Dogma and Experience in Christian Life

By Father Steven Tsichlis

              During a recent retreat at which the meaning of prayer was being discussed, several of the people present expressed their great dismay when the speaker moved from what they perceived to be “spiritual” issues to questions of dogma.  Dogma was felt to be peripheral, an “external” forced on us from the outside and to be contrasted with an “inner,” more genuine Christianity.  At another parish on a different occasion, there was a great deal of discomfort when the retreat master spoke of Orthodoxy not as some “thing” in itself but as essentially an experience of the Crucified and Risen Lord. Both of these reactions reflect a spiritual schizophrenia that plagues much of contemporary American Christianity – the divorce between intellect and feeling, mind and heart – that often leaves our lives as Christians barren, without direction or content.

            Symeon, an eleventh century saint whom the Church honors as “the New Theologian,” offers contemporary Orthodox Christians a paradigm of the unity between dogma and experience.  Both his teaching and the witness of his life illustrate that dogma and prayer, spirituality and theology, can never be separated from the new life in Christ; and that the dogmatic structures of the Church such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which we recite during the Liturgy every Sunday serve as signposts and guides for prayer and the “inner” life.

            Symeon was born at Galatia, a part of Asia Minor, in 949 A.D., the son of well-to-do provincial nobility.  Symeon was a young man of twenty when he first experienced the glory of God.  As the most intensely personal of the Byzantine fathers, Symeon’s writings include the following description of that initial experience, written in the thirdc person out of humility:

            “One day while he was standing in prayer…a divine illumination appeared from above, filling the whole place.  But when this happened, the young man had no more way of discerning whether he was in a house or under a roof, since he saw only light everywhere.  He did not even know whether he was walking on the earth…but having given himself up entirely to this immaterial light…he was flooded with tears, a joy and inexpressible gladness.”

            Symeon attributed this experience to the prayerful intercessions of his spiritual father, Symeon the Studite, a monk of the famous monastery of Studion in Constantinople.  It was to be the first of many such extraordinary experiences which forever changed Symeon’s life.

            Abandoning a successful career, Symeon became a monk and was eventually ordained a priest.  As a spiritual father, hymn-writer and thinker, Symeon insisted that the meaning of dogma and the task of theology is to articulate and communicate these experiences of the Lord of Glory, to share the gifts which had been given to him with others.  For him, experiencing the Crucified and Risen Lord is the content of the Church’s dogmatic formulations.  Without this inner experience, dogma has no meaning and is little more than empty words without content.  Conversely, a Christian who lacks an awareness of the great dogmas of Christianity easily becomes submerged in a sea of subjective experience, an experience without the objective “facts” of dogma upon which all truly Christian experience must be based.  Thus, the dogmas of the Church are not a set of “alien” formulations which we must adhere to because some ecclesiastical authority is forcing us to do so; but rather, the documentation of the deepest and most profound human experiences which, transcending time and space, are handed over from generation to generation as a light in our darkness.  And the church is not an institution arbitrarily forcing us to follow its rules, but a community inviting us to still our hunger and thirst for the Truth at its table.

            It is significant that in later life, Symeon came to regard his initial experience at the age of twenty as relatively rudimentary.  It was the starting point rather than the destination; the beginning of the race rather that the finish line.  It was an experience granted to him quickly, easily and with little effort on his part.  It was the basis upon which he was to build with asceticism and an openness to God’s presence.  Symeon saw the spiritual life as a process of growth and development.  Christianity is not something that one “has” merely by virtue of baptism.  It is a life in which one constantly enters more and more deeply into the presence of the Lord of Glory.

            The writings of Symeon constitute an invaluable treasure in the life of the church.  They point to the essential unity of experience and thought in the Christian life, indicating the error of mere dogmatic formalism or an experience without roots in the soil of tradition.  Symeon’s approach is “wholistic” – to borrow a phrase from contemporary medicine – and precisely for that reason offers us a genuine witness to the Truth.