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Thursday, July 13, 2017

10 Guidelines for Arguing About Theology on the Internet

As someone who has found himself embroiled in quite a few debates, and as an occasional professor of critical thinking, I thought it might be useful to write up a conversation starter on the topic of online arguments about theology. Many of these guidelines should transfer smoothly to arguments about other topics, but Theology is a particularly tricky subject to argue since the subject matter is so important. When we argue about theology we are arguing about things of ultimate concern and about the Person(s) we love the most; we are arguing with people we know we are most clearly supposed to love—"and this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another"—; we are arguing for outcomes in which we are heavily invested.  As a result every argument about theology has the potential to be as emotionally fraught as the "argument with family" as partisan as  "political argument" and as intense as "arguments about money. Prayer is therefore a good way to begin.

This list is not meant to be definitive—in fact I hope to add to it as people teach me better and better guidelines—and it is generally not meant to be used as some sort of dialectical rule book with which to declare people "out of bounds". Instead I hope you will find these guidelines helpful in thinking about the most profitable ways to engage in the important work of online theology discussion.

1. Attack the ideas and not the person

It was C.S. Lewis who incisively pointed out that persons are eternal whereas all of the structures and conventions we use to model our understanding of the world are temporal, passing. It therefore follows that any attack you have to make,can only be charitably made against a thing.

More pragmatically, you will never convince a person you have just demeaned that they should adopt your own position on something. Humans just don't work like that. Instead, if you insult your interlocutor, you are far more likely to build up in her—by habit of association—a confirmed identification of your conclusion with cruelty or, at best, rudeness. Thus it turns out that Paul was not just giving a moral or spiritual command when he told the Ephesians to "speak the truth in love" he was also giving them sound rhetorical advice.

2. Assume good motives

Begin, and operate for as long as possible, on the assumption that your interlocutor is arguing in good faith. This can be incredibly difficult to do, particularly when your interlocutor seems to be convinced that you are a heretic, that you may well be leading souls into eternal damnation through your teaching and is determined to say so in a public forum. Trust me, I have been told I would better off with a mill stone around my neck, that I am doing the work of the devil, and that I am trampling the blood of Christ, all in public forums and as a response to theological positions I was advocating, I know how it can sting. But, to reference a little more Scriptural wisdom, "A gentle anger turns away wrath" or at least it does if your interlocutor has good motives. Telling her that her words really stung (don't whine and don't be defensive, just state the fact) and reassuring her that you are earnestly seeking the truth along side her through the process of "iron sharpening iron" is far more likely to lead to continued, fruitful discussion. And if your assumption is wrong and your interlocutor's motives really are bad, your gentle answer will be the equivalent of "heap[ing] burning coals on her head" rhetorically at least. I have had more than one irate interlocutor break down in fury after I responded to his over the top denunciation of my twisted-ness with a polite rebuttal of his previous point. 
You might find it helpful to periodically remind yourself that, from their perspective, you may be advocating some great lie, one which they are convinced is a root cause of much of the suffering of this world and/or the spiritually precarious situation our society finds itself in (whether you think so is not the point—your interlocutor thinks it) the fact that you may well think the same thing in reverse is likely only to exacerbate the situation. Fiery denunciations of heretics are all well and good (I suppose) until everyone has been declared a heretic by someone else and nobody will talk at all any more. Always try to keep at the front of your mind the fact that dis-unity among those who claim Jesus as Lord is a scandal of the highest order. Jesus' high priestly prayer for us was "that they may be one". Insofar as you can (and there is a limit here) try to read their bombast and passion as a passion for your own well being. If that doesn't work, then try to read it as fear that something they hold dear is being threatened. In their own eyes they are standing for Jesus on the side of truth and if you seem to be making the stronger case, that can feel like a terrifying place to be.

