Where to begin?

I’m not entirely sure I know how to do what I’ve agreed to do as a contributor to the CMT Blog.

Regular reading and commenting on blog posts has had virtually no place in my life since graduate school. As for the writing of blog posts—about 12 years ago I experimented for about six months with theological blogging, under a variety of pseudonyms. I did not enjoy the experience. Ultimately, it felt as if I was pouring out time, emotional reserves, and my best ideas into an ocean of indifference. Beyond those costs, the project of managing and maintaining an online profile translated into narcissistic preoccupations that were bad for my soul. So, I stopped.

I don’t know how to be good as I do what I’ve agreed to do as a contributor to the CMT Blog. Blogging as a moral act. In a way, my practical preoccupations, speculative worries, and professional hesitation about theological blogs are similar to what was artfully expressed years ago by Jana Bennett, David Cloutier, Emily Reimer-Berry, and Dana Dillon. And, more recently, Cloutier again. But there is something else—which I discuss below.

I don’t have any principled objection to blogging as a medium for Christian theological discourse. I simply do not know how to do it well, under my own name, and in a way that is Christian. Nevertheless, I heartily endorse the mission of the CMT Blog and I’m willing to give this another try.

I am reminded of a question—which was more of a comment—that my friend posed in my general direction about fifteen years ago, “how do you know what to do with your hands when you’re chatting with a group of people?” I’ll call him “Paul” (he is an actual person, although we haven’t spoken in over a decade). Paul and I were approaching the end of our first year of graduate school and the question, although uttered with a wide grin, was mostly serious. Paul was very shy and he seemed to think that I might have something to say about the high art of conversational gestures.

Writing this first post for the CMT blog reminds me of that question from my friend Paul. How do you learn to use your hands during a conversation? How do you learn to write blog posts on Catholic moral theology? The process of learning to stammer with style helps me think about both. Allow me to explain.

When it came to libraries and lunch breaks, Paul and I were creatures of habit. About the same time every day, we walked to the same campus deli and talked about the kind of things that preoccupy first-year theology students. On the particular day just mentioned, Paul was trying to remember what he did with his hands during casual conversation before he noticed that he didn’t know what to do with his hands.

I remember that we both stared at my hands and the brown napkin I’d twisted into a rope. I felt the intoxicating role of being both mentor and expert wash over me. And, yet, I didn’t know what to say—it was as if simply raising the question undermined my ability to think clearly about how I use my hands when I speak.

Similar to self-consciousness about conversational gestures, it seems to me that theological discourse in the blog genre has a tendency toward empty, navel-gazing exchanges and the stoking of personal pretensions—and this is especially true when the public performance of the writing (or speaking) takes precedence over the ideas being communicated.

The “blog” is less of a literary genre and more akin to performance art. The act of broadcasting a bit of text and the exercise of managing the public discourse around the text are part of the message. Like stage craft, cultivated pretense is integral to writing in the blog genre. This worries me when the task is theological blogging, insofar as the cultivated pretense of having no pretense is how Henry Frankfurt defines “bullshit” (see “On Bullshit”)—and why Frankfurt concludes that the bullshit of the bullshiter is a greater threat to truth than the lies of the liar.

Writing a blog post is more like a personal diary than a journalistic enterprise; it’s more like sharing classroom notes than sharing the fruits of thoughtfully digested research; it’s closer to youtube info-tainment than classroom instruction; it’s closer to standup comedy than it is to a pastoral homily. In principle, none of these characteristics disqualify the blog post as a medium for theological discourse. However, grappling with the genre (Andrew Sullivan, “Why I Blog”), the self-conscious and self-centered authorial voice it cultivates (Richard Gilbert, “Learning the Blogging Genre”), and the limitations of the medium (Esmé Wang, “Blogging is a Genre”) seems integral to the responsible writing of a theological blog post.

As Wang writes, the blog genre presses one to “be helpful, be amusing, be brief. Be easy to read. Be simple.” All good advice. However, in my experience, when the goal is truth, theology that is helpful, amusing, concise, readable, and cast with elegant simplicity is absolutely the most difficult kind of writing to perform.

Now, if this was a different type of writing, I would unpack my “performance art” analogy and argue my point about truth and pretense even further. But this is a blog post, so I’ll move on, according to the form:

Here is what my friend Paul didn’t know about my conversational gestures: I’m usually so focused on managing my stammer that my hands are the furthest thing from my mind. In my own case (and every case is different), when I feel the block on my tongue, my trick involves saying “sometimes I stutter,” closing my eyes, and describing a mental picture of whatever I’m trying to communicate. My hands follow the picture in my mind, which means I don’t really think about my hands—they simply draw the shapes and distinctions that help me find the free-flow of words through my stammer.

Because my goal in speaking is generally clear (aspiring to communicate my best understanding of the way things are), matters of style resolve themselves and are even enhanced when faced with an impediment.

Here is what I don’t know when it comes to writing blog posts about Catholic moral theology: it is presently unclear to me how to define the purpose or goal of theological blog posting. Blog posting as a moral act. And because the goal is not clear to me, I don’t know how to be good as I do what I’ve agreed to do as a contributor to the CMT Blog.

Beyond the practical preoccupations, speculative worries, and professional hesitations noted above, my present concern is more like the question from my friend Paul. His was an ordinary question that ordinary people think about on occasion, but it’s the kind of question that is only uttered out loud as a speculative prompt or disclosed in a desperate whisper.

I’m not entirely sure I understand how to think and write theologically according to the “blog” genre and in a way that is good for my soul. I have some comfort with writing theologically as a scholar, as an instructor, for conferences, and through ordinary correspondence. However, the humbling and somewhat humiliating entailments of trying to write theologically in the blog genre have me tied into a knot. I think David Cloutier gets it right when he discusses the circumstances, the motivations, and the worthy ends mapped in the CMT mission in his post titled “Theology in the Blogosphere: How to Be Humbled.

What is unclear to me is how to undertake that kind of work without cultivating a pretense of having no pretense. To do it well, I suppose, will involve a process of learning to manage the stammer I feel in my theological voice when I try to write a blog post. In my case (and every case is different), it would need to begin with the admission that I’m not entirely sure I know how to do what I’ve agreed to do as a contributor to the CMT Blog.