The following are a few loosely related issues that I have been thinking about at various points over the last few days, in light of the millennials conversation and its aftermath. I have made a number of these comments in other contexts, but thought that it might be worth bringing them together here. A few of the points revisit ground that I have covered elsewhere.
1. The Shape and Dynamics of Discourse
For the last couple of years, I have continually returned to this point (I discussed these issues at greatest length here). Controversies such as this frequently arise and almost invariably exhibit a similar form and lifecycle. My contention is that many of our problems arise less on account of the issues themselves than they do the underlying structure and dynamics of our discourses and relationships. Our inattention to these things allows for a situation where the same dysfunctions replicate themselves every time a new controversy emerges.
The various problems that I have diagnosed in the past are partly structural, partly relational, partly ideological, and partly educational. The structural concerns include matters such as the form of our social media, which connect us so tightly in contexts of shared intimacy that vast emotionally hyper-conductive networks can develop. Locking people together in such close connections, where we are always vulnerable to being swept up with others in their reactivity, anxiety, or hostility, herding tendencies will often develop. Our forms of social media, within whose networks of relationships our thought is increasingly embedded and whose pace speeds up our interactions, discourage both the isolation and the patience that careful thought so typically requires. It also involves the collapsing of contexts of discourse into each other and the loss of representative discourse in favour of a discourse that treats all voices in the same way.
The relational issues are something that I will be dealing with more directly in a later point, but they are often closely related to and exacerbated by the structural issues. They particularly involve those ways in which we can have a reactive or anxious relationship to certain groups, issues, or persons, a sort of relationship that will stifle thought and imagination, producing emotional processes that will twist all of our interactions. Here I use ‘emotional’ in a sense broader than that of mere feeling, including within it the more instinctual ways that we operate in relation to different things, our kneejerk hostilities, underlying anxieties, and forms of reactivity. The most ‘rational’ of people can often be highly ‘emotional’ in this sense. At this point I am leaning heavily upon the insights of Edwin Friedman: I highly recommend that people read through my summary of his book as it will really shed a lot of light upon some of the things that I am describing here.
The ideological issues include such things as the resistance to anything that seems exclusive or restrictive of the rights of all individuals to speak for themselves in all discourses and a hostility or distrust towards authority structures and genuine leadership. Once again, these are related to the previous issues in various ways.
The educational issues have to do with the ways in which we have been formed and are being formed to read, to reason, and to dialogue. As I have argued in the past, fewer people are trained and gifted in the art of disputation. Also, as television, the Internet, and advertising have played a more formative role in the development of many people’s thinking, both reading and writing have become more impressionistic and disjointed in character, less capable of following extended arguments and more dependent upon the accumulation of successive impressions.
I am convinced that, until we start to take such issues seriously, little progress will be made. As usual in such cases, we must begin by examining our own practice, rather than simply laying accusations at the door of other parties.
As an example of just one of the many things that I am thinking about here, it is worth reflecting on the way that so many of our discourses take the form of competing monologues in echo chambers. Different parties don’t truly speak to each other but at and about each other from within their own online communities. The key figures in various parties all have their own blogs, whose comments are typically dominated by a chorus of approving supporters, a context within which it is almost impossible to have reasonable critical interaction.
As there isn’t much of a shared space within which conversation takes place and group identity tends to be articulated over against other parties, there is a natural tendency to focus upon the extremes: the figures, actions, and statements that seem the most outrageous and offensive, those things that are most productive of a polarizing effect. Also, as everyone is equally authorized to have a voice, the more unreasonable, shrill, polarizing, and aggressive voices can come to dominate the conversation. It is usually the case that, in order to hear more reasonable voices, time, space, and an exclusion of noise (i.e. the din produced by less reasonable voices) are required.
Let us suppose that, instead of focusing the conversation of polarized monologues on personal blogs and in opposing journal articles, some gifted, informed, reasonable, charitable, and non-reactive representatives from all parties joined together to establish a neutral shared context – a group blog, perhaps – closed the comments and started to talk through the issues together. Such a conversation could produce a productive rapprochement between the concerns of various camps, becoming a non-polarizing focal point and model for the wider conversation, leading to the muting or even marginalization of extreme and reactive voices. People would still disagree, sometimes sharply, but there would be much more of a chance that different parties could get along and forge common ground.