3. Re-imagine what "winning" looks like

Despite Christians arguing about theology, it is far, far too easy to buy into the worldly conceit that arguments are about winning and losing and that winning means getting your interlocutor to admit that he was wrong. But the temptation must be resisted. If our goal is to get more of Jesus, who is the Way, Truth, and Life, then our goal in an argument is not to win but primarily to Love (for "God is love") and secondarily (though still quite critically) to pursue the truth wherever it may lie—in your argument or in your interlocutor's. Thus a successful argument needs to be imagined first as one in which love flourished—this does not mean that you shouldn't go at it hammer-and-tongs but, per Point #1, it is the argument you are attacking, not your interlocutor himself—and second, as one in which as many parties as possible drew closer to the truth, including you. 
This also highlights an important way in which online arguments are different from in-person, private arguments. Online debates are public (more or less) and indelible. Most online arguments still live in the com-boxes and Facebook threads they were born in for all to see. Many lie dormant, but some are occasionally resurrected. Even when you think an argument is likely to be deleted, anybody might be taking a screenshot. Further though, online arguments nearly always have an audience (which is really a good reminder since even the arguments we think of as "private" have God as their audience), and arguing in front of an audience is something of a different thing from arguing with a single interlocutor. Arguing in front of an audience includes a degree of performance, not that you should be false (quite the opposite, be as genuine and earnest as you can) but that the quality of your argument is being judged, not just by your interlocutor but also by every person who reads the thread of the argument, and they will be far less partial judges of your debate than either you or your interlocutor. If you remain polite, reasonable, and generous throughout the argument—granting points to your interlocutor when he makes them, refraining from any dirty rhetoric and refusing to engage in ad hominem—your audience is far more likely to shift toward the truth you see and have been advocating for. Even when you don't convince your interlocutor (and, let's face it, only a minuscule percentage of online arguments ever end with one party saying "huh, I guess you were right"), and even if you find your own position has shifted, you have "won" the debate since you have all moved closer to love, and probably to truth. C.S. Lewis called this The Law of First and Second Things:
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.
. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.
You will never get at the truth until you put love first.

4. Make sure you understand your interlocutor's claim

In this I am borrowing a technique from scholastic debate. Back in the day, when Theologians or Philosophers engaged in formal debate, they were not permitted to offer a counter argument to their opponent until they had satisfied the opponent that they fully understood the argument the opponent was making by rewording it and repeating it back to him. The critical phrase here is " that what you mean?"

The fact of the matter is that if you think that the person you are arguing with is stupid for thinking the thing you want to refute, you probably don't understand the argument. My first response when someone says something which strikes me as too ridiculous to be believed, is to reword what I  think their claim is, and then ask them if that is really what they meant. I have managed to avoid a number of utterly useless arguments in this way when it turned out that I had simply misunderstood the statement. More often though, I did indeed understand what the person wanted to say and that means it is time for the second check: questioning. It is still really unsafe (not to mention unwise and uncharitable) to assume that your interlocutor is stupid. Instead, start with the assumption that this is an intelligent person who has brilliant reasons for believing what seems ridiculous to you. The only way for you to get at those reasons and grasp the presumably brilliant insight which is just now evading you, is to ask your interlocutor to provide them. I have had some good success with the phrases "Now how does that work exactly? Because it seems to me that X would really undermine that idea", and "Could you support that assertion? I don't see how it holds up at all", or if your interlocutor is of a more belligerent stripe "But what is the justification for that assertion?" or even "You can't just make statements like that without giving an argument for it; how do you defend that?" Notice that you are starting from the assumption that your interlocutor is intelligent enough to have, and to provide, a defense for their claim. This would either be a case of not answering a fool "according to his folly" or (if your interlocutor is really not a fool) managing not to be the fool who is wise in her own mind.

5. The Bible probably isn't clear on this subject

First, if it were (and once we take points 2 and 4 into account) you probably wouldn't be having this theological conversation in the first place. You might be having a comparative religions conversation, or a philosophical conversation, but if your interlocutor is a Christian, it is really likely that the passage which seems so clear to you is not at all clear in that sense to him. Of course there are Christians who cheerfully dismiss portions of the Bible but they are less likely to be arguing with you about the meaning of the passage which is currently tempting you to announce its clarity. It is, of course, possible that you have encountered a troll and that the troll is merely having fun with you by trying to get you to defend the obvious, but even then I have found that the best tactic against trolls is to engage them in good faith; let them demonstrate their troll-dom publicly, then calmly express your disappointment that the conversation is not going anywhere and exit gracefully keeping #3 in mind all the while.

