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Online Theological Discourse [3]: An Important Article at CT

This post is part of series we are calling “Ethics for Online Theological Discourse.”  Here are the preceding posts: Intro; [1] the dangers of the screen-to-screen mode of communication; [2] Wisdom from the 17th Century.

There is a great post at Christianity Today by John Dyer on the phenomenon of online theological discourse.  The title is enough to make any blogger cringe: Not Many of You Should Presume to be Bloggers.  I am about to post a new addition to our series on theological discourse via social media which focuses on the biblical Wisdom Literature’s teaching about speech.  I am glad to see Dyer taking that route, and I am eager for the release of his forthcoming book on technology, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Kregel).

God & Natural Disasters

The Ooze was kind enough to accept a 3-part series I have written on God and natural disasters.  It is an attempt in writing about the un-writable.  Click below to read it… and know that I would love your feedback!

"I Believe in God... & Monsters"

Online Theological Discourse [2]: Wisdom from the 17th Century

This post is part of series we are calling “Ethics for Online Theological Discourse.”  Here are the preceding posts: Intro; [1] the dangers of the screen-to-screen mode of communication.

So Andy was kind of enough to invite me to blog with him. I’m grateful. I tend to be an all-over-the-place thinker, so the subjects of my posts will tend to be that way…

In light of our series on an “Ethic of Online Theological Discourse”, I found Philip Jacob Spener’s thoughts to be a particularly appropriate interjection. Regardless of how you perceive the consequences of Pietism for historical theology (I have my concerns too), I believe he has it right here. In this section of Pia Desideria (Spener, Philip Jacob. 2002. Pia Desideria. Ed. Theodore G. Tappert. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers), he discusses how to engage in debate with “unbelievers and heretics”. I’ll add the nuance of “people we believe to be heretics”. It should be noted that he doesn’t say that we shouldn’t challenge error. But, there’s a wrong way of being right.

“We must beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies…” (97)

“We must give them a good example and take the greatest pains not to offend them in any way, for this would give them a bad impression of our true teaching and hence would make their conversion more difficult.” (98)

“All of this should be done in such a way that those with whom we deal can see for themselves that everything is done out of heartfelt love toward them, without carnal and unseemly feelings, and that if we ever indulge in excessive vehemence this occurs out of pure zeal for the glory of God.” (emphasis mine; I think a lot of unhelpful rhetoric/talk masquerades as zeal for the “glory of God”) 98

“I therefore hold that not all disputation is useful and good.” (100)

Spener calls that we “do not stake everything on argumentation.” (99)

Wise words. I’m ready for Andy’s next post.

Ethics for Online Theological Discourse [1]: Screen to Screen vis-a-vis Face to Face (notice the wordplay?)

This post is part of series we are calling “Ethics for Online Theological Discourse.”  Here is the preceding post: Intro.


Since the release of Rob Bell’s video promoting Love Wins, cyberspace has been flooded afresh with a great deal of uncivil discourse.  Since so much theological dialogue is now taking place online, Christians need to begin thinking much more seriously about the nature of those tweets, posts, and comments we are publishing for public view on the Internet.  Theological discourse within the church has had a rather checkered past, marked by ferocious attacks, gross misunderstandings, and overly simplistic polarities between artificial extremes.  Ever since Paul confronted Peter so forcefully that day in Antioch (Gal 2.11-14), the church has witnessed the highly charged passions its members can display over theological allegiances.

But since so much theological discourse now occurs online, our ranting and raving—however justified or unjustified—is available for public viewing and hearing.  Uncivil theologizing rarely seems to win outsiders over to Jesus.

I just wrote a book that provides biblical models for how we address bad theology and ethical failures among God’s people.  So I am not calling for doctrinal compromise or for a facile agreement to just disagree for the sake of politically correct tolerance.  During these series of posts, Joel and I are calling for a more critical and more careful appropriation of social media as a means of expressing our theological convictions.

Let’s start by considering social media’s mode of communicating—it is screen-to-screen, not face-to-face.

This is a big deal.

When our interaction with others is faceless, we unwittingly depersonalize our interlocutors to the extent that our criticisms become less charitable.  When writing a blog post, I am staring at text on a screen, not a face sitting across the coffee shop table.  To write text about another’s text feels like slinging words at other words, rather than exchanging actual blows with the real live person behind those words.

I am not saying that there can be no screen-to-screen theological dialogue (or else I would not be free to write this post!).  What I am saying is that the dangers and pitfalls inherent to screen-to-screen communication must be acknowledged and responsibly navigated if we are going to publish our convictions online.

Another insufficiency of screen-to-screen discourse is that it permits only limited interactivity.  Sure, people can add comments in agreement or disagreement to blog posts or they can tweet back their rebuttals.  But when you are engaged in an intensive, face-to-face discussion, you are constantly having to pause to clarify what you mean and to respond to the immediate interjections and questions of your dialogue partner.  We are not so inconvenienced in screen-to-screen discourse, which means that the comments we are making on the Web are often without the nuanced clarifications which face-to-face interaction requires.

If we are going to conduct serious theological dialogue within cyberspace, then we must discipline ourselves to overcome as much as we can the limitations inherent to screen-to-screen interaction (and when those limitations cannot be overcome, we need to honestly acknowledge it).  Simply remembering that we are hurling words at faces, not just screens, might tone down some of our rhetoric.  Simply remembering that screen-to-screen communication is notorious for misunderstandings and misinterpretations should promote the highest degree of clarity in the articulation of our viewpoints.

I will close with this from 2 John 12:

“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink [screens and pixels…?].  Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

New Contributor to this Blog

I am so pleased to announce that this blog now becomes a joint effort.  My dear friend, Joel Busby (whom I have quoted a few times already), will now begin writing posts as well.  I am looking forward to learning from his wisdom and insights.


More from Barth on Church Unity

In a recent post I commented on a couple of lectures Karl Barth made for the 1937 Edinburgh World Conference on Faith and Order.  These lectures are published in Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).  Here are a few more thoughts….

In his third lecture, “The Union of the Churches—A Task,” Barth emphasizes the complex and compelling paradox that we must labor intensively for the unity of the One worldwide Church while acknowledging that the task’s fulfillment is accomplished by Christ alone.  Barth aggressively smashes up any naivete concerning Church unity.  The authentic uniting of the Church is such a gargantuan task that no hope whatsoever can be placed on the churches themselves, or individual Christians.  Our only hope for uniting into One Church is the supernatural work of the One Lord: “…in Christ alone this task is fulfilled… His voice and summons alone can bring that union into being” (p. 45).

In spite of the fact that Church unity exceeds our capacities to effect, Barth calls us to enter in partnership with Jesus in bringing about ecclesial oneness.  He proposes four conditions that individual churches and denominational traditions must strive for….

1] The “relinquishing” of a church’s (or church tradition’s) “own particular confession for one which it will share in union with others” (p. 41).

2] The refusal to seek unity on the basis of a “secular motive” (such as trying to be united for the goal of being politically correct, as we might say today, or philosophically amenable) (p. 42).

3] The refusal to seek unity by compromising truth or by masking latent divisiveness (p. 43)

4] Repentance from any and all means by which a particular church or church tradition has contributed to the divisive multiplicity of the churches (p. 43-44).

Such conditions seem so insurmountable to promote in the current ecclesiological scene in North America alone.  And that insurmountability seems to be part of Barth’s point.  The Task is impossible.  But we labor toward it regardless.

Sounds like the Christian life, if you ask me….