I have noticed an interesting thing happening over the last few years, among those of us in the blogosphere, and that is “blog-level” ecumenism. Hmm, in good academic fashion, I think I just coined a term (actually I used the same term in a previous post I am re-posting later).
At any rate, I am amazed how open, honest, and friendly (yet also feisty and sometimes nasty) blog-level discussions about religion can be. Sure, we have the occasional trolls who show up just to cause trouble, but for the most part we are engaged in discussing issues that more formal dialogues have failed to really address, and we include folks in the conversation that may be off the radar of those doing ecumenism at higher levels. What is happening in the blogworld is a new kind of ecumenical contact, even if we don’t initially recognize it as such.
As a refresher, Catholics believe ecumenism has a twofold purpose: dialogue and evangelization. According to Dominus Iesus, inter-religious dialogue is a part of the Church’s mission of evangelization (22). In other words, Catholics believe that we genuinely are to engage other faiths, and even learn from them, but also teach them about Christ. For more information on the post-Vatican II Catholic understanding of ecumenism, I suggest reading Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), Lumen Gentium (1964), Nostra Aetate (1965), Redemptoris Missio (1990), Ut Unum Sint (1995), and Dominus Iesus (2000).
Now, back to blog-level ecumenism: by “blog-level” ecumenism I mean informal and more formal discussions about religion on blogs, forums, and even podcasts. I am referring to common associations, group blogs, and forums (Blogs for Life, etc), and basically any way religious people interact through the internet. For example, look at the commenters here, and at other blogs. Over at Titus One Nine Anglicans, Baptists, Orthodox, Catholics, Non-denominational Christians, Pentecostals, Reformed, and many more, regularly interact with one another, and most even come back after fairly sharp disagreement. Note that I am assuming something substantial is happening here, and that all of our discussions, posts, conversations, and linking to each other actually serve a higher purpose in bringing us to some type of greater unity in Christ (see John 17). While I am by no means suggesting this is a new ecumenical system that deserves to be turned into a thesis, I think there is definitely something to our regular interactions. Let me throw out a few principles of blog-level ecumenism that I have noticed.
1. Blog-level ecumenism lacks a bureaucracy – This isn’t the United Nations or World Council of Churches. There are no bureaucrats afraid of losing jobs or those who theorize about ecumenism more than they actually do it. Well, there may be a few of these in the blogworld I am sure (and it does take all kinds), but their voices are mixed in with folks from all backgrounds. I am not putting down official ecumenical efforts mind you, but I do think that the effectiveness of the WCC is seriously hindered by its bureaucratic (and leftist) nature.
2. People of all backgrounds are involved in blog-level ecumenism- Typically it is the mainlines, the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Churches that are especially active in ecumenical work, and debates still exist in these churches as to the value of ecumenism. Unfortunately, the fastest growing forms of Christianity tend to get left out of official ecumenical efforts for a variety of reasons, partly because many distrust ecumenism (or at least the way it has been carried out in the past), or because those involved in formal ecumenical efforts don’t consider newer denominations to be legitimate, because of their conservatism or charismatic nature. However, this is not true with blog-level ecumenism. Anybody with a blog that accepts comments can be involved, whether they know it or not.
Since establishing Per Christum, our forums, and our Paltalk rooms, we have come into contact with thousands of Christians from many different denominations, some larger and older (Lutheran, Orthodox, Anglican, etc), some smaller, newer, and even “unofficial” (Messianic, Adventist off-shoots, “non-denominational). This is, in my estimation, ecumenism at its fullest because truly anybody can be involved. You don’t need an ecumenical officer or even another parish nearby to participate, you just need an internet connection and a few ideas.
