Dogmatically Undogmatic

If I'm dogmatic about anything it's about being undogmatic.

I don't believe in anything very strongly except for my very strong belief that I shouldn't believe anything very strongly.

Is that paradoxical? Do I contradict myself?

Perhaps. Occasionally, I've had people try to convince me that my undogmatic dogmatism is self-refuting. They use the same argument you hear used a lot to refute postmodern epistemology. The postmodernist says, "There are no absolute truths." So the question is asked, "Is that statement an absolute truth? Because if it is, you've contradicted yourself. And if it's not true then there are absolute truths."

And guess what? This sentence is false.

So is it a contradiction to be dogmatically undogmatic? I'm not sure. But in a certain sense I don't really care. Because I'm not really trying to make a logical argument. My concerns here are more about ethics and interpersonal relationships. My allergic reaction to dogmatism isn't meant to be an epistemological claim. My problem with dogmatism is simply this:

I don't like dogmatism because I don't like the people it creates.
And if I contradict myself, well, I'll just embrace my inner Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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18 thoughts on “Dogmatically Undogmatic”

  1. That reminds me of ignosticism, the theological position that every other theological position (including agnosticism) assumes too much about the concept of God and many other theological concepts.

  2. I'm the same way. For a while it bothered me that I had few beliefs, but a friend of mine from South Carolina told me she preferred the Canadian style of uncertainty (intellectual humility, I think she phrased it) over what she was used to in SC. Since then I've been more OK with it.

    And I don't think it's a contradiction because I tend to phrase it (and my postmodernism in all things secular) more like this: "We cannot be certain of any human knowledge." My interlocutor could say, "Can you be certain of that statement?" And I say, "No. But that doesn't mean that I can be certain of its inverse; that is, just because I am not certain that I cannot be certain of knowledge does not mean that I can be certain that I can be certain of knowledge. I am simply also uncertain of whether I must be uncertain or not." And this isn't a smokescreen. Take a careful look at it and you'll see that it's true. (Of the same structure, but with less word repetition, and therefore hopefully clearer: "Just because I am not certain that I am not dreaming does not mean that I can be certain that I am dreaming.") It also doesn't really change anything; by this I do not become more certain. The vague hope of certainty amidst loosely-held uncertainty just makes me think harder about things. Make sense?

  3. I'm definitely with you, Richard. After all, how much does a child know while knowing that she knows for sure? IMO a main goal of theology ought to be making sure that we don't take our systems too seriously.

  4. A very denominational "non-denomination" - now that's a contradiction.
    Taking a legitimate stand - is that being dogmatic? (I know ... what
    defines a legitimate stand)?

    Gary Y.

  5. for one to be dogmatic is to assume that ones strongly held opinion hasn't sufficient factual support.

    so, practically speaking, a person who doesn't like dogmatism because of the people it creates doesn't like themselves.

    and there is the problem. one needs to love themselves to keep with the gospel.

    if we don't love ourselves, how on earth can we love the other in the exact same way, as the Lord tells us too?

  6. "I don't like dogmatism because I don't like the people it creates."
    Me either! And I used to be one of them.

    I guess Disqus or my computer got fixed, because I can post again. Happy Easter (belated) everyone!

  7. I just want to say that I really appreciate this post. It is something that has been weighing on my mind a lot lately and you put it into words rather effectively.

    I've had a lot of friends come to terse words over various issues: Rob Bell's new book, the nature of the debate over Planned Parenthood, the place of the Church in politics. Every time it seems to come back to the central fact: our theology gets in the way of our ministry. We spend more time making of fools of ourselves in front of society with our bickering than we do serving and loving others.

  8. I'm not so sure about that. You come across as strongly committed to Universalism, which you arrive at through your cataphatic statement that "God is like Christ". ;)

    I'm also very interested to know your Myers-Briggs type if you've ever tried to figure it out and were interested in sharing :)

  9. That's a fair criticism about my universalism posts. To clarify, in those posts I was making an argument, as strong an argument as I could make. But if you asked me, "Richard, are you sure you are right?" I'd say, "No. How can anyone know such a thing before we die? It's entirely possible that God doesn't even exist, and here we are arguing about heaven and hell."

    The point is, I can argue, til I'm blue in the face, that universalism is the best theological position a Christian can have. But is it true? Who knows...?

    Regarding the Myers-Briggs am an INTJ.

  10. I don't see it as a contradiction. The belief in holding beliefs tentatively can apply to itself, or you could just call it a heuristic and avoid the problem entirely. (Personally, I think it's useful to think of noetic openness [can I use that term?] as a heuristic rather than as a belief, anyway.) At any rate, you and I agree that this heuristic/belief is predicated on seeing what it does in an affective sense, and that evidence is good enough for me.

