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Dogma Man

A few years ago, I was talking with an acquaintance about George Roche's resignation as president of Hillsdale College in light of allegations that he'd been engaged in an affair with his daughter-in-law. My acquaintance was outraged by the idea that Hillsdale College may have dismissed him if he hadn't resigned. It was none of the College's business, he assured me, since the sexual activity took place between two consenting adults.

A while back, my office's e-mail box received a video clip of a couple having sex (as discreetly as possible) in the bleachers of a baseball stadium during a game. The message that came with it said the couple was arrested for it. My acquaintance was outraged. He ferociously explained that they weren't hurting anybody and if anyone didn't like it, they didn't have to watch.

Where do you begin? With the Hillsdale situation, we're talking incest; one of the most ancient taboos. Caligula-like stuff. With the bleacher sex, we're talking public copulation, where children can see–blatant immorality, vice, potentially causing an unsuspecting fan to sit on your semen.

But my acquaintance, a man in his early forties, was latched onto his stance like a pit-bull on a six-year-old's bleeding arm.

A few years ago I told a friend that the local school might condemn (claim by eminent domain) land for a new school building because the land owner was demanding an unreasonable price. I added, “I'm not really sure that's the right thing to do, though.”

My friend (another guy in his early forties) responded with the acidity of a woman who's just learned that her husband gave her herpes, “I'd be totally opposed to the school doin' that!” He almost looked mad at me for having any doubts that it would be the wrong thing to do.

My friend is a “conservative” in the conventional sense: America's founding fathers and Adam Smith are great guys, and we're fine as long as we follow them and keep government out of our lives.

I seriously doubt whether he had considered the weighty issues surrounding eminent domain: The Fifth Amendment allows it. The state protects a person's property from brigands and therefore arguably has a right to take it when necessary. Property rights aren't absolute.

Nonetheless, his position was rock solid, his opinion having quickly cemented into a dogma.

A Recurring Phenomenon
Men at the beginning of middle age seem to take dogmatic positions on most everything. It's a recurring phenomenon and one that's probably born of confidence.

As a youngster, a person is constantly confronted with people who know more–parents and teachers–and is kept reasonably modest in his claim to knowledge. As a young adult, a person is still unsure of himself: he's constantly confronted with the possibility of failure and superiors; he has little job experience; he has no savings. Uncertainty is his lot.

But by the time he's hitting middle age, he has a lot going for him: job experience, a growing 401k, a whittled-down home mortgage, respect in the community.

And he's getting cocky.

He seems to forget all the stuff he doesn't know: history, philosophy, literature, and is fixated on the handful of things he does know: his job, golf, today's news. He knows those things; they are getting him through life; he's confident.

He's not about to go back to those unsettling feelings of uncertainty by uncorking philosophical or theological or historical problems. I don't think it's a conscious choice, but that doesn't make the choice any less real–or the existence of such dogma men any less obnoxious.

The Problem with Dogma Man
Dogma Man is an inner disease everyone should guard against.

The biggest downside was summarized by Socrates over 2,300 years ago: “No god is a philosopher or seeker after wisdom, for he is wise already. Neither do the ignorant seek after wisdom. For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself.”

Dogma man suffers from two related spiritual diseases: arrogance and ignorance. Being ignorant, he doesn't know how much he doesn't know. Being arrogant, he's satisfied with himself so will never heed voices that might show him his ignorance. The two diseases reinforce each other and stultify any meaningful growth in wisdom and, more devastatingly, virtue.

Virtue and wisdom, after all, are the opposites of arrogance and ignorance. Just as ignorance results in arrogance because a person is totally unaware of his lack of understanding, wisdom results in virtue because the wise person sees his inadequate understanding and thereby attains humility–the first of the virtues.

Some Christian thinkers have speculated that the arrogant ignorance of Dogma Man might be a ploy of the Devil to keep people away from thinking about the terrible questions of existence. In C.S. Lewis' fictional dialogues between a senior devil (Screwtape) to a junior devil (Wormwood), Screwtape tells his pupil that the best mental attitude that he could give an earthly victim is the “grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk” and casual reading (like the newspaper) is ample by way of knowledge.

In short, Lewis was saying that the arrogant ignorance of Dogma Man is a hell-bound attitude.

I fear he's right.