In an ideal scenario, such an approach would address the tendency of our thinking to become framed by our polarizations, producing an alternative situation where our non-reactive stance relative to the issues would frame our relations.
2. The Changing Nature of the Blogosphere (or at least my part of it)
I started blogging in 2003. Over the last several years, however, I have had the sense that the sort of conversation that I was engaged in was changing beneath my feet. When I first started blogging, it was an outgrowth of participation in theology forums. Most of the people that I was engaging with had blogs and I wanted to engage with them in that context too, to discuss important ideas, books, and interests at greater length. I didn’t perceive my blog as a means of publicization at all, or even as a means of getting my voice heard by some wider audience.
I didn’t have any great ideas worth hearing. I was writing for myself and for a limited group of online acquaintances. I wanted to think out loud and to post ideas in a context where I could receive people’s feedback and interaction, dialogue, debate, and dispute. It was a process of finding my voice, having my thought sharpened through challenge, forging a theological identity for myself, and learning how to fight my corner. There were several really smart people whose input I really valued and I wanted to expose my formative thinking to their judgment and guidance, while learning to stand on my own feet.
The strength of such old blogging communities was that they allowed for an engaged but aerated conversation. While the distinctness of various voices was maintained, they never stood on their own. Although there was plenty of pretension going around (all of the Latin blog names come to mind), there was less of a need to justify one’s blogging by having Something to Say. Most of us knew that we didn’t have a whole lot to say that wasn’t a recycling of the thoughts of much smarter people, but blogged as a means of engagement with a small community of online friends and peers.
Over my years of blogging, however, this dynamic seems to have changed. Christian blogging exploded, but those original communities I was part of soon thinned out and blogs became more isolated islands. Fewer people had active theology blogs and those who still did were less framed by a community of diverse peers. A number of us were uneasy as we felt that the sort of conversation that we were engaged in was being radically redefined. Rather than seeing our blogs as speaking into a particular community of people with deeper connections with each other, connections that didn’t exist only online, they were being regarded by readers as platforms for the general publicization of the bloggers’ viewpoints, which was not how most of us set out to write in the first place.
I gradually realized that I couldn’t just presume that I was throwing ideas out there for the judgment of my peers any more. Whereas I used to know the overwhelming majority of the few people who read and commented on my blog, nowadays I only know a small fraction of my readers personally and only a handful of people are consistent commenters here. Even of the more consistent commenters, most of them aren’t known to me beyond the comments on my blog. I would love to hear some thoughts from my readers in the comments. How do things appear from your perspective?
I suspect that the rise of Facebook and Twitter and certain e-mail discussion lists has a lot to do with this change, as much of the conversation moved to those places. Also, as more big names started to blog, many regular bloggers started to drop out, feeling that they had less to contribute. As blogs became thinner on the ground, far less closely related to each other, and the blogosphere became increasingly dominated by bigger names with Something to Say. The result was a situation where conversation between a wide range of voices started to be replaced by competing monologues or a series of echo chambers, with little substantial connection. This effect isn’t universal – I can think of some places that might represent partial exceptions to this trend – but it is widely observable.
I have reluctantly given some ground to this redefinition, taking on board the fact that what I am doing when I am blogging has been redefined. I do use my blog in a slightly more authoritative manner from time to time, recognizing that I will be read in this way by many of my readers, whether I like it or not. However, I don’t want to accept it entirely. I still want to be able to treat my blog as in some sense a sandbox for my thinking, a place where my peers can come and see what I am thinking and give their thoughts, rather than a platform for authoritative pronouncements. I also love the cut and thrust of a good debate.
3. The Nature of Progressive Evangelicalism
I recently saw it observed by a leading progressive evangelical blogger that there are few progressive evangelical churches. This, I believe, is a crucial point to reflect upon, if we are to understand the dynamics of the progressive evangelical movement and online debates surrounding the movement.
