Ethics for Online Theological Discourse : 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.”