Karma vs. Dogma

Every time I see it, it makes me chuckle. The saying turns up on bumper stickers, t-shirts, buttons, and other novelty items. I’m sure you’ve run into it as well: “My karma ran over your dogma.”

The play on words carries the implication that dogma, often viewed as rigid and unyielding, is somehow trumped by what’s perceived as a more free-flowing system of karma. While I find the play on words amusing, it’s not a very accurate way to understand karma and dogma.

Karma is a foundational concept or law about actions. It’s found in several Eastern religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In its simple form, karma is the belief that actions are part of a cycle of cause and effect. Good deeds lead to positive benefits and bad deeds result in negative consequences.

Dogma is a particular belief or doctrine held by a particular religion. Because of the formulation of creeds, dogma is often associated with Christianity. However, dogma is part of all religions and individual spiritualities because dogma is nothing more than the articulation of a belief. In other words, karma is dogma: it’s a statement of belief about individual behavior.

We’re generally familiar with members of Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) who are very rigid when it comes to their respective dogma. The dogmatic purity (or their version of it) is often unreasonable when compared to proven fact or positions supported by evidence. Rigid beliefs often become the foundation of prejudice, oppression, hatred, and wars. In the West, what we miss is that the law of karma is also dogma. When the law of karma is taken rigidly, it also leads to the same kinds of problems that are found in the history of Western religion. For example, India’s historic caste system was based on the law of karma. Oppression of various castes was understood to be morally appropriate because it was nothing more than the karmic cycle. Being of a lower caste was assumed to be the result of bad deeds in a previous life. It’s really much the same as the dogma that contends that positive thinking about prosperity or health results in financial gain or a lack of disease. They are all just various dogmatic statements.

My point is this: clinging to any belief or belief system with rigidity is fundamentally out of balance and unhealthy for the individual and, ultimately, for society. It doesn’t matter whether that belief or belief system is rooted in a religious tradition or is an eclectic set of beliefs developed by an individual. When we become rigid about our beliefs, we fail to live into the ways that spirituality permeates and nurtures all the dimensions of our lives.

Rigidity in beliefs, needing to be “more right” than others, is often rooted in fear. While this is a bit of a simplification, people who cling to beliefs rigidly are often attempting to build a wall of defense around their sense of self in order to cope with some kind of fear. Sometimes, it is the fear of a changing world that challenges their assumptions about life or what is normative. But other times, the fear is related to the experience of something unknown or surprising in the realm of spirituality.

In his classic book, Living Prayer, Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom draws on an image from the Hebrew scripture to explain both the attraction to and fear of the experience of the Divine in prayer and spiritual practice. Recalling Moses’s encounter with the burning bush, Bloom notes that fire warms us and provides light. These are the positive aspects we hope for in prayer and spiritual practice. But fire can also burn. Even a small spark can become a blaze that destroys.

What does the destructive nature of fire have to do with prayer and spiritual practice? Spiritual practice can open us to aspects of self that we’d simply rather avoid: past hurts in need of healing; dark aspects of the self we’d prefer to ignore; or other insights that shatter our illusions about self or the world that we want to cling to. In other words, spiritual practice has the ability to change us in ways we’d sometimes prefer to avoid.

Embracing and living into something new as a result of prayer or spiritual practice can be challenging. Rather than accept that challenge, it’s sometimes easier to simply cling to a rigid interpretation of beliefs and hold fast to them. It’s a very common experience. The result of this rigidity is found daily in news reports that headline the way that the rigid beliefs of religious people oppress others and lead to violence.

As a person who believes in the existence of God, and rooted in the Christian tradition, I do affirm a particular dogmatic position: that the essence of the Divine is far beyond the limits of our mind and imagination. Anything we say about or believe about the Divine is simply a metaphor to describe what is beyond us. Fundamentally, the essence of the Divine is a mystery and, at best, we have a glimmer of that essence. So, whether we’re talking about karma or some other dogma, the experience of the Divine will likely bulldoze over our belief systems and open us in ways we’d least expect. The writings of the mystics of all the great world religions affirm that to be true.

© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Karma vs. Dogma

  1. Pat Arnold says:

    It is so refreshing to read your posts–especially because you speak as a theologian who can clearly see and explain the limitations of dogma. I appreciate you immensely!

  2. Lou says:

    Thanks for your comment. It was misfiled in a spam folder.
    I appreciate that you took time to write — as well as to read the blog. My hope is to make spirituality accessible to people.

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