  11. If I was criticizing anything it was your self-perception rather than your universalism posts. ;) I am very thankful for your earlier posts on universalism - the ones on George MacDonald in particular - brought me out of a long dark night of the soul.

    Truth? I believe we can know truth. I'll even go so far as to say that God wants us to know truth, and to love it! Jesus even said He was the truth. God is love; God is truth. But maybe I'm just a cataphatic Bible thumper ;D

    And you probably don't care, but I'm INFJ ^_^

  12. Oh, I'm sure my self-perception is totally out of whack. Yes, I like to think of myself as open-minded and nondogmatic, but, very likely, I'm not.

    I do care about the INFJ. It makes me wonder how much of our personality actually leaks through the Internet. Do I appear to be an INTJ in my Web 2.0 communications? Do you appear to be an INFJ? Or should we create a Myers-Briggs for the Internet? I think about stuff like that...

  13. Amen. I quite like Gregory MacDonald's 'hopeful dogmatic universalist' position.

    P.S. I feel the need to get my scepticism about Myers-Briggs (see below posts) off my chest. Why is it people feel the need to label themselves, and to submit so cheerfully to these self-fulfilling prophetic four-letter acronyms? Could it be that there is sometimes a deeper (unknown to self) need to create short-cuts to identity - something that should be left to its own course and time. In my opinion, all those 'personality-types' tell you is how you answered certain questions (with very high face validity) on a certain day in a certain environment in a certain biopsychosocial state. Questions, I might add, conjurered out of thin air over a kitchen table.

    Let's stop labelling and get back to becoming.

    Am I being too dogmatic?

  14. Hi Andrew, I'd like to give a go at your question, though my answer may apply more to myself than to others. If, as an "undiagnosed" introvert, you've been told your whole life by family/friends/peers and superiors that you're not ______ enough (fill in the blank with whatever critical adjective happens to be their point - friendly, driven, open, social, etc), it's something of a relief to find out that you are a type of normal, even if not their type (which would explain why they don't, and maybe can't, understand you), and that you're not alone, that there are others who understand your way of being in this world.

  15. I don't think you're being too dogmatic. I take all the Myers-Briggs stuff with a grain of salt. I tell my M-B type like I tell people I'm a Gemini.

    And here's an interesting thing. In the world of empirical psychological assessment the Myers-Briggs isn't a well respected instrument. Psychologists don't use it much (for personality assessment they tend to go with Big 5 measures). But outside of psychology, in workplaces, organizations, and churches the Myers-Briggs is a big deal.

    I'm not saying the Myers-Briggs is devoid of empirical support, just that the gap between the science and the practice of personality assessment is startling. And the lopsided use and reputation of the Myers-Briggs is one sign of this.

  16. Andrew, I'm going to second Patricia's comment about the helpfulness of MBTI as a simple measure of personal validation. It's been a gift for many of us who have gone through life internalizing the labels of criticism and inadequacy stuck all over us. For me, discovering my ENTP type was like being given a miracle of normalcy, it described me so perfectly. I wasn't wrong, I was just different from the people who had been doing the labeling! It also explained the immense difficulties I was having with a strongly ESTJ boss, and helped me find a way to work better with him. Instead of MBTI or any other assessment's being "prophetic," it becomes simply explanatory.

    Richard, I think this is the real utility of MBTI, its accessibility to ordinary folks, not for professional assessment. Oh, and I'm an Aries. Any of my sisters could tell you that. Nothing dogmatic here, oh no!

  17. Thanks for the comments, guys - you've made me think about the up side of 'normalising' labels. The view I expressed is informed both by my work with children with SEN - where there is a huge industry encouraging the labelling of children which locates the 'problem' within the child (and often the 'cure' in a proprietary pill) rather than considering the (sometimes excluding) system around the child - and by a recent research project during which I found that professionals apply different leadership models (e.g. helpless vs. solution-oriented) and different conflict resolution strategies (e.g. accommodating vs. avoidant) in different contexts - suggesting that trait-based personality 'types' can be a simplification of messy, complex human interactions. I also can't help wondering whether there isn't (as Richard alludes to) a horoscope-like effect associated with personality types - they selectively focus our attention on universal experiences and thus become self-fulfilling. Finally, it's not rocket science to ask someone if they feel shy when meeting someone new and then telling them they're an 'introvert' - in fact, it's just a circular argument.

    As far as 'normal' goes, I like to remember the appropriately named normal distribution, which teaches us that whatever you measure in humans, there will always be a cluster of near-average people and a group of outliers. What I would prefer to question is what it is about human societies that makes us value 'normality' so much in the first place.

    Here's to being different.



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