Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 27th, 2016 by Joel Watts

The Digital Revolution requires Digital Theology

Can we use the digital age to increase participation in orthodoxy? Digital theology needs to be examined and built in order to do so.1

Introduction

Why are theological dilettantes given theological space on the internet when, generally, they would be denied such places on actual stages? I’m not just speaking about “progressive” Methodists, but a whole host of “blogalogians” like Ken Ham along with a vast array of fundamentalists who once existed in isolated anti-intellectual hamlets but have now found their way to Youtube, Blogs, and into the likeminded-considerations of pastors, preachers, and laypeople. Why, when we are in an age of over-abundance of information and access to fact and opinion, do we find those with little regard for actual truthfulness carrying the minds of the Christian (generally Protestant) masses?

I will offer one suggestion. Because they offer a theology of participation more so than the theology offered by orthodox Christian theologians. Participation does not equal truth, but it does command draw. Historically, orthodoxy drew participation because it was at once stabilizing, anti-Empire, intellectual, and reached the masses. It caused Christians to excel past their states of birth, to learn, to explore, and to reach God in Christ. We have turned orthodoxy into a non-participatory event, and in doing so, we have lost the initiative.

Indeed, some would consider orthodoxy as a closed-circuit of information. Rather, orthodoxy is a supernaturalist mystery, wherein we are still asking God to reveal something to us, but knowing that God will never reveal anything contrary to what has gone on before. Christian orthodoxy is participatory because it contains a non-hegemonic myriad of voices, across geography, time, and ethnicity. Further, because we believe God is still working, we are required to be receptive and to work to hearing God more fully.

Participation Required

digital theology

Via Matt Stone, http://mattstone.blogs.com

Before I continue, let me define a few words. First, participation is the dual act of doctrine and person. It is at once what doctrine does in and to a person as well as what a person does in and to doctrine. This is the act of making theology itself a welcoming act, rather than a stop sign. What does “welcome” mean? We must welcome questions, different voices, and even correction. Further, a welcome is not merely for the head, but likewise for the heart and for the feet. Or, theology must not simply be a thought process, but likewise made to incorporate a person’s compassion and serve to give a person a goal. Finally, a welcome includes those with different ideas and different expressions.

Note, this is not the same thing as suggesting we give a place for heretical expression within the orthodox framework, but there are plenty of spaces within Christian history that one generation’s orthodoxy became another generation’s heterodoxy (Compare St. Athanasius and the Chalcedonian formula, for instance). This only points to the progressive notion of doctrine, that we continue to grow within the Christian Tradition. We must always been willing to change, but never break with our past, so that change ceases to be a refinement and instead becomes a revolution. Rather, what I do suggest is that we consider the journey in theological expression much like orthodoxy itself, a process.

I have repeated this story more than once, but I want to repeat it again so as to give a real-life context to my suggestion above. When I left the extreme fundamentalism of most of my life (childhood as well as adult), I began to attend a local congregation of The United Methodist Church. I refused much of what was considered orthodox doctrine, including the Trinity. When I approached the senior pastor of that congregation regarding such matters, his answer was simple, “The United Methodist Church does not require you to think a certain way, only to think.” This is a great deal of difference between this view and the view of our Reformed friends who have great confessions of faith that are measurements of membership, even of laity. I am not opposed to confessions of faith; however, we have seen them used in Calvinist schools to dismiss scholars who interpret differently, specifically in regards to inerrancy and creationism (neither of which are historic orthodox doctrines). Further, we have seen the reemergence of the school of thought that suggests doctrines and theology do not matter (albeit, this in of itself is a doctrine). Neither path is correct, leading only to the same form of mental gymnastics. The only real balance here the requirement to think.

But, does orthodox theology require you to think? Any survey of the almost 2000 years of literature shows that it does. Further, a real survey of it shows that the cognitive process never stopped, but only kept going. This is why we have authors reimaging theology and philosophy long after the 4th century. When Christianity met new obstacles, new thinkers were born. When the East fell under Islamic occupation, perhaps the greatest theological thinker of the time, if not all Christianity, was born. St. John of Damascus found a new way to offer participation.