Second the fact of the matter is that you may well be failing to recognize the interpretive lens which causes you to think the passage's meaning is clearly one thing when it is actually another. Remember that it was our Lord who accused religious people of being sinful just because they maintained that they could "see", Jesus seems to prefer humility when it comes to our self-assessment of our own understanding of things, seeming is simply not the same thing as being and it is far to easy to mistake the one for the other. The fact is that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, two-to-more-than-two thousand years ago. Not just language, but culture has shifted significantly since then and it is uncomfortably easy to misread a passage through the lens of our own culture and arrive at a vastly different meaning than would those who read it through the lens of the original culture (for some really good insights on this I recommend Misreading Scripture with Modern Eyes by Richards and O'Brien). Of course you very well may be correct in your interpretation, but then maybe your interlocutor is, or maybe neither of you are. You will just have to have the argument if you want to find out. 
While we are on the subject, here are a few other phrases which are just conversation killers and should be avoided if at all possible:
  • The Serpent asked "But did God really say?" - Sure but that is still a legitimate question, and when you bring this up you are a) forgetting that Jesus said "you have heard it said...but I say to you" and b) indicating that any attempt to critically examine the meaning of a passage is to imitate the devil which would essentially cripple the entire discipline of Theology and of homiletics. Just don't do it.
  • X is really a form of Gnosticism/Manicheaism/other ancient heresy  - This one is a little more tricky because it is actually possible that your interlocutor has fallen into one of these heresies. However, blanket accusing them of heresies which the orthodox church has treated as clearly out of court for the last fifteen hundred years will just kill the conversation. So if you really are concerned about it (and have done enough homework to know what Gnosticism and Manicheaism actually entailed) then I recommend something more along the lines of "That seems to have echoes of given heresy in it, could you explain how your position is different from that of the heretics?"
  • You see, I start from an ethic of love - Yes, and, per #2 so does your interlocutor. Of course if your interlocutor has already said that she starts from a different ethic, this statement may actually be a helpful way of establishing that you have different grounds for your arguments and will likely lead to a (hopefully) fruitful argument about which are the better grounds but otherwise this statement, while likely enough to be true, functions as something of a rhetorical cheap trick forcing your interlocutor to have to supply their "agape bona fides" in order to retain standing. If they are not operating from a place of love, it will show in the argument without anyone having to make the distinction.
  • Just typing out a passage without tying it to your argument - This suggests that your interlocutor was unaware of the passage (maybe they were and maybe they weren't but you shouldn't presume) and is also an implicit version of "the Bible is clear on this" since you are not providing your interpretation of the relevance of the passage in question.
  • That's just your interpretation of the Bible - Well... yes it is, but then the interpretation you are defending is "just yours" as well. Unless it is offered (hopefully in more gracious tones and with more explanation) as a rebuttal to "the Bible is clear", this will often come across as a tautological way to end the conversation in the vein of "these are all really just opinions anyway so we can never actually convince anyone"—which amounts to little more than refusal to engage the substance of your interlocutors argument, without admitting as much. If you want to leave an argument at any time, you always can. But you should be gracious about that as well (more on this subject in #10).
  • You are saying this because.... - You can't know the heart of anyone who is not you (and let's face it, haw familiar are we with our own motives most of the time?). First, this statement constitutes a logical fallacy (what C.S. Lewis called a Bulverism). Second it presumes that you know another person's motives despite the fact that only God "looks at the heart".Third, it violates #2, any charitable assumption will begin from the premise that your interlocutor is arguing for her thesis because she believes it to be true. Fourth, and most relevant here, it ends conversation because the only possible response is to stop arguing about the topic at hand and begin to protest a negative ("I am not at all arguing X only because I want Y).
  • Well that is where faith comes in - This means that you aren't going to have the argument anymore because you are out of good arguments with which to support your thesis. If that is the case, then say so. "I actually don't have a great response, but my experience of God still has me convinced of X" is far more charitable, and does your interlocutor the courtesy of conceding the point while bowing out. 
  • Declaring that you "just won the debate"  - if you have to say it, it isn't true. 

6. Keep your cool

As James reminds us, "everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry". At the end of the day, despite #2, your interlocutor may actually be cruel, advocating damaging practises, or just not that bright. It is not easy to be called names, to have your arguments met with
mulish-seeming assertions rather than counter arguments, and most of all, to see someone advocating a position you are convinced will harm people—possibly even harm their souls. None of this changes the fact, however, that people who "lose it" at their interlocutors, will almost inevitably fail to convince their interlocutor or their audience. If your lucid, deductive analysis of his proposition did nothing to sway him, it is vanishingly unlikely that your calling him "The Devil's two-bit ambulance chaser" is going to awaken him to the flaws in his argument. On the other hand, if you manage to keep your calm and speak in gentleness throughout your exchange—even in the face of his ad hominem attacks—while he is still unlikely to concede defeat (remember #3) he is far more likely to change his mind in the weeks and months following your discussion, and in the mean time you (and for good or ill your argument) will leave a good impression on anyone who reads the exchange. Remember that while it is not wrong to be angry—"be angry but in your anger do not sin"—anger is almost never the emotion out of which we should interact with other people. It is only the very best of us who can master our anger enough to speak from it without betraying scorn, condescension, mockery, and even hate. At least I know that I haven't managed it yet. So put the phone down, get a drink, say a prayer, and formulate an irrationally loving answer (without backing down an iota from what you believe to be true) before your reply.

