We’ve been blogging for five years, more or less. In honor of that five years, I offer here five benefits of doing theology online, along with the flip side – the pitfalls of those benefits. (If you’re interested in having a face-to-face conversation about doing theology online, a few CMT-ers will be at the College Theology Society this weekend, along with our friends at Daily Theology! Come join us – and see Stephen Okey’s piece discussing theology online and Pope Francis’ call to mercy – “Troll Lege“.)
Friends – While people bash Facebook’s “Friend” category for not providing a thick enough understanding of friends, writing online is a great way to maintain a conversation and keep a friendship going. Granted, it’s not the same as a face-to-face, but it sure beats waiting a year or more where all of us can be at the same conference and have interesting conversations.
The pitfall is that online alone is insufficient. While we have all appreciated meeting new people and expanding our circles, we have noticed that maintaining good online conversations requires a chance to know each other offline too. We all started as like minded friends who knew each other face-to-face first, and I think readers might recognize the differences in conversations from those first few years to now. As people have left, and the blog has expanded, we’ve found it harder, sometimes to keep the conversations going. When some of us met in January at the Society of Christian Ethics, we talked about the value of meeting face-to-face and lamented that it doesn’t happen as often as it used to.
It’s Public – Writing in this space is public theology, which is exhilarating and scary at the same time. Sometimes we get correspondence from people directly impacted by our posts, who found what we say not only thought-provoking, but helpful for their faith. I think many theologians have felt the concern of being too much in the ivory tower, too much focused on the minutiae of our institutions. The blog is a place to say things that reach a wider audience – and sometimes, too, our writing for the blog has meant that we’ve also become public spokespersons at other news outlets.
But of course, due to the blog, some of us have had threats. “Public” can be TOO public. And when, as can happen with the quick kind of writing that blogging is, I say something I wish I hadn’t said, forgiveness can be hard to find among the tough internet crowd. Plus, we are all too aware of watchdog sites waiting for missteps…. here’s where Stephen Okey’s point about mercy (in his blog linked above) is really helpful.
It’s not academic, but it is, but it’s not, but it IS – Those of us who write here do so for a variety of reasons, but one of them is surely because this is one of our linguistic habitats and we’re trying to reach out to others who share that language and way of interacting with the world. While many of us are not “digital natives” in the technical sense of the term, many of us grew up with online space, and computer technology, as always a possibility. (I still remember going to the computer lab in kindergarten and learning beginning code….) We who are theologians happen also to want to talk theology online – how can we not? Theology is a way of life!
Still, none of us at this blog get paid to do it. As an independent blog, we don’t carry the reach of major news blogs. Most of our institutions don’t recognize what we do as academic – or even theology. It makes it hard to keep on writing, and readers can be painfully aware of the gaps in our writing! Believe me, most of us wish we had more time too!
Community Bubble – “Bubble” isn’t a good term, most of the time. Yet the benefit of being in a bubble is that you can be very intense and very focused on the particular people and tasks in front of you. Universities are bubbles to a large extent – as are most close-quarter institutions, like the military, family, prisons, and so on. I would not be able to do theology most of the time if I weren’t in a bubbly environment, this blog included.
Online space is pretty bubbly too, as we know from Eli Pariser’s “online filter bubble” and newsfeed algorithms that work to show us only those links we are likely to ‘like’. That’s a large problem, since it means we are cut off from (or cut ourselves off from) “the other side.” In our blog’s case, we work hard to try to overcome the common dichotomy among Catholics: liberal/conservative. But I don’t think we do a good enough job. I’m not at all sure how to overcome it either.
Habits of Christian life – Intellectual virtues are deeply a part of Christian life, and I think I learn some of those habits here. I actually learn stuff doing this; sometimes that stuff is even about God. We have lectionary posts in part because we know that scripture is integral to doing theology, and I learn from those posts. I learn also from my friends, from the commenters, from the links. In order to write good blog posts, I usually need to do a whole lot of additional research and reading.
The other virtues are supported too, though less visibly. Sometimes pieces are so prayer-provoking (Syria) that the writing or reading becomes an indelible part of my prayer. Sometimes a piece calls me to acts of mercy and charity. Sometimes pieces call me toward contemplation.
Of course, it is entirely possible to be habituated to vices as well, and there is no shortage of those on the internet- including questions about pornography and technology itself.
I am grateful to all those – contributors, commenters, readers, and face-to-face supporters – who are part of this work. Knowing both benefits and pitfalls should, I hope, spur us to be better.
Jana, you wrote…
“As people have left, and the blog has expanded, we’ve found it harder, sometimes to keep the conversations going.”
Speaking only for this reader, it’s never been clear that the editors of this blog want conversations to happen here. You have the comment feature enabled, but you so rarely use it. Personally, I don’t consider a list of sermons to be engagement.
I get why contributors might not engage an outsider such as myself because my comments have typically been pretty far outside the group consensus, and I have no theological training. I’m interested, but don’t really fit in, that makes sense to me.
But contributors don’t use this blog to engage each other very often, hardly ever. I admit I find that confusing, and it leaves me puzzled as to the purpose of this site. There is some fine writing and thinking here, but without engagement how do you know anyone is actually reading it? Without such knowledge, where do you find the motivation to keep on posting?
To me, just one reader, this blog represents a microcosm of all that is both wonderful and sad about modern Catholicism in the West. It’s very educated, intelligent, articulate, thoughtful and well intended, and yet somehow lifeless.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s entirely possible to inject some much needed energy in to this blog, and convert an exchange of scripted sermons in to real human dialog. Doing so doesn’t require opening the floor to everybody on the Internet. But it would require a real interest in having real conversations. Where there’s a will there’s a way, as the saying goes.
Hope this is somehow helpful.