3. Blog-Level ecumenism is generally diverse – Most bloggers are not academics or even ordained (although some are), but folks of diverse backgrounds who attempt to accurately represent their faith through dedication, commitment, and love of knowledge. In other words, they are everyday believers who regularly engage and work with other Christians (and even non-Christians), whether they actually believe in ecumenism or not. While official ecumenical efforts may be in the hands of professors or clergy, or perhaps a few other laity, all kinds of people participate in blog-level ecumenism. In a sense, everybody gets a voice, which means that a variety of experiences and life situations are regularly represented. Also, folks representing different perspectives within different churches are represented, contributing to the diversity. In the case of mainline bloggers, you have folks from all sides represented, meaning that you truly get an understanding of what is happening in each church. Without blogs, Episcopalians would likely have few places to go to find out what the “opposition” thinks about recent developments in that denomination.
4. Blog-Level ecumenism tends to give traditional religious persons a voice – I find that most bloggers are pretty traditional, i.e. accurately representing their traditions, although not all bloggers are. This conservatism could be a function of the conservative nature of younger Christians who use the internet. Regardless, most Catholic bloggers seem to be loyal to the magisterium (check out St. Blog’s for instance), and most Protestants seem proud to be in their traditions, rather than apologizing for them. For instance, Lutheran bloggers seem to really like Luther, and Calvinist bloggers have a strong fondness for Calvin.
Basically, in the blogworld, we get a real chance to actually engage Christians who accurately represent their respective churches. Why does this matter? First, it means you are getting an accurate picture of a particular faith. Second, honest and open discussion often results, even if the discourse is not as polite as that in more official settings. What I mean is that when I discuss something with friends, I actually prefer that they honestly tell me what they believe, and if we disagree, fine, because we can still remain friends and continue the discussion. If we both were to agree to some kind of nebulous middle that really didn’t accurately represent anything, what would be the point of even having a discussion? What would we learn from that? I would much rather have dialogue with an opinionated evangelical than someone who can only speak in nebulous doublespeak just to agree with me for an hour. Of course, other bloggers may disagree with my preferences, and actually prefer to find a less controversial middle ground, and this is ok, because such is the diverse nature of blog-level ecumenism.
5. Blog-level ecumenism is the future – This is a bold claim, yes, but I believe it is true. While I believe “formal” dialogue serves a purpose, ground-level discussions and cooperation seem to be very effective. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, high-level ecumenism is not nearly as comprehensive or inclusive as ground-level ecumenism. For instance, I know of a Baptist church, non-denominational church and Catholic parish that work together to help the poor locally, but these three churches are not in any “official” dialogue, nor will they likely ever be. This effect can be seen on blogs as well. Individuals are able to interact with such a variety of folks online, that is not likely to be duplicated “in person.” As more and more folks start blogs and journals, contact among different religions and Christian denominations is only likely to increase. If we approach this with a purpose, to move toward greater understanding, greater cooperation, and perhaps eventual unity, we will be better off.
6. Blogs offer a chance for us to come into contact with hostile individuals – I suppose not many folks would consider this a positive thing, but I think it is. Let me ask, “can you have ecumenical relations with someone if they don’t want relations with you.” Sadly, in official ecumenism you can’t. I suppose the Swiss Guard could theoretically kidnap that non-denominational pastor who hates Catholics and drag him to dialogue, bound and gagged, squirming in the pope mobile, but it wouldn’t produce much fruit. However, due to the nature of blogs, you can actually enter into some type of dialogue with those who aren’t open to it. Sure, at the start of hostile dialogue it may be like engaging a coyote who hasn’t eaten in two weeks, but over time, relationships may be built and attitudes softened. Even if not, at least perhaps both sides learned something.
7. Blogs offer a chance to form associations and work on common projects – If I wanted to start an ecumenical pro-life group in my area, I may get decent participation, or it may be a bust. However, imagine if you start something like this online. Instead of twenty people from 5 churches working together, you could have thousands from hundreds of churches working together. The Internet offers a great chance for networking and information dissemination that may not exist locally, not to mention including the widest representation of denominations possible.
