On Dogma and Thinking Freedom as a Critical Practice
The moment that wise or edifying teachings arrived at through the crucible of individual thinking experience are set down into doctrine, theory, or ‘sacred’ text, their vitality, particularity, and variability is lost—interpretation is narrowed, thinking ossifies and we are left only with unquestioned dogma and creed. It does not matter here whether we speak of Christianity, Marxism, Platonism, or Buddhism.
When doctrine, dogma, and theory are deliberately set aside and we focus on the word—of Jesus in the Temple or on the Mount, of Karl Marx in the factory, of Socrates in the Athenian agora, of Buddha under the Bodhi Tree— we are confronted anew with the wisdom of the solitary thinker who speaks directly to us from out of a concrete context, time and place. In each case, what is bequeathed to us long before theory and dogmatic creed can arrest thinking is the possibility of an interpretive reanimating and reorienting of practical wisdom from the point of view of our own time and place, and through our own unique set of historical, cultural, ethical and political circumstances.
The right or left dogmatist, the literalist bible thumper, the unforgiving scientific Marxist, all extinguish thinking, eschew interpretation, flatten understanding and disable the possibility of application in different contexts. That is because the proselytizing dogmatist, the extremist, and the literalist are not after enlightenment or understanding, but rather conformity and obedience.
Critical and practical thinking and understanding are not reserved for the educated elite, the expert, or the scholar. Indeed, the reality is that practical wisdom, as reasoning and experience-based insight, is something that janitors, as well as nurses, educators, physiotherapists, and judges, can acquire—and without knowing anything about abstract theory, dogma, or creed.
To change ourselves or our world presupposes that we can change the way we think and act, and this requires ongoing and sustained interpretation and critical assessment. Reading everything you can borrow or buy will help—the Bible, Marx on alienation, poetry, philosophy, novels will open you to different worlds of understanding and experience. Learning that stays with you is embodied learning—diving in and getting your hands dirty! It does not matter whether you are in the workplace or the classroom, the critical orientation thus achieved is not something you can accomplish in isolation from others. That is because we are embodied beings who fundamentally belong to each other, exist at a certain point in history, are situated in physical space, and inhabit a particular language and social, cultural world not initially of our own choosing.
I have described critical thinking as determinately undogmatic—as striving ever to think freedom as an ongoing practice. To think freedom as a practice is to cultivate the capacity to respond thoughtfully, creatively, and imaginatively to a world that unfolds as a continuing series of turning points, dilemmas, demands which can be understood in light of the past and future. We discover that in the real world through the rough ground of experience we can think freedom as a practice when we are not wholly confined by pat theories, rigid dogmas or absolute rules, but guided more by our emerging capacity to grasp moral dilemmas, different perspectives, the disruption of the status quo, the ambiguity of ethical contexts, and real-life suffering and tragedy. Why suffering and tragedy? Despite the fact that we are often busy in our own private world or in the grip of things we cannot overcome and complexities we do not entirely grasp, there is always an urgent need to listen and to imagine another’s suffering by attending to the particularity of their situation.
I say this because the experience of individual suffering and the empathic attempt to grasp the suffering of another is insight into the illusion of certitude, into the inescapable fault of hubris, into our own individual failure to hear the voice or plea of another. It is an insight that brings us back from the aloof, disengaged, abstract self, to the real and present world of particularity, with and among others—a particularity that is easily diffused and dissolved in the absolutism of dogma and creed.