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Dogma Versus Doctrine

Oct 28, 1995 08:31 AM
by Eldon B. Tucker


>>But I was talking with regard to dogma being he required minimum
>>beliefs that would constitute Theosophy. The ogma would be those
>>beliefs that are taught on theosophical platforms that are
>>required of someone to call themselves a Theosophist.

>Pardon me for shouting but, THERE IS NO DOGMA IN THEOSOPHY.

You say that, but when you start shouting, you help illustrate my
point. Dogmas are required beliefs, and the prohibition against
dogmas *is itself a dogma*. <grin>

A good sign of the presence of a dogma is in the *reaction* of
people holding it. The response to challenge is immediate,
passionate, and defensive.

We're taught that dogma is bad and doctrines are ok. Dogma is
defined as required beliefs or practices (depending upon whether
we're talking about the *content* of Theosophy or the *process* of
living as a Theosophist). Doctrines, on the other hand, are
defined as material presented for our consideration, with no
requirements imposed upon us. We are not required to believe or
accept as a practice anything that is told us.

This is a matter of style, a manner of presentation, an approach
that was taken by the founders of the Theosophical Society. It
is not, I'd suggest, an universal approach to the Mysteries, but
rather an approach tailored for the individualistic and
opinionated Western temperament of the 1800's.

The two terms are sometimes also used in a subtle form of
criticism of others. One's own beliefs can be "doctrines",
intelligently held, and the beliefs of others might be called
"dogmas," when others diagree with us. This is like saying "I'm
strong-willed, you're stubborn!" We have a way to criticize others
by connotation, picking words with negative connotations to subtly
put down others of different views.

I would submit that the prohibitation against dogmas is a dogma of
theosophical groups. And other dogmas are the three objects of the
T.S. A belief in Universal Brotherhood *is required*, and not
optional. This makes four dogmas. There are likely other unwritten
assumptions that are requirements, but not articulated as such.
They would make additional dogmas.

If we can set aside our conditioning against the word "dogma", and
allow us to think free of the prohibition against the idea for a
moment, we can see that there is some good to it, and that it can
be found in good, healthy social organizations.

In various Buddhist sects, there is a body of belief and a
practice that is required of its followers. A sect has its
parctice, and there are a number of vows that one can take.
Depending upon the number of vows taken, one is a lay Buddhist, or
perhaps a Monk or Nun. We might, for instance, take the
Bodhisattva vows and dedicate our lives to the saving of others,
to the Path of Compassion. There is nothing bad in this, nothing
wrong in having a specifically-formulated spiritual practice.

With science, there is an established body of proven knowledge
that are dogmas. They are *required belief* for scientists. After
studying them, and learning them, and working with them, the
scientist can suggest theory or doctrine. This theory, though,
must be proven and subject to independent verification in order to
be accepted into the body of scientific truth, the *canon* of
scientific thought.

Dogma is the skeletal or foundation ideas that give structure to
and shape our belief system. Without it, we are philosophical
invertibrate, holding "jellyfish philosophy".

Each person has cornerstone beliefs that his worldview is based
upon. With Theosophy, these are the core teachings that define the
essential nature of its system of ideas.

One approach to the teaching of Theosophy is to present it as
theory, as speculative philosophy arising from Blavatsky's study
of comparative religions. Another is to present it as teachings
from the Mahatmas, through Blavatsky and others as their agents.

It is fine to present Theosophy to the general public in the form
of doctrine or theory, and have an open forum for personal study
and speculation. (In fact, it is in the scope of this freedom that
I'm daring to question the sacroscant prohibition against dogma.)

This manner of presentation, though, is just that: a manner of
presentation. This does not mean that Theosophy is *just that*. It
is an approach that allows people of highly individualistic
temperament to approach the Mystery Teachings.

With Tibetan Buddhism and other approaches to the Mysteries, other
approaches are used. It is both a strength and weakness of the
Theosophical Movement that there is no definitive presentation of
the philosophy, nor vows, nor formulated spiritual practice. It
leaves one to devise a personal approach. Some of us can come to
a theosophical group and benefit from this approach. Many may not,
leaving empty-handed in their search for a spiritual practice.

Theosophy is real, and its core doctrines are required belief in
the same sense as the tenets of science are a required belief of
would-be scientists. In this sense, it contains certain essential
beliefs that would be dogma, if it were a mature spiritual
movement. The fact that this has not yet happened is not, I think,
due to it being somehow superior to the spiritual traditions of
the workd. It has not happened yet because it may take a century
or two more to arise in response to what is most useful in Western

For now, we can present Theosophy as theory and a speculative body
of doctrine. This is *one* approach. As Theosophy changes from
intellectual puzzles to play with (doctrine), it can become proven
in one's life and thus become living fact (dogma).

I think we're simply playing word games when we say, on the one
hand, that Theosophy is a well-defined body of doctrines, and on
the other hand say that a Theosophist is someone with a general
interest in exploring life and holding practically any belief.

We may pay lip service to the commandment given to us -- no
dogmas! -- yet still hear people denouncing reincarnation and
karma and think to ourselves "that's not theosophical, that should
not be taught on a theosophical platform!" As soon as the word
"should" enters our minds and hearts, we're dealing with dogma.

As our theosophical groups are currently organized, they are
declining in number and enthusiasm, because the emphasis has been
upon presentating speculative metaphysics, without any real sense
of spiritual practice, of a living sense of the Path, of the
actuality of chelaship *for anyone that would try*.

The Teachings are important, and it's important to get them right.
But they are found in deep understandings, profound insights into
life that are only partially captured in the words of Blavatsky
and other great philosophers.

