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Religious dogma is true— indispensably true—but Truth is truer, and bigger than dogma in the same way that a map is true, but the journey is truer and bigger than the map…

Editor’s Note: This essay is an abridged version of a chapter in Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s book The Romance of Religion.

When I was a boy, I had a Walt Disney long-playing record of the story of Treasure Island. The story had all the makings of a great heroic tale: truth, treasure, maps, and traps. Jim Hawkins is left a treasure map by a crusty old pirate. He sets off from his comfortable world on an adventure to overcome the pirates and not only to follow the map to find the treasure but also to find the truth about Treasure Island. The story, like all great heroic stories, is not just about the quest for hidden treasure but the quest for hidden truth. There is a mystery behind the treasure, and it is in solving the mystery and discovering the truth that the true treasure is found. Furthermore, it is the quest for the treasure and the truth that makes a man of Hawkins the boy and helps him not only discover the treasure and the truth but also become a hero in the process.

This same quest for the treasure of truth is the romance of religion. There is much that can be said about the search for the treasure of truth, but it should first be established that there is really such a thing as truth. There are many who doubt that there is such a thing as truth. That is to say, they doubt that there is any such thing as objective truth. Instead, truth is a relative and rubbery thing. “What is true is what seems true to you, but your truth is not necessarily the same as my truth.” This is absurd, and to state such a proposition is to disprove it, for how can something be “true for me and not for you”? If it is true, it is true for both of us. The relativist cuts off the branch he sits on, for he operates under the assumption that his own statement, “What is true for me is not true for you” is itself true. Therefore, if his relativistic statement is true, then there is such a thing as truth, and he is wrong. If he is really correct that “what is true for me is not true for you,” then I may disagree that his statement is true and I will be as right as he is.

Because all the greatest religions are dogmatic, it is assumed that the religious man not only believes that there is such a thing as truth but has it all written down neatly in a book, and that all you need to do is read that book to know and understand all truth. This may be the case for some religious people, but they are not engaged in the romance of religion. They are engaged in the reduction of religion. They wish to reduce the great romance of religion to a rule book, regulations—a list of doctrinal statements and moral precepts. These people are not truly religious. They are, in fact, the dark side of religion. They are the Puritans, the hypocrites, the Pharisees, the purse-lipped old grouches of religion.

However, when the religious romantic says that there is such a thing as truth, he is not necessarily saying that the truth is easy to discover, define, and defend. He wrestles with the difficulty that there are many different religions and that all of them have truth within them. He sees that the truth has many faces and wears many different costumes. He admits with the relativist that truth is difficult to find and know. This is precisely why he is a religious romantic—because he is on the quest to find the hidden treasure he calls truth. He knows that he does not know it all. He is agnostic about many things and curious about many more. He lives in an open-ended and wondering state of mind. Like Jim Hawkins, he has set out on a voyage to Treasure Island, and the sea on which he sails is uncertain, and the ship in which he sails is uncertain, and as a sailor he is also uncertain. That is to say, he is uncertain about himself.

The Dogmatist and the Dogmatic Doubter

This is how the adventurer for truth differs from both the religious dogmatist and the relativist, for both the religious dogmatist and the relativist are not uncertain about themselves. They may not know much, but they know one thing with absolute certainty: they know they are right.

However, unlike the relativist, there is one thing the religious romantic does believe, and this one belief is at the foundation of all the rest: he may be uncertain about himself, but he is certain that no matter how hard it is to discover, there really is a hidden treasure. There really is such a thing as truth, and it really can be discovered if one will only set out on the great adventure to find it.

This is where the religious hypocrite and the relativist are, like two madmen, standing back to back. Both of them are dogmatists. One knows he is a dogmatist; the other denies it. The religious hypocrite who trusts in his dogma knows that he is a dogmatist. In that respect, he is less dangerous than the relativist, who also thinks he knows everything but denies that he is a know-it-all. The man who thinks he knows everything may one day discover that he does not, but the man who is 100 percent convinced that there is no truth will never be able to acknowledge his error. In this respect, the relativist is far more of a fool than the religious dogmatist. He is absolutely dogmatic on his one unshakeable “truth”—that there is no such thing as truth—and like all dogmatists, he has no shred of doubt about his foundational assumption. His colossal self-deception is compounded by the fact that this dogmatist does not regard himself as a dogmatist. Instead, he believes himself to be the father of all doubters. He has doubted all dogma except the one dogma he should have doubted: his dogma that there is no such thing as truth.

The Quest and the Questions

The religious romantic, on the other hand, is the one who truly questions. He questions as the curious child questions, because he wishes to understand. He questions because he is on a quest. He questions because he is curious. The religious romantic sets out on the great quest with two convictions, that there is such a hidden treasure as truth, and that he has been given a map to find it. The religious romantic does not consider his religion the end of the journey but the map for the journey. This is where the religious dogmatist differs from the religious romantic. The religious dogmatist believes he has already discovered the hidden treasure: it is his religion. Because he believes he has already discovered the treasure, he does not consider the journey necessary.

Modern people often blame religion for being dogmatic. That is because they (like many religious people) have not understood the true reason for dogma. The dogma and the moral precepts of religion are simply the map for the quest. The better the religion, the more precise and detailed the dogma, just as the better the map, the more precise and detailed it is. A religious romantic loves his dogma in a different way than the dogmatic religionist, who loves it as a cartographer loves a map—for the map’s sake. The religious romantic loves it because it unlocks a whole new world for him. The map, for the religious romantic, is a curious and colorful document that points the way and illustrates the journey. It has been composed for him by many ancient sages who have completed the journey before him. To study the map excites him because it points the way. It inspires his journey, it illuminates the quest, it guides the path, it opens the way before him. He loves to study the map. He venerates the map. He would never be without the map; yet he loves it not for itself but for where it leads him.

While the map may be true, the truth itself is not the map. Neither is the truth the religious dogma. The religious dogma is simply an expression of the truth. It is true— indispensably true—but Truth is truer and bigger than dogma in the same way that a map is true, but the journey is truer and bigger than the map. The journey is a real experience. It is an encounter. It is an adventure. It is an experience so much greater and richer and deeper than any dogma can ever express or any map can ever recount.

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2 replies to this post
  1. An excellent piece, especially on the relativists. In two decades or so of arguing politics on the Internet, perhaps the one constant I have found among left wingers is they are all relativists, indeed militantly so. And especially on morals, it is an absolute belief of theirs that all morals are relative.

    But, as CS Lewis pointed out in “The Abolition of Man”, the relativist has views that he considers to be not open to debate, and thus not relative. For example, ask a relativist if it is acceptable to have differing views on gay marriage and he will indignantly huff that the only acceptable position is to be 100% in favor of it.

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