The question that we need to ask ourselves is how the progressive evangelical movement is being formed in the absence of progressive evangelical churches. My suggestion is that, given the lack of progressive evangelical churches, the progressive evangelical movement that is forming online is primarily formed of highly disaffected people from evangelical contexts, people who are often isolated and alienated in their own communities, but who find common identity online. It is formed of many people who are survivors of abusive churches, of discontented people who have a deep personal animus towards churches they have left, of individuals who bear painful relational wounds, and of young people who feel alienated by their evangelical church upbringing. It is a movement dominated by refugees, spiritual migrants, and discontents.
In other words, the progressive evangelical movement is not formed around a positive core of shared beliefs, patterns of discipleship, and a shared life and identity in self-confident and self-defined communities, but around a deeply felt and often visceral reaction against dysfunctional evangelical contexts and the isolation, anger, and sense of betrayal that results from broken relations. It is defined more by its common resistance to evangelicalism than by any concrete and coherent alternative.
When a movement lacks strong and self-defined spiritual formation of its own, but finds its common identity more in a shared rejection of a previous context of formation, a context to which many of its members still feel exposed and vulnerable, it is prone to a number of dangerous tendencies. The loose communities of disaffection that can result lack self-definition, constantly deriving their identity from reacting against evangelicalism in its worst forms. What results is akin to a community fed on medicine – material designed to counteract the toxic varieties of evangelical formation – rather than on solid and edifying food.
People who feel vulnerable and exposed in such a manner who often have a spiritual and personal immune system in hyperdrive. Anything that is perceived to present any sort of external challenge will tend to be viewed as hostile and attacked, which is why criticism can’t easily be handled. These dynamics are poisonous and, more troublingly, contagious and it is difficult to try to have critical engagement with such a community, which can act on pure emotional instinct, like a cornered animal. There is such a fixation upon self-protection from the former abusive context that often no alternative that isn’t the current reaction can seemingly be conceived and the reaction is adhered to with the strongest of resolve.
For such a reactive person practically anything that a perceived opponent says can be a cause for outrage. After a while one begins to realize that many things are objected to by such persons almost purely on account of the person who said them. If someone in their own camp had come out with the same statement, they wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. This is just one example of what a reactive antagonism likes like in practice.
A Girardian scapegoat mechanism can also easily become integral to the operation of such groups. The movement can find its unity in attacking evangelicalism. However, if evangelicalism were removed from the picture and it had to define itself on its own terms, it would be at risk of breaking up into infighting. When such an antagonism has become a constitutive focus of a community’s identity, the community will feel an almost existential need to present the scapegoated group, irrespective of the actual scale of its faults, in a highly negative light and to keep drawing attention to the antagonism, often in subtle ways.
This does not make for balanced and healthy thinking and theology. The progressive evangelical movement widely operates with conservative evangelicalism as its foil, a foil that is caricatured, typically presented in its worst light and in terms of its most dysfunctional forms, and viewed with the most jaundiced and suspicious of eyes. This leads to a locking of the imagination, and a polarization of parties, as everything starts to become framed in terms of the underlying antagonism.
When such an antagonism is in force (and progressive evangelicals are hardly the only party with such antagonisms – evangelicals have several of their own), it is very difficult for people to think in a balanced fashion. Every theological question will become mediated by the antagonism with evangelicalism, making it difficult to think in an imaginative or non-reactive manner, arriving at positions that are more determined by evidence or theological truth than by the existential need to maintain the antagonism with evangelicalism.
The only way that this will change is when progressive evangelicalism can become self-defined as a movement. This will require robust communities in which people can feel safe and no longer exposed to evangelicalism in abusive, unhealthy, or otherwise objectionable forms. As it starts to define itself as a movement, it will be able to give up its polarizing scapegoating of evangelicalism, replacing an antagonism that sets the terms for the movement with a knowledge of what it itself is within its own bounds. Unfortunately, without such self-definition, as a movement it will be especially prone to herd dynamics.
4. The Need for Online Leadership
Perhaps one of the greatest factors in producing healthy, non-reactive communities, who feel a confident and secure sense of self-identity, is strong leadership. We so often focus upon Christian leaders as mere communicators of information that we seldom reflect upon the way that Christian leaders communicate emotional dynamics to their communities.
