In the American culture, especially in the last century where we have twisted Jefferson’s separation of church and state to mean exactly the opposite of what he meant,* speaking about religion and, especially, theology and dogma is uncomfortable and difficult. A knee-jerk reaction is to ask: Why is the writing of St. Ambrose (and his steadfast arguments over dogma concerning the Holy Spirit) so important? Why can’t we just get along? Isn’t being a good person enough?
Recently, a survey was done that demonstrates that this attitude is overwhelmingly prevalent among American Catholics. Here is a response from Fr. Barron, a Catholic apologist, that does a very good job of explaining why doctrine (a much more palatable word than dogma, which I think is more the accurate term) is so vitally important:
To place what Fr. Barron is saying in context of St. Ambrose, note this passage from the fifth chapter of the first book of On the Holy Spirit:
Good, then, is the Spirit, but good, not as though acquiring but as imparting goodness. For the Holy Spirit does not receive from creatures but is received; as also He is not sanctified but sanctifies; for the creature is sanctified, but the Holy Spirit sanctifies. In which matter, though the word is used in common, there is a difference in the nature.
Goodness comes from God — imparted by the Holy Spirit, our contact point and source of communion with God. If we get rid of God, or even if we have an improper understanding of God (and therefore a dysfunctional relationship with Him), we get rid of the source of goodness. Therefore, being a good person is not only not enough, but becomes impossible.
When one takes into consideration Fr. Barron’s examples of both the ancient and modern (communist, fascist, atheistic) worlds where the Christian God is absent and the complete disregard these worlds have for entire classes of human beings, it puts into perspective the radical change brought about by the Nativity and the Incarnation of Christ. As St. Ambrose points out above, all good in the world comes from God. It is an external reality imparted by God.
The coming of Christ changes this dynamic completely. By uniting Himself to human nature, He makes humanity the temple of God, capable of housing the Holy Spirit. Thus goodness can now be internal — gushing forth from a human nature united to the divine.
In other words, what St. Ambrose is arguing about is vitally important. We cannot just get along and be good people without God, without Christ or without the Holy Spirit.
*Jefferson wrote these words in defense of a group of Baptists in Rhode Island, where they were a religious minority. He was arguing that it was right and proper for them to be Baptists in the public sphere. A separation of church and state allows their religion to mix with their politics and their ability to be bold about speaking their own beliefs in the political sphere. Thus, when modern Americans use the words separation of church and state to try and remove any symbols or discussion of religion from the public sphere they are actually doing the very thing Jefferson was writing against.