is a great difference between believing a thing to be right and not doing it, on the one hand, and, on the other, energetically practicing evil in the firm conviction that it is good. In theological language, the one is mortal sin, which is bad enough; the other is the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is without forgiveness simply and solely because the sinner has not the remotest idea that he is sinning at all. So long as we are aware that we are wicked, we are not corrupt beyond all hope. Our present dissatisfaction with ourselves is a good sign. We have only to be careful that we do not get too disheartened and abashed to do anything about it all.
The only reason why I have mentioned Germany is this: that in the present conflict we have before us, in a visible and physical form which we cannot possibly overlook, the final consequences of a quarrel about dogma. A quarrel of that kind can go on for a very long time beneath the surface, and we can ignore it so long as disagreement about dogma is not translated into physical terms. While there is a superficial consensus of opinion about the ethics of behavior, we can easily persuade ourselves that the underlying dogma is immaterial. We can, as we cheerfully say, “agree to differ.” “Never mind about theology,” we observe in kindly tones, “if we just go on being brotherly to one another it doesn't matter what we believe about God.” We are so accustomed to this idea that we are not perturbed by the man who demands: “If I do not believe in the fatherhood of God, why should I believe in the brotherhood of man?” That, we think, is an interesting point of view, but it is only talk—a subject for quiet after-dinner discussion. But if the man goes on to translate his point of view into action, then, to our horror and surprise, the foundations of society are violently shaken, the crust of morality that looked so solid splits apart, and we see that it was only a thin bridge over an abyss in which two dogmas, incompatible as fire and water, are seething explosively together.
Now in this assembly I may take it for granted that we are generally agreed as to what is good and what is evil. However little we may have lived up to our beliefs, I take it that we are ready, if challenged, to cry, like the paladins in the Song of Roland: “Paiens unt tort e Chrestiens unt dreit” (Pagans are wrong, Christians are in the right).
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 practice 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. Click here to read / download the entire essay.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
“The False Gospel of Fascism.” I discussed this essay with Gene Veith at the beginning of this White Horse Inn episode (air date: November 21, 2021).
Letters to a Diminished Church. This is a superb collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers, which includes the essay, “Creed or Chaos?” However, the version included in this volume does not feature most of the introductory material included in this post. To obtain the the complete unedited version of this essay, use the link above to “read / download the entire essay,” or purchase a copy of Sayers’ book, Creed or Chaos?
2+2=5. This rap video by Hi-Rez likely won’t inspire “deep reflection,” but it does help to illustrate “the state of utter chaos” that we’re presently dealing with in 2023.
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