Now, you may have a few objections, and so do I. I am throwing out some ideas here, not suggesting I am heralding the new direction of ecumenism. So here are a few objections I came up with:
1. Come on David, people on the blogworld hate each other, and fight, and fight for converts. How is this ecumenism?? – This is all true…but isn’t this how a lot of people really are? Are we suggesting that we cannot enter dialogue with those who might be a little grumpy or strong-willed? Is there nothing to be gained from discussing things with those who may oppose us? Besides, if we are really going to have open and honest discussions, that means we have to accept that we may not always get along perfectly with others, or receive the answers we always like. I remember reading about Family Systems theory, which deals with relationships among persons. The theory speaks of “self-differentiated” individuals, who have a clear sense of “self” and who can interact respectfully with others with whom they disagree. Self-differentiated individuals do not feel the need to “fuse” with others simply to get along with them. I think a lot of folks view ecumenism as a “fusing” effort. If we don’t come out without some type of common agreement, the result is failure. I disagree. There are many positive outcomes that can come from discussion with others, some representing a nanometer of progress, others perhaps a foot. This is why blog-level ecumenism is so exciting, because you are actually engaging folks whom you naturally would not engage, folks who may even be hostile. Even if someone hostile to Catholicism leaves with some accurate knowledge of Catholicism, or we leave with a better understanding of another’s faith, something good has happened. Traditional ecumenism rarely offers a chance for these types of interactions.
2. Isn’t it wrong to speak of all Christian discussion as ecumenism. Aren’t there different levels of effectiveness? I mean, some Christians devour each other online – I contend that any contact and discussion is at least a start, although those without thick skin obviously should avoid the more difficult discussions, and I admit for my sanity, I do avoid certain websites and blogs. Obviously, those of us that see the online world as an ecumenical effort need to enter into any discussion (online or otherwise) pastorally. In psychology we speak of four ways of dealing with others. They are assertive, aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive. An aggressive response is overbearing, hostile, and sarcastic. A passive one is sitting back and letting things happen, e.g. agreeing with someone when you really don’t to avoid any kind of conflict. A passive-aggressive response is sneaky and undermining, and includes agreeing with someone to his face, while sabotaging efforts secretly through procrastination, etc. I saved the proper response for last: assertive. Being assertive means standing up for what you believe in respectfully, without resorting to aggressive behavior. You let others know your feelings while respecting the feelings of others. I think an assertive response is the best, and most helpful in any dialogue. An assertive person is willing to admit commonalities, but also honestly discuss differences. Some discussions are passive, others aggressive, and many assertive. I think that if we can assume the best in others (as Christians should), we can carry out assertive conversations, and respond to aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive discussion in an assertive way. I admit I do not have the tenacity to remain assertive in certain environments, so I avoid them.
Also, I think we also have to get over the assumption that is becoming more common in our society, which is that if you disagree with someone you are “being mean,” “hostile,” or possibly even committing a hate crime! In my opinion, this attitude is not a very adult way of thinking. While aggressive and threatening behavior is mean and hostile, assertive behavior is different, and some folks seem to have trouble differentiating the two.
3. But…so many bloggers are so amateurish and uneducated, shouldn’t we just let the high-ups deal with ecumenism, theology, and all that stuff? – Actually, some of the greatest saints throughout history were pretty “amateurish.” Plus, sometimes a person labels another as amateurish simply because a)she disagrees with what is being said, or b)because the “amateur” didn’t go into debt 20,000 dollars to get an advanced degree that allows you to work at Starbucks (I am describing myself lest anybody take offense!). Again, this is why blog-level ecumenism is so darn great, because you don’t have to be a recognized theologian or scholar to get involved. In Unitatis Redintegratio, the fathers of the Second Vatican council exhorted “all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism”. Notice that this include all Catholics, from pope down to janitor, and even down further to us religion teachers!
So basically, I see a future in Christian dialogue and discussion online. I think we are witnessing a revolution right before our eyes. Just as the internet is transforming other areas of life, it is transforming our ecumenical efforts as well. Plus, I have seen blog interactions result in increased dialogue, a better understanding among persons of different faiths, as well as nudging non-Catholics into full communion with the Catholic Church, meaning this type of ecumenism is faithful to the magisterial understanding of ecumenism. Plus, it is just plain interesting to read blogs written by all sorts of people…did I mention that?