by Ben Varnum
Recently, I’ve been seeing a number of comments on Episcopal Café posts that express frustration with how people are writing or commenting. On the one hand, this was no surprise; I’ve been a part of enough online communities to be fully familiar with terms like “trolling” (reading posts looking for a place to pick a fight), “flame-baiting” (writing something designed to provoke a strong reaction), and “sock-puppeting” (creating a one-use profile to comment on something without putting your name to it). (My personal favorite is “Rick-rolling” – putting up a link ostensibly supporting a pertinent topic, but actually linking to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Here’s an important example of its social impact)
On the other hand, internet communities form around an idea, and as internet futurist Clay Shirky explains fantastically in Here Comes Everybody, the strength of an internet community depends on what that idea is. So when I heard about “Episcopal Café,” I was awfully excited – here, surely, was a natural part of the evolution of our life as a church! An explicit spot to gather (online) and talk (electronically) about the life of a church so many people are passionate about!
But not even our online life is lived in Eden, and passion can come in many shapes and many voices. The way a high-church Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian who’s attended worship in the same rural parish with the same rector for 40 years will talk about the church she loves is going to be different from a 38-year-old who attends the praise band’s service and serves as the diocesan treasurer. Or the college student who joined because the [insert other denomination] church of his parents didn’t offer him the chance they longed for to live the gospel. Afro-American Episcopalians, First People Episcopalians, Latino Episcopalians, Korean Episcopalians, African Episcopalians, Euro-American Episcopalians – we’re all going to have different experiences of the church.
And yet . . . a café abides. And rather than cacophony, we really do sometimes find our way near harmony, near new ideas, near sharing our lives with one another . . . near being Christ’s Body the Church.
I think it’s worth using all are voices to claim ourselves and our conversation. I think it’s worth asking the question, “How shall we talk to one another?” I think it’s worth praying that God enter and enliven our conversations online as in person; that God meet us when we gather our thoughts and experiences electronically as in the flesh; that God forgive us our trespasses against those online.
My own voice happens to be, as a critique labeled a conversation I was part of recently, “long-winded and methodological.” I spent 8 years pursuing education at the University of Chicago, where the model for conversation is that everyone argues for their perspective as well as they can, in the hope that you find your way to the best answers and solutions. This serves very well in an academic setting, and it taught me to really think through why I believe what I believe, and be willing to say it. It certainly had its stumbling blocks, and it certainly had the consequence that some students seemed to confuse “find the best answers together” with “be respected for having the best answer” or “contributing the most to the best answer.” And when arguing about something important to me with someone who doesn’t talk that way, I know that there are other steps that are important: demonstrating to them that I care about their opinion. Paying attention when someone vents frustration, as a sign that something has become anxious for them. Re-stating what they’ve said to make sure they know that I heard it, even if I still don’t feel like it’s the whole story, and I’m pushing on some part of it or other.
Contemporary Catholic theologian David Tracy has some fantastic rules for conversation in a book that takes on (among other things) modern pluralistic conversation, Plurality and Ambiguity. It’s one of the only page numbers I still have memorized from my divinity school days (page 19), because I cited these rules so often.
– Say only what you mean
– Say it as accurately as you can
– listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other
– be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner
– be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it
(Tracy notes that “In a sense they are merely variations of the transcendental imperatives elegantly articulated by Bernard Lonergan: ‘Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.'”)
To me, we might also say, “In a sense they are merely variations on the baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being.
I have about two close friends that I keep in touch with from high school. One of them is a pretty convicted atheist. The other holds a spirituality that you might describe as Gaiaism. And I’ve recently become an Episcopal priest who loves the historical Christian theological tradition. Some of our best conversations have happened in cafés (all three of us bring up a certain conversation several years ago under a brown line stop on Chicago’s north side when one of us visited the city). But we got mad, we disagreed, we misunderstood one another profoundly. But we also laughed, and loved, and learned about each other. We stayed in the conversation and did one another the service of caring enough to try to listen even when we felt surprised or hurt by what had been said. And that conversation (and others like it) have deepened that friendship.
I hope this essay can push for us to claim our desire to be in conversation with one another, and remind us that to be the Church anywhere – even on the internet – is to seek to be guided by the life and example of Christ. If the cross to take up and carry here is to listen to the pains or the wonderings of others who care about the church, and to bring into the conversation both my strongest voice and my greatest compassion, then truly that will be an easy yoke and a light burden.
The Reverend Ben Varnum serves as Assistant Rector for a parish in the Diocese of Kansas. His training includes a Master’s of Divinity from The Divinity School at the University of Chicago and a Clinical Pastoral Education residency at Rush University Medical Center. He keeps a very-occasional blog at Root Weaving