A leader sets the tone for a community. If they are highly reactive themselves, they will be the figure that sets the herd stampeding. However, if they can keep a cool head and respond rather than react (whether aggressively or defensively), their entire community will begin to share in their leader’s own non-reactive self-definition. This is one of the reasons why being intelligent and engaging isn’t sufficient for healthy online leadership.
Many bloggers exercise a sort of leadership online, setting the tone for large numbers of people’s responses. One of the biggest problems in such situations is not so much the content of teaching (although that is definitely an issue), but the way that the immaturity of persons who have been thrust into positions of great influence and limited accountability before they had learned to develop the self-control required to complement their considerable gifts can lead to the creation of deeply unhealthy dynamics in the communities that form around them. Great damage can result, much of which could be avoided if their scale of influence was restricted until greater maturity had been developed under the guidance of wise older mentors.
The fact that some of us are in the position to set the tone for many thousands by the way that we either react or respond reveals the immense responsibility of the Christian blogger. A blogger who cannot control their reactivity can cause immense and unnecessary relational fallout, resulting in fractures and damage in the lives of churches. This is one reason why I have so frequently drawn attention to the dynamics of reactivity in certain contexts and the way that some leading figures fuel it. The way that certain bloggers communicate their reactivity to a wide audience renders them far more of a danger to the health of the Church than any of the errors that they might teach (although it is incredibly difficult to challenge the errors of a reactive person). Such persons are an immense liability and one reason why we need to look for deep emotional maturity and self-control in those who lead us, not merely smart minds and engaging words.
As bloggers we create contexts of communal thought and emotional (once again, in a broader sense of the word) engagement, and we must bear responsibility for what we encourage. We have more of an influence upon the tone of the conversations in our comments than we might like to admit. If we often can’t control our reactions, our comment threads and readers will start to be dominated by that dynamic. The blogger can be the spiritual immune system of a community, maintaining a non-reactive presence that encourages balanced and healthy thought and engagement. However, the reactive blogger can create great bitterness, hostility, fear, and anxiety, producing poisonous dynamics that damage lives and churches.
Reactivity can be intoxicating and is also very easy to create and encourage. It comes naturally to us. It feels great to be a member of the stampeding herd and it is hard to resist joining when everyone around you seems to be. Fostering non-reactivity in our communities is a much more challenging task and requires people who have first mastered themselves.
5. The Value of Critics
This is another thing that I have been struck by lately – how immensely important smart and non-reactive interlocutors who firmly disagree with me or truly test me are, and how highly I have come to value them. I generally presume that I won’t persuade such individuals, not because I consider them to be intellectually dishonest or possessing an emotionally unhealthy relationship to the issues. Rather, I presume, unless there is evidence to the contrary, that they have moved towards their current viewpoint, not out of an extreme reaction to abuse elsewhere, but through considered and responsible engagement with and balanced reflection upon the issues. I believe that this will generally be revealed in the way that such persons can deal non-reactively and charitably with opposing voices.
I regard my interactions with such persons as a form of charitable but determined sparring. The primary purpose of such sparring, as I see it, is that of maintaining lines of communication between Christians who hold sharply differing viewpoints. Such lines of communication make it difficult for us to caricature each other. It also keeps us both on our toes, knowing that any weak arguments will be revealed and punctured and our blindspots will be exposed. I relish such a challenge to sharpen my thinking in dialogue with different viewpoints, which is why I seek out smart people with whom I differ. Such critics can perform a tremendously important ministry in our lives. I learn more from engaging with such persons than I do from the vast majority of the people with whom I agree. If my friendly critics started agreeing with me, I would feel that I had lost something important. They are the rigorous stress-testers of my thought. I feel safest when I know that they are committed to their task!
I also seek out contexts and persons who will maintain a sense of discomfort and unease in me and who will consistently raise the difficult and uncomfortable questions that I would like to dodge. I also try to provide such an unsettling effect within contexts that might risk becoming unhealthy echo chambers. Reading people from such contexts is a way that I retain a sense of urgency in myself concerning many of the issues that they are addressing. I may disagree with their proposed alternatives, but I want to be kept acutely aware of the problems they identify. For instance, while I have significant disagreements with most forms of feminism, I make sure to read and follow several feminists closely, and not just to ensure that I am not dealing with a caricature. I want to be alert to the existential tensions that others are experiencing and the great responsibility arising from the role that my own position could play in relieving or exacerbating them.