Only recently have we begun to see that the requirement for participatory theology end. Rather than being told to think, Christians of all theological persuasions, are now told not to think. From one side, we are told not to think about science, natural law/theology, and reforming our languishing minds. On the other, we are told that doctrines and theological interpretations do not matter — and we are usually told this by people with firm theological positions of their own.

As Tillich said, our reasoning about God is indispensable to our human nature. “If taken in the broadest sense of the term, theology, the logos or the reasoning about theos (God and divine things) is as old as religion. Thinking pervades all the spiritual activities of man (sic). Man would not be spiritual without words, thoughts, and concepts.”2 To be spiritual in any meaningful sense is to be theological.

To be like Jesus is to be theological. If we take the New Testament in any form as connected to the historical person of Jesus and the movement he beget, we must agree with Richard Niebuhr that Jesus “is a person with definite teachings, a definitive character, and a definitive faith.”3 We cannot simply suggest “Jesus said X” and fail to understand that we have stated a theological position. Thus, theology is rooted in who we are as Christians, because it was rooted in those who told the story of Jesus – and it was rooted in the historical person of Jesus.

But, is theology free from our cultural experience? Absolutely not. This does not mean, however, that theology is at the whim of the prevailing culture. Rather, that when we come to the theological platform, we must be cognizant of our own paradigmatic assertions. This is, as well, a step in participation. We cannot disavow anyone from participating in Christian theology simply because they lack the same cultural refinements as we do. Nor should we suggest that the dominant culture lacks a theological voice simply because they do not appear to be marginalized. Our assumptions about another will prevent their participation as well as our reflection.

Indeed, one of the greatest advancements in modernity is the recognition of privilege, that place of occupation that is seemingly without control and able to exert undue influence. Even in the democratic and market-driven arena of online media, there is a place of privilege afforded certain individuals and certain theological stances that prevent participation. I would suggest that the underlying power in privilege really comes down to preventing participation.

Online media — such as blogging, Facebook, and Twitter — can, has, and must open up the door in combatting privileged positions as well as creating a new privileged class, such as progressives. The digital revolution offers at once participation and reflection because it is market driven, allows for almost anyone to participate via the numerous free or inexpensive ways, and because no one is held accountable. This is not exactly the same context as the one in which the Gospel was first established, but it is similar.

Similar Contexts

As Horsfield points out, “Following the death of Jesus, the first Christians communicated their new insights in the streets, market places, and temples through making public speeches, declaring prophecies, recounting dreams and visions, and integrating their new ideas with re-interpretations of old scripture passages and believes” (248). This provided not only immediacy, but participation. Because it appealed to all areas of society, from the literate to the marginalized, the theologizing of the early Church was done by a uniting of the diverse groups.

If we step out of the sociological approach, we may suggest that the Spirit gave voice to all so that all may listen.

The contexts of the new followers adapted to the historical Jesus. As I have stated in my book on Mark, the evangelist reframed the story of Jesus so as to present a living Jesus who is (present tense), rather than a Jesus who did (past tense). This hidden transcript allowed for an insider/outsider status to not only remain, but to be used to tell and retell the story in public so that what was heard, was not the intent. Whereas St. Paul offered his own reflection and his own participation based on the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Evangelists added to this. They themselves participated in the expansion of the Jesus story, based on Paul. It was not until later, with such stories like we see in Thomas, that the participation was refracted to focus on a similar but different literature lineage. Participation did not stop — otherwise, we would have John’s Gospel and Revelation, nor 2 Peter – but it was guided to focus on the story of Jesus that promoted wider participation. I would argue that the Gnostic strains of Christianity developed in the 2nd century actually prevented participation.

