Remembering Dorothy L. Sayers


Mystery writer and Christian apologist Dorothy L. Sayers died on this date in 1957, and is commemorated in a very informative thumbnail bio at The Daily Office. More reflections on her work can be found at the blog Dead Christians Society.

Her 1940 lecture “Creed or Chaos?” is a bracing rebuke to “enlightened” Westerners who would like to have religious sentiment without doctrinal clarity. As later postmodern critics of liberalism were to point out, everyone has a creed, a set of core beliefs about the nature of humanity and the universe, on which we base our political, ethical and economic choices. The historical context of her speech — Europe facing the rising Nazi threat — reminds us how high the stakes can be. Sayers argues:

While there is a superficial consensus about the ethics of behaviour, we can easily persuade ourselves that the underlying dogma is immaterial. We can, as we cheerfully say, “agree to differ.” “Never mind about theology,” we observe in kindly tones, “if we just go on being brotherly to one another it doesn’t matter what we believe about God.” We are so accustomed to this idea that we are not perturbed by the man who demands: “If I do not believe in the fatherhood of God, why should I believe in the brotherhood of man?” That, we think, is an interesting point of view, but it is only talk — a subject for quiet after-dinner discussion. But if the man goes on to translate his point of view into action, then, to our horror and surprise, the foundations of society are violently shaken, the crust of morality that looked so solid splits apart, and we see that it was only a thin bridge over an abyss in which two dogmas, incompatible as fire and water, are seething explosively together.

In this sense, militant atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have more in common with Sayers than with liberal-relativist Christians. They understand that religious doctrines have life-or-death consequences, though they disagree about what those are. (This theme was dramatized in G.K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, about an atheist and a Catholic who propose to duel to the death, and instead become fast friends because no one else they encounter even understands why the issue is worth dying for.)

Here is Sayers on the Incarnation, also from “Creed or Chaos”:

It is quite useless to say that it doesn’t matter particularly who or what Christ was or by what authority He did those things, and that even if He was only a man, He was a very nice man and we ought to live by his principles: for that is merely Humanism, and if the “average man” in Germany chooses to think that Hitler is a nicer sort of man with still more attractive principles, the Christian Humanist has no answer to make.

It is not true at all that dogma is “hopelessly irrelevant” to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that it is, present it for consideration as though it were, and, in fact, by their faulty exposition of it make it so. The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if He is only God, then He is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all.

Finally, visit the archives of conservative webzine The View from the Core for more pithy quotes from Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker and other works.

3 comments on “Remembering Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. Steve Emery says:

    Dorothy Sayers has long been a favorite of mine, though I confess what I’m stuck on is audio dramatizations of the Peter Wimsey mysteries. They read like plays (no surprise since she was also a playwright).

    But more in line with your post, these books also expose sloppy thinking and draw sharp attention to what matters. My personal favorite is the last and perhaps most unusual in the series, Busman’s Honeymoon. I reviewed it here: http://colorsweettooth.blogspot.com/2007/06/busmans-honeymoon.html
    She manages to take an interesting mystery and weave it with some of the most charming and bracingly correct thinking about the proper relationship between wife and husband – especially given the date of the writing. She describes beautifully how two become one and are thus more completely themselves. How one gives oneself rightly to another, and thus achieves the proper identity of both. And she explores a series of wrong ways to tie two people together, as well. All touchingly done, with poetry, grace, and finesse.

  2. Thanks for noticing my online stuff. I’m now blogging at http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com.

    Also, Scot McKnight recently did a series on my new book, Patron Saints for Postmoderns. His bit on my Dorothy Sayers chapter may be found here:

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/09/worthy-of-imitation-10.html

    Thanks again,
    Chris Armstrong

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