I’d like to ask a question—can profitable discussion on a theological issue actually happen on Facebook?
I had an experience recently where someone took offense because they felt I was commenting too much on their theologically oriented wall post. But the determination of “too much” was based on his purely subjective notion of how much commenting on his post was appropriate. Now I’ll admit — after he posted a critique of a theological “meme” (i.e., statement) I was quite dogged in asking him to provide the reasoning behind his several assertions about it. He declined to do so, which of course, is his prerogative. On the other hand, it was also my prerogative to continue to comment and engage with others in the discussion, which is what I did. But this seemed to disturb him.
I chose to comment on this particular post because it touched on God’s sovereignty, a theological issue I think extremely important and practical for believers. In declining to respond to my request for explanation of his argument, one reason he gave is that Facebook is not a conducive forum (for intelligent debate).
Well, in one sense he may be right. The Facebook feed comes at you with many random streams of data. Perhaps for many of us the experience of being in FB is like watching TV while flipping through channels– one is just looking for passive, mindless entertainment. Yet we can choose to focus our attention, can’t we, even while in Facebook?
Now it’s true Facebook discussions can be utterly worthless and a waste of time when the participants simply talk past one another. We see this all the time. But, especially among Christians talking theology, I don’t see why civil, gracious, intelligent, even fruitful discussion may not occur, if we actually take time to hear one another out and respectfully present our arguments. Of course, because Christians are sinful human beings, discussion may devolve from noble passion to fleshly, ignoble heat. Yet as long as folks refrain from personal attacks, imputation of bad motives, and maintain focus on the issues at hand, giving each other some grace, I think discussions can stay on track. We may even learn from them.
I have been involved in debates both good and bad. In bad ones (and for me these seem to occur more often on Facebook) folks seem impatient with the process of discussion/argument itself– thus they neglect thoughtful responses and are very reactive (I’ve been guilty of this myself, as I’m sure many of us have). Also it seems some want to state their opinion just as a soundbite (perhaps related to the ephemeral nature of Facebook?), but are not prepared (nor seemingly interested) to defend their view/opinion against possible objections.
I’ve also participated in more interesting and productive online theological “debates” (over at the Theologica forum, for example). I believe the difference between good and bad theological discussions relates in part to whether participants are confident enough in their own position to open the floor to debate and allow various sides to present their respective cases. Sure, maybe 9 times out of 10, such debates end with folks remaining firmly convinced of the truth of their own original position, but at least those participating and/or “listening in” can examine the reasoning and arguments of all the positions and form their own conclusions. In this way, I think such dialogue may be beneficial. Also, when one has to defend one’s position, it challenges you to think more deeply on it, if only to be able to articulate the reasons for one’s stand and to answer objections. This can surely sharpen one’s thinking. Debate isn’t necessarily bad (as some tend to think); if handled well, it can be educational, even edifying. Though not necessarily easy, I think fruitful theological debate is do-able. It’s a shame we don’t often achieve it.
Going back to my recent experience, again I own up to the fact that I was very insistent on continuing the discussion even after the originator of the post said he did not want to engage further with me. I was so eager to make a persuasive case that Gods’ sovereignty is a crucial, foundational and practical truth in the believer’s life, one that can help us even as we try to make sense of all the bad and evil things that happen in a fallen world. So I pressed on in the discussion, with the thought I would interact with others who were also commenting. Was continuing like this a breach of commenting etiquette? I don’t know. But I would also ask, if one is not interested in the give and take required for a theological dialogue to be productive and/or educational, then why initiate a discussion in a public forum?