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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Rules of Engagement for Online Theological Discussions

Most people who engage in online theological discussions do so because they are passionate about theology, believing the issues they discuss to be of eternal significance. Theological commitments are deep-rooted and emotions run high when they are challenged. Over nearly two decades of observing and participating in online theological discussions, I've found that they very often become rancorous. Such discussions reflect badly on the Christian religion and are of little edifying value. However, I have seen instances where people who passionately disagree in their theology are able to do so with civility and goodwill, serving the cause of unity and peace even when disagreements are not resolved.1

I confess that I personally have often fallen short of the mark in the way I've conducted myself in online theological discussions. With a view to personal growth and more productive and edifying discussions, I've come up with twelve rules of engagement. (I've written these rules myself but did take some ideas from other sets of rules I found on the web.2) First and foremost, they represent a standard to which I commit myself going forward. However, I also call on potential dialogue partners to commit to the same standard when entering into an online theological discussion with me, whether on this blog, on Facebook, or in a web discussion forum.

Here goes:
  1. Jesus and the apostles passed dogmatic judgments on the character and eternal destiny of their opponents. In the context of online discussions, I relinquish any claim to the moral authority that enabled them to do so. Rather, I will always assume my interlocutor's honesty, sincerity, intelligence and general virtue, and will refrain from accusations and insinuations targeting the character or motives of my interlocutor, or the moral quality of his or her actions and words.

  2. I will avoid the condescending practice of accusing my interlocutor of committing a logical fallacy, unless I am certain there is no other way to express why I find his or her argument unconvincing.

  3. I will avoid having a discussion about the discussion, remaining focused on the issue at hand as far as possible.

  4. I will avoid introducing unrelated topics or reintroducing past topics of discussion that distract from the issue at hand.

  5. I will take care to accurately represent my interlocutor's viewpoint, and avoid careless extrapolations and generalizations thereof.

  6. I will seek common ground and try to build relationship with my interlocutor.

  7. I will not be hyper-critical but will be quick to acknowledge goodness in my interlocutor's position and merit in his or her argument. In the same vein, I will be self-critical by readily acknowledging weaknesses and limitations in my own position and argument.

  8. I will avoid straightforward identification of my opinions with truth and my interlocutor's with falsehood. I will instead use the qualified language of academic discourse. Contrast "Your interpretation is obviously wrong" with, "I don't find that interpretation convincing."

  9. I will freely make use of humour and wit that is neutral or, better yet, self-deprecating. I will, however, refrain from anything that could be construed as mocking or insulting my interlocutor, his viewpoint, or his ecclesiastical tradition. This would include words, memes, emoji's, etc. that are sarcastic, satirical, derogatory or vulgar.

  10. I will seek to exemplify the virtues of humility, charity and respect throughout the discussion.

  11. I will make unity and truth the goals of the discussion and will subordinate my own interests and desire for vindication to these ends.

  12. These rules are to be self-policed. Accordingly, I will not cite them in order to accuse my interlocutor of hypocrisy (see rule 1).
That's it! Note: I reserve the right to edit or add to these rules at a later stage.

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