7. Own your mistakes and celebrate your interlocutor's strengths.

It is a basic exercise in humility and in love (both particular virtues of theological arguers), to own your own mistakes as thoroughly and graciously as you can while simultaneously celebrating your interlocutor's wins, cleverness, and grace as much as possible—this almost cannot be overdone. If you are on Facebook, make a habit of "liking" any point your interlocutor makes with which you can agree. Agreement, good analysis, and wise insight are all intrinsically worth celebrating and it is a matter of simple Christian love to let your interlocutor know when you think they have made a good point. Good analysis benefits everyone regardless of who provides it. 
The equal and opposite is also true. Own your mistakes quickly, fully, and honestly. If you discovered that you weren't clear earlier in the thread say so, apologize and move on. You don't have to concede the argument (remember "winning" isn't a prize) but you do have to own your mistakes. If you realize that, in anger, or obliviousness, you have insulted or hurt your interlocutor, apologize; and don't resort to the coy "I'm sorry you were hurt" take a deep breath and go with the far more sincere "I am sorry that I did/said/implied that, I ought to have been more careful with my words". Of course sometimes (often) the whole thing will be a misunderstanding; you were using a word one way and your interlocutor was reading it in an entirely different (and maybe not very charitable) way. I once found out well into a conversation that my interlocutor had been reading my "gotcha", which I had meant as an indication that I understood the point he was making, as an announcement that I had just successfully ensnared him in a rhetorical trap. I apologized for having used an ambiguous term, granted that his interpretation made sense (it made me out to be a tad ridiculous but it was a coherent interpretation given the context) and have tried ever since to abandon the use of that word in written argumentation. Be careful about jokes as well, they can often fall prey to this sort of ambiguity, particularly if you are the sort of person who excels at dry humor.

8. Keep your integrity

This is a natural implication of #3 but I think it is also worth developing on its own. The goal of an argument about theology is to increase in love and to draw nearer to the truth (as an aside, God is Love and Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, so for any Trinitarian there can be no real conflict between Truth and Love, they are both perfect and one in the Godhead). As such, there is absolutely no room whatsoever for purposefully deployed bad arguments. This doesn't mean your argument can't be flawed, only that you have to believe that it is sound. So long as you genuinely believe it to be valid, you should deploy it in good conscience. But to knowingly deploy a flawed argument is to tell the birthright of your integrity for the pottage of a rhetorical point. In the Kingdom of God, there is no place for Machiavellianism. No matter how wrong your interlocutor, no matter how noble your cause, you cannot draw closer to the real goal if you are building your case with rotten materials. It does not matter one iota whether your interlocutor spots the hole, if you are not comfortable with the argument you have no business deploying it. 
  • Here is a link to a helpful overview of logical fallacies in case you want to check any of your standard arguments: Your Logical Fallacy Is

9. Remember that humans are complex

Everything I have been talking about has assumed the culture of debate and philosophy which was built by and for educated white men (and also some Greeks and North African men, and a lot of scholars who predate the whole concept of whiteness but whose work formed the foundation on which the men who came to think of themselves as white ultimately built their own power structures - some women also contributed but fewer than we should wish thanks to millennia of patriarchy). As such, while I (a white man) do think that theses guidelines really will be helpful in having productive and healthy arguments about theology, I would be utterly remiss if I neglected to recognize that the list is built on a presumption of the luxury of "doing" theology in relative security. Yes, white men have been martyred for their theology but the vast majority of western white, male theologians have been able to operate from a place of relative security. I don't think that I have heard this explained more powerfully than by Broderick Greer
 I descend from enslaved people. From lynched people. From racialized people. From people who took the Jesus their white enslavers introduced them to - a white Jesus happy to watch them suffer in order to maintain the proper social and economic order - and understood him not as enslaver, but as emancipator. I descend from people who created liturgical music not in grand cathedrals or impressive basilicas but on labor camps from Texas to Virginia.
Folk who cried out, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen // Nobody knows but Jesus” and “Tell old Pharaoh // Let my people go”. Folk who sang, “ And before I’d be a slave // I’ll be buried in my grave”. Folk who did not dream of a pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die, who awaited a heavenly home free from the troubles of this life. No. They expected their God to act decisively, in history, to free them from the ravages of white domestic terror. 
These were people for whom theology was more than an intellectual exercise. They did not have the comfort of ivory towers or lengthy sabbaticals. They just had each other: families and communities forged during the evil institution of African enslavement. And that’s what “powerless” people have to do: theology on the go, without books, seminary, theology on the streets, in the face of people wearing white sheets. Theology after we’ve been kicked to the corner for a perfectly holy and wholesome sexual orientation and gender expression, from the text of our very lives.
Excerpt from Theology as Survival

