Alastair's Adversaria

The Loss of Pastoral Credibility in the Age of the Internet

The Internet has introduced a new level of visibility to areas of our social life, exposing certain uncomfortable realities. Rod Dreher recently wrote a perceptive and troubling piece on the way that the Internet reveals corruption and abuse within the Church and other institutions, provoking a reaction of distrust and a loss of these institutions’ effective authority. While the dramatic collapses of trust in the institutional authority of the Church following the exposure and scrutiny of cases of abuse may receive the most attention, there are other ways—albeit slower and more gradual—in which this trust is being eroded. Perhaps the most significant of these in my experience has been our greater exposure to Church leaders and their thinking.

On Twitter earlier today, I remarked that the Internet exposes the fact that most people were never trained to function effectively in the context of an argument. As forms of discourse such as debate, disputation, and oral cross-examination are largely absent within people’s education, relatively few have the ability to keep a level head in an argument, to have a close rein on their passions, to spar with opposing viewpoints, to open their strongly held beliefs up to questioning and challenge, or to operate well in contexts that allow for the expression of many different perspectives and arguments.

Many contemporary forms of education privilege non-agonistic modes of discourse, seeking to avoid confrontation, combat, and threatening challenge, and to foster an inclusive, egalitarian, affirming, and safe community. People trained within such contexts are affirmed and protected from exposure to direct, forceful challenge and opposing voices. The modes of discourse privileged and taught within such contexts are heavily weighted towards the non-oppositional and involve little direct disputation or interaction between opposing voices. As Walter Ong has observed, the individual voice of the essay displaces the conflicting voices of the disputation. While other voices may be represented within the essay, they are much less directly engaged.

All of this leaves people singularly unprepared for the world of the Internet, where they are exposed to opposing viewpoints and have to engage with them more directly. People who can appear to be brilliant in non-oppositional forms of discourse can crumple when subjected to critical cross-examination or manifest themselves to be emotionally incapable of interacting in a non-reactive manner with contrary perspectives. No doubt we can all think of many instances of this online. However, my concern in this post is to draw attention to how commonly I witness this failure in pastors and church leaders.

On the Internet, one soon discovers that many respected church leaders are quite unable to deal directly with opposing viewpoints. In fact, many of them can’t even manage meaningful engagement with other voices. Their tweets may be entirely one-way conversations. They talk at their audiences. They can talk about other voices, but fail to talk to them, let alone with them. Their representations of opposing viewpoints reveal little direct exposure to the viewpoints in question. They may talk about ‘postmodernism’, but one has good reason to believe that they have never read any postmodern philosopher. They make bold generalizations about ‘feminism’, but you can be pretty certain that they don’t know their Butler from their Greer or their Irigaray. When they are actually exposed to an intelligent and informed critic, they reveal themselves to be reactive and ignorant. Their views are quite incapable of withstanding the stress-testing of disputation.

Around this point, it can start to dawn on one that many church leaders have only been trained in forms of discourse such as the sermon and, to a much lesser extent, the essay. Both forms privilege a single voice—their voice—and don’t provide a natural space for response, questioning, and challenge. Their opinions have been assumed to be superior to opposing viewpoints, but have never been demonstrated to be so. While they may have spoken or written about opposing voices, they are quite unaccustomed to speaking or writing to them (not to mention listening to or being cross-examined by them). There are benefits to the fact that the sermon is a form of discourse that doesn’t invite interruption or talking back, but not when this is the only form of discourse its practitioners are adept in.

Many church leaders have been raised and trained in ideologically homogenous cultures or contexts that discouraged oppositional discourse. Many have been protected from hostile perspectives that might unsettle their faith. Throughout, their theological opinions and voices have been given a privileged status, immune from challenge. Nominal challenges could be brushed off by a reassertion of the monologue. They were safe to speak about and habitually misrepresent other voices to their hearers and readers, without needing to worry about those voices ever enjoying the power to answer them back. Many of the more widely read members of their congregations may have had an inkling of the weakness of their positions in the past: the Internet just makes it more apparent.

A system is only as effective as its weakest component in a particular operation. The same is true of the human mind and the communities formed around thinkers. Where the capacity of agonistic reasoning is lacking, all else can be compromised. If one’s opinion has never been subjected to and tried by rigorous cross-examination, it probably isn’t worth much. If one lacks the capacity to keep a level head when one’s views are challenged, one’s voice will be of limited use in most real world situations, where dialogue and dispute is the norm and where we have to think in conversation with people who disagree with us.

The teachers of the Church provide the members of the Church with a model for their own thinking. The teacher of the Church does not just teach others what to believe, but also how to believe, and the process by which one arrives at a theological position. This is one reason why it is crucial that teachers ‘show their working’ on a regular basis. When teaching from a biblical text, for instance, the teacher isn’t just teaching the meaning of that particular text, but how Scripture should be approached and interpreted more generally. An essential part of the teaching that the members of any church need is that of dealing with opposing viewpoints. One way or another, every church provides such teaching. However, the lesson conveyed in all too many churches is that opposing voices are to be dismissed, ignored, or ‘answered’ with a reactive reassertion of the dogmatic line, rather than a reasoned response.

I believe that there are various problems in the Church that are exacerbated by this. Where they are led by voices that can’t cope with difference or challenge, churches will tend to become fissiparous echo chambers, where people are discouraged from thinking critically about what leaders are saying and doing. The integrity of the Church’s theological conversation will not be tested through criticism and challenge. Churches that are led by such leaders will habitually develop polarized oppositions with their critics.

Growing attention is being given to the problem of engaging men in churches. I suggest that developing contexts of dispute, debate, questioning, and challenging dialogue in churches is one of the solutions to this. It has often been recognized that men have a particular affinity and appreciation for oppositional and agonistic discourse. An over-reliance upon the pedagogical form of the sermon leaves persons who learn and think best through sparring in dialogue without a good context within which to learn, or to develop skills of thought and argument that could be of immense benefit to the Church.

Finally, as many young people leave our churches, claiming that their questions were never taken seriously, it seems clear to me that the incompetence of church leaders when it comes to interacting with opposing viewpoints is a crucial dimension of the problem. Young people are less shielded from opposing viewpoints than their parents, especially given the role played by the Internet in their lives. They are more likely to realize just how incompetent church leaders are in their attempts to deal with critical and dissenting voices (to whom the Internet has granted a voice) and how heavily their credibility has formerly rested upon the absence of the right to talk back to them.

The crisis of moral authority that Dreher identifies is thus accompanied by a crisis of theological authority. In both cases the only answer will be found in the formation of new patterns and structures of leadership and the raising up and training of leaders who can survive this new level of scrutiny. While difficult in the short run, in the long run this could be of great benefit to the Church.