Even if we never see eye to eye, I believe that entering imaginatively into the tensions that our opponents are experiencing is a crucial dimension of our own responsibility of thought. Through challenging but non-reactive conversations as Christians we can maintain a healthy discomfort in each other, maintaining bonds of communication despite huge disagreements. We can break differences down to their appropriate size, sharpen our thinking and arguments, expose our blindspots, break down caricatures, acquire self-control of our emotions, improve our understanding of opposing positions, acquaint ourselves deeply with the existential force that the debate has for the other, and seek to reframe the issues imaginatively together.
Rather than entering into critical sparring with others with the all or nothing task of changing opponents’ minds, if our focus is upon sharpening our own minds, exposing ourselves and our thought to the stresses and tensions of a reality beyond our immediate experience, puncturing errors in our thinking and practice and revealing blindspots, opening our opinions up to the interrogation of those seeking to prosecute the case of Scripture and other authorities against us, and practicing non-reactive and charitable engagement, every critical interaction can become a beneficial experience from which, wisely approached and handled, we may gain much.
In short, most of my concerns relate to the ways in which the dynamics, structures, and leaders of our online conversations are ill-equipped to produce healthy results, instead creating something that is poisonously reactive and polarizing. It is causing huge damage to the Church and producing a lot of bitterness. As I have observed, this is less about the issues themselves than it is about the way that the issues are being handled and the unhealthy emotional dynamics that prevail in many communities.
If people want to understand my resistance to much progressive evangelicalism, it is in large measure on account of the reactive and polarizing processes that surround it. Until progressive evangelicalism produces self-defined communities, its reactivity will be a dangerous liability, no less problematic for the health and unity of the Church than many of the reactive and abusive churches that many of the members of the movement left behind. This needs to be reflected upon. We also need to reflect upon the way in which those of us who are not progressive evangelicals can, by our non-reactive responses to progressive evangelicals foster a weakening of the antagonisms.
A recurring theme in my blogging has been the nature and dynamics of Internet communities and discourse. I have discussed at length in the past the role that outrage plays, for instance. I really do not believe that any progress will be made until we establish the spiritual health of our communities of discourse, create forms of discourse more conducive to careful negotiation of the issues, and find ways to maintain bonds between those from different camps. This is a task especially incumbent upon any of us who have widely read blogs. As I have observed, the blogger can be the spiritual immune system of such a community, maintaining a non-reactive presence that encourages balanced and healthy thought and engagement or they can be the trigger that starts the panic.
I have argued in the past that there has been a breaking down of the healthy barriers between discourses, as we have often abandoned former modes of discourse where a limited group of trained, highly informed, and self-controlled representatives advocated for positions in a public arena with a set process and moderation, in exchange for a free for all, where victims or survivors who feel vulnerable and have not developed a healthy emotional distance from the issues under discussion start to engage in a sort of publicizing theological discourse that pushes issues in a reactive manner but cannot sustain the sort of counter-challenge that is essential for true discourse. It seems to me that, for the health of our discourses and the spiritual and psychological health of all parties, we need to establish a better way of dealing with such things, one that could be much less polarizing. Simply by virtue of the way that emotional dynamics work, only parties with a clearly defined and non-reactive sense of identity can really carry out such discourse effectively.
While this position challenges evangelical culture’s hyper-democratic instincts, I am firmly persuaded that the concerns of victims and survivors in progressive evangelical circles could be dealt with much more effectively if their cause were represented by gifted advocates who were less likely to have a reactive relationship to the issues under discussion. The conversation would be very exclusive when it came to the voices permitted to participate, but representative in its goal. Rather than different sides reacting to each other at their worst, we might then forge a sort of dialogue in shared spaces between the sides at their best, which would marginalize and lead to the exposure of abusive, vicious, and polarizing elements and quell the dynamics of reactivity. It might also foster a healthy mutual understanding and responsibility and develop the sort of conversational tension out of which more chastened insight can emerge.