It would be (and far too often is) catastrophic to mistake a person who is doing theology as survival— for their basic dignity, for their inclusion in sacred communities, for their ability to exercise the gifts and calling God has given them—for a person who is doing theology for simple (yet still valuable) edification. To demand that someone doing theology of survival operate in the mode of someone doing theology "from the ivory tower"—or keyboard, would be like asking someone on fire to not to speak too loudly; "too loudly" has a very different definition when you are on fire than it does when you are arguing around the kitchen table in the bloom of health.
It is, therefore, critical to remember (if you are a straight, white, male) that when you have a theological argument, you have the privilege of having it in a space designed to your optimal specifications. It is like the old joke: 
Q: "Who would win in a fight, Kevin from Home Alone or Superman?" 
A: "How much time does Kevin have to prepare?"
When you are engaging on terrain that was built on the assumption that your culture, educational history, and gender are the definition of "normal" you should not expect people whose experience has been a different terrain with it's own "rules" and expectations to engage in the way you are accustomed to.

In that vein, I want to take a moment to extend an invitation to anybody who is reading this and is not a straight white man and who has experience with theological arguments online, to message me about putting together a guest post follow-up to this piece describing the best ways to engage in theological arguments with someone like you. What are good guidelines for arguing on your "terrain" and what are your ideas for how to have edifying, beneficial arguments about theology with one another? In the meantime, I will do my best to learn.

10. Know when to walk away

Sometimes the door must be shut
Some arguments need to be abandoned because they have become abusive, either of you or of the audience, and I want to urge you to keep both in mind. It is entirely up to you to decide when you have had enough verbal/rhetorical abuse. You are perfectly justified in leaving the instant your interlocutor resorts to an ad hominem with a simple "sorry, I don't participate in arguments where people are going to be insulting", or my preference is often to stay and allow the public abuse to spool out in the hopes that my interlocutor will recognize what he is saying, I can do that because it really doesn't hurt me that much thanks to my relatively secure situation in life and the accidents of my personality. You are free to point out insults or to ignore them (one of the beautiful things about online arguments is that if you ignore it, some observer is likely to jump in and point it out, thereby validating your concerns there are troll-slayers as well as trolls online). I should mention though that, in being public, online abuse of this nature is significantly different from physical abuse which far more frequently happens in private. Also while I have chosen to use the term "abuse" because I believe the shoe fits, insults and demeaning language within an argument are different in kind from the sort of cyber bullying and online harassment which has become a mental health crisis, particularly for middle and high school students. Do not feel in any way constrained to put up with abuse in a theological argument, you do not have to do so and there is no legitimate reason for anyone to look down on you for choosing to protect your mental, and spiritual health. 

Finally there is the audience to consider. It is not at all impossible that your interlocutor may begin to
verbally abuse those around you. If that happens I recommend walking away and if the abuse occurred in your online space (Your Facebook wall, your blog, etc...) grab a screen shot, delete the abusive comment, and inform your interlocutor that the argument is over and why. It is not impossible that this will elicit an apology (hopefully a public one to the parties who were subjected to the abuse) and if it does not, per #3 it is probably time to shut the argument down. If the argument is not taking place in one of your online spaces, then it is time to walk away with a brief explanation of why.

But all arguments, even the best ones, come to an end eventually. In the best case scenario, you and your interlocutor will realize together that the argument has played out: you have both worked back to premises you are not prepared to challenge or to question; the argument has moved beyond one or both (or all) participants' capacity to speak in love for the time being; or maybe the whole thing has become so muddled that nobody is really sure what you are arguing about anymore. Unfortunately it rarely happens that way and instead one party needs to walk away. This is particularly hard to do because letting your interlocutor (who in all likelihood "feels" more like an "opponent" just then) "win—another reason to keep #3 in mind throughout. Once you realize that the argument has reached this point, it is probably best to let your interlocutor know—politely but firmly—that you have finished arguing. If you have it in you, thank her for the discussion and give her the last word (never end a comment which contains an argument with an announcement that you are done, wait for your interlocutor to make a point and then, without challenging it, announce your departure).

I wish you the very best of arguments, and if you want to argue with any of these guidelines I want to welcome you to respond in comments. You already know my entire "playbook" so this should be fun.

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