Many modern writers often misrepresent the relationship between dogma and spirituality, as if they are fundamentally inimical. This is not so, although the confusion is rather understandable during an era wherein pharisaical hypocrisy has become the norm rather than the exception.
It is really the age-old struggle of the body versus the soul, the exterior versus the interior. Both — let us be crystal clear, BOTH — elements are necessary in order to have and maintain a truly healthy and balanced life. The reason men have such a problem seeing this matter clearly or living in proper balance is rather simple: we fell from grace and, since that day, have suffered from disorder within our very being. We all know this is true by means of daily, even hourly experience. Why do we lie when telling the truth would be easy enough? Why do our passions often lead us to desire the goods of this world to an excessive degree, even making us willing to harm our own welfare in the pursuit of things that never truly satisfy us once they are obtained? These things are all evidence, concrete and personal, that there is something not quite right within our being. It is this disorder and tendency to do what we know is not actually good for us that resulted from our fall from grace.
The rightly-ordered man, or the man who is working hard to become rightly-ordered, must wage a constant battle against his disordered inclinations. The disordered man who does not care tends to make a kind of peace with his disordered desires, but this is nothing more than acceptance of slavery to them. Reason has been ejected from the driver’s seat and the passions, blind as they are, have now taken control. A wreck is certain. However, we must remember that all of our passions are God-given and serve a good purpose, despite the fact that they are, as a result of original sin, constantly seeking to gratify themselves without respect to the overall good of the person in question.
How does this relate to spirituality, dogma, the relation between the letter and the spirit, etc? Well, the battle that rages between the higher and lower elements of our nature — all of which are God-given, by the way — is analogous to the battle that constantly rages between the letter and the spirit. Spiritual growth follows well-known stages, just like intellectual or physical growth. A boy does not and cannot become a man without first passing through puberty. One does not advance straight to calculus from rudimentary math. Growth in the spiritual life is no different. That we live in an age when most who profess the letter are utterly bereft of the spirit does not alter anything; it just means they have done exactly what St. Paul warned us about 2000 years ago. That some men are so hedonistic as to extinguish their spirit and live like brutes does not mean the body, loved excessively by some, has no use or good purpose.
The letter of the law serves a purpose, just as our bodies serve a purpose. Just as our bodies are not the superior part of our being, the letter is not the superior part of the Divinely-ordained marriage between the letter and the spirit. If I allow my body and the disordered desires thereof to rule my conduct, I will slowly but surely turn into little more than a brute, no matter how well-spoken or polished I may seem to be. Likewise, if the letter of the law is allowed to take the first place, which does not belong to it, it will eventually snuff out the spirit. This is exactly what has taken place across the board in this Age of Materialism. The material, the letter, the merely external considerations of life have come to hold the primacy when, in fact, they are meant to play supporting roles.
I have absolutely zero problem with men putting forth ideas in a dogmatic manner, especially when those statements are, in fact, true. Frankly, no one can even function, much less communicate effectively or to any purpose, without being a least a little dogmatic about some things. That there are laws and fixed rules, whether in the physical realm or the spiritual life, is beyond question. Those who eschew this truth do so to their own detriment and always, and I mean always, contradict themselves in the very process of saying whatever it is they have to say. That some, perhaps a great many, tend to grant too much to the external side of things, to the letter of the law, to the detriment of the interior side, the spirit, I readily grant. The world is suffering a great deal because of this inversion which places the secondary in the primary place and vice versa. That such a situation indicates that the secondary is meaningless or harmful, in se, I absolutely reject.
Humans are composite beings; we are the sublime meeting point between the material and spiritual worlds. We have a body with senses and passions, just like the animals; we have a soul with an intellect and a will, making us like the angels and even like God Himself. The genuine spiritual life takes into account this composite nature; it gives credit where it is due and in the right measure in which it is due. There are certain things which are demonstrably true and which have, in fact, already been demonstrated — over and over and over again. Such things are rightfully called “dogma” and are rightfully put forth in a dogmatic manner. Who chafes when the math teacher is dogmatic about the fact — cold and hard and indisputable — that two plus two equal four? No one. The same may be said about certain truths about reality, the visible world, the spiritual world, etc. There is a God, the First Mover and First Cause of all things. There is only one God — One. There cannot be more than one Supreme Being. These are indisputable facts and once they are grasped by the human mind, it is nonsense to act as if ideas which contradict them are somehow admissible. To be sure, one need not be overbearing while discussing such matters, any more than the math teacher should be overbearing while teaching addition and subtraction to a little child. Still, the modern world is full of people who are far too timid with respect to demonstrable and demonstrated truths about reality. We tend to be unduly meek in the face of an ever-aggressive godlessness that threatens to extinguish all that makes life good and beautiful. That will never happen, of course, but our pusillanimity tends to allow the enemies to advance much further than they ever should have.
Just as the letter without the life-giving influence of the spirit tends to enervate and eventually kill, so the spirit without the letter is a thing which is missing its framework. The soul needs the body to function; when the two separate, it is the end of life, i.e. death. The spirit needs the letter even to be communicated; one without the other will not do, although the primary must retain the primacy, or grave disorders will follow.
Healthy spirituality is not spirituality that ignores the letter or acts as if dogma has no role in the life of men. Healthy spirituality seeks to strike the proper balance between the letter and the spirit, the body and the soul; it does not seek to snuff out the letter or act contrary to its wise counsel. Those who seek to follow a spiritual path that has no fixed laws or eschews a healthy respect for the letter of the law are deluding themselves; a man who seeks to live as if his body does not exist or has no role to play would be considered insane, i.e. unhealthy. The growth of the spiritual organism is not some haphazard, fly-by-night matter about which little is known; it is a well-known process that follows certain stages and certain laws are, in fact, part of the process. Following the path and the rules thereof leads to growth and good things; violate the rules and consequences follow. Is this in any way disputable? Those who still spend time belittling dogma, in se, as if it is some kind of enemy of healthy and genuine spirituality have yet to advance very far along the road, despite all appearances to the contrary. Is the body the enemy of the soul? No, although it is crystal clear that it is the soul that must retain the primacy or the entire man will suffer from grave disorders. Godspeed to all who read these words :)