Mumpsimus? In checking with different sources, it’s unclear exactly how this strange word should be used. One source treats it almost like a condition a person can have. Another source treats it like a thing a person can be. If I had to pick, I’d choose the latter. That way I can use it like a club, “You mumpsimus, you!” I jest of course. Sort of. Admittedly, the title photo has nothing to do with Mumpsimus. It just looked like it fits. You try finding a photo of a Mumpsimus.
The basic meaning is that of a person who firmly holds to something that has been since proven untrue, despite now knowing it is untrue. I think people sometimes accuse conservative Christians of being mumpsimus’s (Mumpsimai? Mumpsimins?). I have no idea what the plural is.
There comes a certain societal tipping point, it seems. We’re long past it, of course. Foolishly though, no one ever seems to ask questions like, “Why is this belief here”? “Why was it adopted by so many”? “Why has this belief lasted for so long unchanged?” These are important questions, yet society stops asking them and instead makes novelty the best evidence of an ideas validity, and antiquity of an idea the best evidence of its falsity. That doesn’t make for good decision making.
A man who wasn’t a Christian, was probably terrible, and who I don’t know anything else about said, “There are two ways to slide easily through life- by believing everything or by doubting everything. Both ways save you from thinking.” -Alfred Korzybski
Despite what the man believed, that statement makes a lot of sense. I think it explains, at least in part, how we got this way as a society. But I’ve often wondered if Christians do this too.
Certainly, I’m an advocate of Biblical dogma, but it should be qualified dogma. I don’t want to hear that you’re Biblically right, I want to see it Biblically. That’s qualified dogma. Yet there are good men who disagree on some Biblical things. I’m just thinking out loud here, but if absolute dogma was possible on every single Biblical topic, how can there be such debates between good and qualified men? And how is it that both of their arguments can be honestly compelling? Wouldn’t these cases just be “open-and-shut” and self-resolved ages ago? If uber-dogmatism on every topic was possible, why then would we need faith in the Scriptures at all? And, why would we need the Holy Spirits’ ministry of illumination to the Bible-studying believer? So, I’m not a fan of uber-dogma. I think some Bible issues have more to them than the uber-dogmatic people realize. Don’t bail yet, hear me out.
Inversely, I’m also not a fan of what one writer recently called “Epistemological humility”. It’s basically a false humility that asserts we can’t be dogmatic at all or know anything for sure and that anyone who does know something for sure obviously can’t and is just being arrogant. So, to be humble, you have to doubt everything you believe. First, if you doubt everything you believe, do you really believe anything? Wouldn’t you then just be a person devoid of beliefs? Second, if the only thing you know for sure is that you can’t know anything for you, how are so sure? Breaks my brain!
So, you have Uber-Dogma on one extreme. And you have Epistemological Humility (which isn’t actual humility) on the other extreme. One who uses only uber-dogma, in my experience, turns out to be a Mumpsimus all too frequently. He is often just repeating what he’s heard from the Mumpsimus before him. He takes what he believes for granted either without Biblical evidence or using only scant evidence. Or, he uses a hermeneutic that he takes for granted is correct. Even when he’s proven wrong, or at the very least, shown that the issue is more complex than he realizes, he will continue asserting his own rightness. He won’t even entertain the thought of possibly being wrong. The true Mumpsimus (as opposed to an unfairly accused one) is both proud and intellectually dishonest.
I was recently shown that a scriptural passage I heard used to defend the preservation of scripture likely doesn’t have to do with that topic at all. I’d been using that verse that way most of my life! And while I believe in the preservation of Scripture, I had simply taken the verse for granted. An uber-dogmatist would continue using that verse that way despite being shown it doesn’t mean what he thinks it means because A) It’s humbling to admit inaccuracy, and thus B) he’s intellectually dishonest (he lies to himself). That’s a Mumpsimus. I don’t want to be one of those!
But, you know who is also proud? Wait for it…. the guy with Epistemological Humility! It turns out that this humility is not humility at all. It’s pride in disguise. It’s like the guy who can just never shut up about how broken he is, “I’m just so broken”, “Jesus broke me”, "We need to realize how broken we all are”, and so on. This guy never allows for himself being wrong either, just like the uber-dogmatist, but he achieves it a different way- he just never asserts anything at all. He never wants to appear marginalized, ostracized, or fringe so he just never asserts anything for sure.
So, to go back to Korzybski’s quote, ““There are two ways to slide easily through life- by believing everything or by doubting everything. Both ways save you from thinking.” And I’m assigning these two ways with the terms, “Uber-Dogmatist” and the “Epistemologically Humble”. It seems to me that both extremes are lazy.
The Epistemologically Humble have widened Lessing’s Ditch immensely, while the Uber-Dogmatist insists that no such ditch exists. The balanced man makes the ditch tiny, but knows there is one. So, how do we answer difficult things while being neither an Uber-Dogmatist or Epistemologically “humble”?
I might suggest saying something like, “Based on revealed scriptural precepts and/or principles, and an applied process of reasoning with, Lord-willing, a sanctified heart, the best conclusion I can presently draw is…. and right now I am trusting the Lord that the evidence points to my conclusion and that it is accurate”.
A preponderance of evidence may support a viewpoint, but by faith we confidently trust that the conclusion we draw is correct. In that sense, I can know something, by the cooperation of faith and reason. It seems that no Biblical issue is by “blind” faith alone and thus requires no reasoning. But also, not all Biblical issues are purely reason alone and thus fully knowable without faith. All reason-based conclusions require faith to be ultimately drawn- faith in the source of the evidence, and faith that my reasoning and methodology is sound. When it comes to scripture, the Source is not questionable, but my reasoning and methodology might be. This is why though Biblical dogmatism is good, uber-dogmatism is likely foolish. And while Epistemological “humility” is bad, humility about the fallibility of our reasoning is good.
I know that’s a long response, but it accomplishes two things. First, it allows me to assert something more than sufficiently dogmatic enough to act on it and live by it. Why would it need to be more dogmatic than that? And second, it is also a humble answer because it acknowledges that even at my very best, I’m still just a sinner trying to understand the words of a holy God. We have the infallible scriptures, but we don’t have infallible reasoning, nor can we.
The sad part is that if you can maintain this balanced Biblical jurisprudence, you will likely be an enigma to men on either extreme. The Uber-Dogmatists will think you’re “wishy-washy”, and the Epistemologically “Humble” will say you’re not being open-minded enough. That’s what you get for trying to be sensible.
So, I could encourage you to not be Epistemologically “humble”, and I’d mean it. It’s just more fun to say, “Don’t be a Mumpsimus!”