An important aspect of the Teachings is that they must be fresh,
directly connected to life, and thought-out anew with each
reflection upon them. Does this mean they aren't dogmas? No. Not
if we consider dogmas as those doctrines that *are proven beyond
any possible doubt in our lives*.

In line with this approach of thinking things through afresh each
time, I'm approaching the description of dogma versus doctrine
that we've been told in the past. Certainly I've read the official
line on this distinction many times since I joined the Adyar T.S.
and started reading Theosophy 30 years ago. But I felt it would be
a good time to take this teaching, and visit "dogma versus
doctrine" again, and see if there's something more to it.

I'm having fun with this <grin>, but I don't think that I'll
hopelessly mislead any innocent mind into dark and destructive
byways! <sigh>

>There is nothing in the Divine Wisdom which must be accepted.
>The doctrines are given out for our consideration, only.

As I've said, this is *one approach*, and not necessarily the

>That this is even being brought up is amazing to me.

I'm not teaching this as a required belief of anyone wanting to be
a Theosophist. We can explore our cornerstone beliefs or tenets
without considering it amazing.

>"We are engaged in trying to develop a truer appreciation of the Light of
>Life which is hidden in every man, and so the "final authority" is the man
> (Wm. Q. Judge, Articles, v. II, p. 543)

When we say *final* with authority, that's true. But we're playing
word games when we say that we don't have other, less than *final*
types of authority, that we accord to our Teachers.

>"But no Theosophist has the right to this name, unless he is
>thoroughly imbued with the correctness of Carlyle's truism: 'The
>end of man is an ACTION and not a thought, though it were the
>noblest' -- and unless he sets and models his daily life upon
>this truth."
> (HPB, Key to Theosophy, p.230)

Yes, this is basically saying that our ideas and noble intentions
must find expression in the world, that we cannot bottle up our
good intentions. When we refrain from acting out our good
impulses, we are useless in the world and are merely making for
ourselves a long devachan.

Here we have another dogma, or required belief. It is an implied
vow that we take as Theosophists: to give expression in our daily
lives of the spiritual impulses in our hearts. We cannot
rightfully call ourselves Theosophists without taking this vow.

>"I do not refer to technical knowledge of the esoteric doctrine,
>though that is most important; I spoke rather of the great need
>which our successors in the guidance of the Society will have of
>unbiassed and clear judgment. Every such attempt as the T.S.
>has hitherto ended in failure, because, sooner or later, it has
>degenerated into a sect, set up hard-and-fast dogmas of its own,
>and so lost by imperceptible degrees that vitality which living
>truth alone can impart."
> (HPB, Key to Theosophy, p.305)

The emphasis here is on "unbiassed and clear judgement". And the
warning against "hard-and-fast dogmas". We can have dogmas that
are an accepted, proven, and integral part of our system, and yet
be flexible about them. The dogmas can be subject to change and
evolution, and not crystalized, frozen, and lacking in depth of

Blavatsky here is speaking of a sect where the inner life has
died, where there is no spiritual inpulse behind it, where it is
an empty shell. When this happens, the dogmas lose their inner
meanings, their flexibility, and their ability to grow and evolve
over time. Something does not have to be a doctrine or theory in
order to be dynamic, alive, and subject to growth.

I would suggest that it is possible to have a spiritual practice
to Theosophy, and theosophical groups with definite teachings and
practice. It's possible for those groups to contain remarkable
vitality and access to living truth.

>"It (Theosophy) will gradually leaven and permeate the great
>mass of thinking and intelligent people with its large-minded and
>noble ideas of Religion, Duty and Philanthropy. Slowly but
>surely it will burst asunder the iron fetters of creed and
>dogmas, of social and caste prejudices. . . . . and will
>open the way to the practical realization of the Brotherhood of
>all men"
> (ibid.)

Yes, there are general ideas or principles contained in the
theosophical teachings that will act as leaven and permeate the
great mass of thinking. This is a second, and equally useful
aspect to the Theosophical Movement, quite apart from the aspect
of proving a door-adjar to the Mysteries for Westerners who would
come knocking.

>There are numerous references to the destructive dogmas of
>Christianity throughout the literature of HPB.

True. Dogmas can be destructive as well as constructive. As can
doctrines or theories.

>As numerous are the references to Theosophy being KNOWLEDGE which
>each of us can attain for ourselves through experience and

And I would submit that when our opinions or speculations become
proven in our lives and turn into knowledge, that they have become
dogmas in our lives, e.g. part of the skeletal framework of our

>I would say that there is no room for dogma or authority in the
>"Divine Wisdom", and HPB and Judge have specifically said so and
>explained why.

And I would say that those things in Theosophy that we are
specifically told, in no uncertain terms, is the dogma of the
theosophical philosophy, as currently presented in the West. This
is in contrast to those things we are offered to think about, but
not given definition instruction regarding.

>The opening quote from a previous post indicates a fundamental
>misunderstanding of what Theosophy is, but that's okay, that's
>why we're here: to learn and to clear up these misunderstandings.

You don't think, then, that Theosophy is literally true? I do, but
realize that there is much that cannot be put into words on the
printed page, and realize that our Messangers like HPB were human
and subject to error at times.

Where we might disagree is that you take the party line regarding
the proper manner to teach Theosophy in the West, and are inclined
to consider me wrong when I disagree with it. (I'm really just
opening up the subject for discussion, and don't think that with
the above words that I've arrived at the final word -- for me or
anyone else -- on the matter.)

I'd suggest that when we consider one of our basic assumptions,
and allow it to be open to question, and try to rethink it, that
we're doing a deeper study of Theosophy than we do when we simply
read a page from "The Secret Doctrine" and talk about what
Blavatsky's trying to say in that particular passage. We're
involved in a form of self-discovery when we go at the roots of
our belief system.

-- Eldon

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