When Dorothy Sayers wrote that the doctrines of the Church are relevant to all of life, she wasn’t stating what was obvious to everyone else. She was pointing out something more terrifying—that Christianity as a system of beliefs is viewed as irrelevant and that this was an idea attaining cultural dominance. People believe exactly opposite of what is true, that what we believe about God, sin, and salvation could make any real difference in how we live among each other, hence her motivation to write and present ‘Creed or Chaos?’
“…in the face of present world conditions, the doctrines of the reality of evil and the value of suffering should be kept in the very front line of Christian affirmation. I mean, it is not enough to say that religion produces virtues and personal consolations side by side with the very obvious evils and pains that afflict mankind, but that God is alive and at work within the evil and within the suffering, perpetually transforming them by the positive energy which He had with the Father before the world was made.”
World War 2 was well underway at the time Sayers was giving the ‘Creed or Chaos?’ address at Derby. By now, most of Europe had been overtaken by Nazi forces and Great Britain was the remaining major enemy of the regime. In this context, Sayers was making the argument that as it relates to the evil of the time, knowing what the church teaches about God was of immense relevance to everyone, not just the clergy and academics. Hers was not a message of cultural health and wellness if one just believes the rightly and performs the most pious acts. Simply, yet profoundly, Sayers was pleading for the people to know that God has not been overtaken by evil. God, though transcendent, hasn’t abandoned creation but is continually at work transforming lives within the evil and suffering of the time. A missionary to the minds of her time, she sought to penetrate the spiritual stagnation with a stark reminder that evil is a reality, but God is not missing in action.
We should be reticent to suggest that things are much different today. It is the view of many Christians and the churches they attend that a primary emphasis on doctrine is a first world luxury in contrast to the many other pressing third world needs the church ought to spend her time addressing. And while it is right to be involved in the plights of poverty, sickness, genocide and human trafficking—and abortion and gay marriage—without the proper theological framework accompanying our work, we’re just spinning our wheels.
We don’t want to fall prey to the false dilemma that is social justice. The evils of our time are symptomatic of what is more than just a common ailment; it’s a global pandemic. Murders, kidnapping, abortion, greed—this is what’s to be expected of a world that does not know Jesus. It isn’t enough to pour money and time into these causes if the true gospel and the core teachings of Christianity are not accompanying these efforts in strategic ways.
All the conferences, seminars, and books that could be made available to raise awareness on the previously stated social issues do not necessarily facilitate change. Promoting the notion that women, for instance are “half the sky” or “half the church” is insufficient to the prevention of abuses against women that keep them from becoming educated, nourished, exposed to sunlight, or even alive. The fact that our humanity fails to be a bridge, that we don’t achieve common ground by demonstrating our similarities should cause us to consider what it is that does change minds and lives.
It seems that what’s relevant to people today is not what Dorothy Sayers insisted is relevant. There are times the church hasn’t acquiesced to this false dilemma, that we can’t have doctrine and duty side by side. But today’s writers and thinkers seem to be suggesting the opposite, that the days of doctrine are over. A theological system can change little, evidence by the fact that things are getting worse. It’s time to set aside our theological privilege, they would say, and connect with what is relevant to people today.
The problem with this, I would like to suggest, is that what is relevant to people today isn’t necessarily what’s actually relevant, but what resonates with them. And what resonates isn’t always good.
On the issue of gay marriage, for instance, the cultural tide is turning and as a result, the church is shifting, too. More and more, those who profess Jesus are pleading for an updated understanding of Scripture, deeming Paul’s teachings on homosexuality “bigoted” and “outdated.” The dispute for many isn’t what Paul actually meant by what he wrote, but that it’s just out of step with our culture today. The concern is with making Christianity more palatable or more relevant to contemporary culture. If the Church doesn’t change her views on homosexuality and gay marriage, she will be deemed irrelevant and serve little purpose in ministry in the future. The rise of the “nones” (those who claim no church affiliation) will increase and Christianity will persist in its pursuit of a more individual, customized faith, turning the notion of a personal God on its heels.
But what resonates with culture and with some contemporary Christians isn’t what is truly relevant. What’s relevant to each person is a rich understanding of the core doctrines of the faith such that each person can know what they believe and therefore, how to live in the midst of anything. Recently my son made a comment at the grocery store that choosing an item of preference off the shelf was such a “first world problem”— and he was right. But very eagerly he will also tell you that what we believe about God and his creation will impact how we choose to live in the first place.