Support the Café

Search our Site

Creed versus chaos

Creed versus chaos

David Brooks watched the new Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” and wonders about what really makes religion work.

The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.

But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.

This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

Brooks refers to Dorothy Sayers’ essay “Creed or Chaos” and notes

Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.

Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally. Many people want to understand the eternal logic of the universe, using reason and logic to wrestle with concrete assertions and teachings.

Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

Rigorous theology delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us. For example, in her essay, “Creed or Chaos,” Dorothy Sayers argues that Christianity’s advantage is that it gives value to evil and suffering. Christianity asserts that “perfection is attained through the active and positive effort to wrench real good out of a real evil.” This is a complicated thought most of us could not come up with (let alone unpack) outside of a rigorous theological tradition.

Brooks notes that in the play the Africans embrace the warm, fuzzy-edges religion of the playwrights. But in real life, it appears to what is actually embraced in Africa is much more complext.

Read the rest here.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Paul Martin

I found Andrew Sullivan’s take on this to be very helpful. It is worth reading completely, but here are a few excerpts:

But the ultimate test of religion for a non-atheist is not: is this or that religion useful? Or even: is it necessary?

It is, rather: is it true?

My own view is that if Christianity is a useful lie then it should be abandoned by thinking people. If being a Christian requires one to believe literally that the world was created de novo 6,000 years ago, or that our species literally emerged one day from an actual garden of Eden, then I am not a Christian. It’s my view that if something is not true, it cannot be countermanded by a God who is Truth itself. And so a sincere modern believer has no choice but to make distinctions between kinds of truths – metaphorical, spiritual ones and empirical, literal ones.

We cannot deny Darwin without also denying God, to put it provocatively, since God cannot be in contravention of Truth. And sincere Christianity is a faith, it seems to me, that can embrace the deepest truths about human existence and salvation as revealed by Jesus without also embracing every empirical nugget in the flawed, mis-copied, mis-written, second generation oral accounts of the life of Jesus, let alone the even older myths and stories the Jewish people told about themselves through the millennia.

My difference with David, I think, is that I still believe; and I refuse to believe in something that has been disproven, however socially useful or salutary or admirable its social or personal effects may be. Fundamentalism, in this sense, is not a rigorous theology. It is rigid resistance to a rigorous theology. It’s a form of denial and despair. It is rigorous only within a theological structure that does not account for the growth and expansion of human knowledge. It is therefore, to my mind, an expression of a lack of faith rather than an excess of it. And the use of fundamentalism by those who do not even believe in it – for whatever purposes, good, bad or indifferent – is the real blasphemy.


Brooks makes a number of faith-claims.

The notion that “Fundamentalisms last, humanisms don’t”: really? I think that evidence will show that Fundamentalisms, due to their rigidity, are surprisingly fragile. They fracture into a million pieces in just a few generations (the Fundamentalist impulse however, persists. Y’know, as SIN persists. For that’s what it is!)

The other one, is that “Turn or Burn” religion is really making life better in AIDS-ravaged Africa. Again: evidence? (Tell that to victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army! Tell that to the hounded and assaulted victims of homophobia in Uganda!)

I see, in Brooks’ piece, a conservative’s wish-fulfillment: Fundamentalism over Humanism (even if said w/ the “Tut-tut” of the hyper-educated psuedo-humanist).

JC Fisher


I don’t have the time this Holy Week to take on David Brooks’s off the cuff proclamations about religion and theology after seeing a Broadway show. Every now and then Brooks writes something to think about. But not this time. There are bodies of knowledge involved here, and long histories of tradition and diverse human religious experience, as well as contemporary pastoral challenges about which Brooks appears not to have a clue. I wonder why I spent all those years in theological schools, when all it takes is a few rousing musical numbers and an editorial deadline. Expertise isn’t always all its cracked up to be, except when it’s so abysmally absent.

Joe Monti

Atlanta, GA

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café