Let me return to the expansion of sources in early Christianity. They worked within the realm of a set boundary. They had the Jewish Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ. While they may have refined and added to the story of Jesus, transforming the Jewish Scriptures into the Old Testament, they did so with the understanding of revelation, which they consistently said was done. Indeed, this is the thesis of the Epistle to the Hebrews — that God once spoke to us by the prophets… that we have the Scriptures… but now He speaks to us by a Song…and the Spirit speaks to us through the Scriptures. Even this did not prevent participation as we have seen through the development of the Canon as well as the Great Tradition including Creeds and Councils.

What about Christianity required participation? First, there is the novelty of it while insisting it was not new. Second, it was the focus on the inclusion of Gentiles. Because of this new theologizing, making use of the Jewish Scriptures and Gentile culture was required. What emerged was a culture creating and dependent upon literary theological existence. Because it was in hand rather than on the tongue, this spurred even further participation (even though only a few could own books). As one can imagine, the invention of the printing press exploded the world of Christian participation. There is much to be said about the participation produced by oral tradition as well, but this is not yet the place for that.

These books, then, are where we are now. Where once Christians had the book of nature, they were given the book of Scripture as well. All of this was interpreted by (oral) tradition. Now, however, we have what Horsfield calls “a moderate diversity of books.” This is an important concept because no longer are we limited to a few print books — this, met with challenges, is unlikely to change — but we have at our fingertips a plethora of resources where we can interact with and in many cases, expect the product to change. To understand this, all we have to do is to consider what it would take to change a print book versus that of changing, say, a blog post or deleting a Facebook status. A print book has come to limit participation where once it opened the doors to such interaction. Digital media, on the other hand, has swung open the gate and let the hordes of fans, trolls, and all others sweep past us to sit on the judgment seat. This, in many ways, is the new form of participation.

These two images are not the same, however. Walter Ong identified: “There is, indeed, no way for a cry to completely exteriorize itself. A mark made by our hand will remain when we are gone. But when the interior—even the physical, corporeal interior, as well as the spiritual interior of consciousness—from which a cry is emitted ceases to function as an interior, the cry itself has perished. To apprehend what a person has produced in space—a bit of writing, a picture—is not at all to be sure that he is alive. To hear his voice (provided it is not reproduced from a frozen spatial design on a phonograph disc or tape) is to be sure.”4 In one (print), we have one that will last while in another (digital media), we have a specific reminder that the person is alive.

Conclusion:

Orthodoxy must come to terms with the digital revolution, working towards a digital theology. If, as we have seen, theology is best when it requires participation and that we have a communication medium allowing for almost immediate participation, then we must have digital theologians. Traditionally, a theologian will work towards print, not establishing any particular notion, so much as re-establishing or refining. They do so within the framework and authoritarian sway of their particular denomination or faith tradition. They become something like forbidding guardians of the faith rather than teachers, that is, proponents of our tradition. The image of the guardian of the faith is pointed — their faith is under attack and it must be defended. Apologetics has become a cottage industry. Rather than real theology, we seek to defend Christianity by well crafted and/or/if/then statements. We are no longer going into all the world, but waiting to see what happens next. In the digital revolution, this mentality is failing us as more and more people seek to find answers via Google.

I cannot fail to note again that the reason we see so many unorthodox and anti-orthodox groups emerge is exactly because they required and demand participation, even if in appearance only. Indeed, doctrinal hedonism, even if practiced individually, looks like massive participation. What is needed are those who engage the public, the seekers, and everyone. This engagement must create a space for participation, so that orthodoxy invites once again.

  1. I am clearing out older posts that went nowhere. I never finished this one, but it is something I would urge people to strongly consider. Maybe it went nowhere for a reason. It is barely edited. Good luck.
  2. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 15 .
  3. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 12–13.
  4. Ong, The Barbarian Within, and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies, 28 (1962)
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

3 Responses to “The Digital Revolution requires Digital Theology”
  1. Might as well mention,
    App Store, UMC Conference 2016.
    Free. Blow by blow (I hope not), reporting.

  2. I am glad you reposted this. You have given me some things to ponder for what to do in retirement. Also, I like the way explained orthodoxy in the terms of the progressive.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: