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Following Jesus on the Internet: Two Christian Virtues for Online Discourse

Raymond VanArragon

Prudence, openness, and the way of Jesus

Professor of Philosophy, Bethel University
September 4, 2014

There is no doubt that we live at a time of unprecedented access to ideas and viewpoints that differ from our own. By browsing the internet we can find explanation and defense of an enormous array of religious, political, and moral beliefs.

Such access can be mind-expanding and can contribute to the development of intellectual health and virtue.

Yet it often contributes to neither.

Check out the comments section following nearly any article expressing an opinion on the internet. In it you can typically find spectacular demonstrations of intellectual vice. Personal attacks are common; they often get the most “likes” or trigger the most responses. Honest argument is absent from comments and lacking in the articles. By all appearances, few minds are changed. In this way, internet discourse tends to promote heat rather than light, polarization rather than genuine engagement. A promising situation, but the results haven’t lived up to the promise.

What to do? Christians, like everyone else, have to navigate this mess. And we have a special calling to behave online (as anywhere else) in a Christ-like manner. Not only that, but we are bearers of good news, the heart of which is so easily drowned out in the noise of the internet.

We want to exercise intellectual virtue rather than vice, but how do we do so?

Well, perhaps the best place to look for guidance is in the words and actions of Jesus himself. In the character of Jesus we find intellectual virtues preached and exemplified. Here, I want to explore two of them.

Dear Prudence

The first virtue is prudence. Prudence is a multi-faceted virtue that motivates a person to behave in a timely and appropriate way. It wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture, as President George H.W. Bush might say, to eat at a fast-food restaurant when your stomach is upset (or perhaps ever), to drink coffee right before bedtime, or to announce your love of the New York Yankees in a crowd of intoxicated Boston Red Sox fans. (For younger readers: The first President Bush was memorably impersonated on Saturday Night Live by comedian Dana Carvey, who had him saying regularly that some course of action “wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.”) A prudent person tends not to do those sorts of things.

There are also varieties of intellectual prudence that relate to studying, researching, and thinking appropriately. And, more importantly for our purposes, this kind of prudence relates to discussing and expressing views in a way that is fitting, in the right setting, to the right people.

We see this kind of prudence demonstrated in the life of Jesus in Matthew 9, where the Pharisees ask Jesus why he eats with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replies, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matt. 9:12).

Now the Pharisees, in asking the question, no doubt thought that Jesus should be spending his time with people like themselves; and Jesus, in his reply, was probably referring to them as “healthy.” But of course Jesus didn’t mean that the Pharisees and their ilk actually were healthy. Instead, they merely thought they were healthy; and people who think they have no need of a cure are not going to be open to one that is offered to them. So Jesus is both exercising and recommending a kind of prudence here, by spending time with people who are aware of their need rather than with people who aren’t.

This notion of engaging with the sick rather than the healthy can serve as a rich metaphor when it comes to civil and productive discourse. College professors prefer to teach students who recognize that they do not have it all figured out rather than ones who think that they do. Thankfully, students who enter college in the latter condition usually change, just as “healthy” people who encounter Jesus often come to recognize that they are in fact sick.

But this sort of transformation typically requires making connections with people, something which does not happen regularly in internet discussion forums. Those places often seem to be populated primarily by people who think that they have nothing left to learn.

So one intellectual virtue we can glean from Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees is a kind of prudence that involves expressing ourselves in the right way, in the right setting, to people who are appropriately open to what we are saying.

Opening Up

This leads right to a second intellectual virtue that I want to explore, the virtue of openness. Now, as we all recognize, openness is not always virtuous. Any person who is open to the suggestion that it can be morally acceptable to kidnap girls in Nigeria and sell them into sexual slavery for some political or religious cause is profoundly corrupt.

So, if it is to be virtuous, openness must have its limits.

At the same time, many of us are not open enough: we aren’t appropriately open to having our beliefs changed. Or, a related vice: We hold beliefs about which there is much legitimate disagreement with an inappropriate degree of firmness. This is certainly true in politics. The question of how to ensure justice in our health care system is a vexed one, and anyone convinced she has it all figured out—and unwilling to consider alternatives—displays insufficient openness on that issue.

A failure to achieve a virtuous degree of intellectual openness can have other sources beyond too little or too firm conviction. It can also come from focusing too much on the wrong things. In the gospels the Pharisees do this regularly, as when they complain to Jesus that his disciples break tradition by failing to wash their hands before they eat. In response, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of nullifying the word of God for the sake of their tradition (Mark 7:1-13). They also focus on the wrong things by trying to trap Jesus and make him look bad (for example, when questioning Jesus about paying taxes in Matt. 22:15-17), rather than seeking to learn from him.

No doubt we fail to exercise virtuous openness to the views of other people in similar ways. Sometimes this happens when we focus too much on tradition or on “what we’ve always done,” and thereby miss out on what is more important. We can display such hatred in defense of our own theological traditions! If that isn’t “nullifying the word of God,” I don’t know what is.

Win the Debate, Trap the Opponent

The temptation to strive to win debates and trap our opponents, Pharisee-style, is surely present with us as well.

Christian philosophy has been surging in recent years, and a big part of that surge has involved interest in Christian apologetics—rational defense of Christian faith. And that often involves debate. Now, as a philosophy professor (and editor of a book called Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion) I believe in the value of debate for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a position, for pursuing the truth, and for defending and exploring Christian faith. But an emphasis on debate can also have bad consequences for us, just as it did for the Pharisees.

Here are three such consequences.

1. Emphasis on debate can lead us to miss out on the truth.

Our fixation on defending our own views and attacking our opponents’ can make us fail to see that our own positions have weaknesses, and the arguments that we advance are not as airtight as we think. It can also cause us to miss out on elements of other views that we could benefit from adopting ourselves.

2.  Emphasis on debate can lead to a lack of charity, a failure to take seriously the dignity of those with whom we disagree.

Some years ago I attended a public lecture by a Christian philosopher, where the theory of evolution was one of the topics. At one point a listener who was a proponent of the theory (and who may also have been an atheist) asked a question skeptical of the argument, and the audience turned on him. By taking a contrary position he became not just the debate opponent but the enemy, and the atmosphere in the lecture hall changed dramatically—until the speaker hushed the crowd and respectfully answered the man’s question. Again, perhaps those jeering members of the audience were, like the Pharisees, “nullifying the Word of God” by behaving as they did.

3.  An emphasis on debate can lead to a lack of openness by preventing us from recognizing that people who disagree with us can be reasonable in doing so.

Check out facebook debates on open theism or homosexuality, and see how frequently opposing arguments are caricatured and accusations of logical fallacy are thrown around. It is comparatively rare to see debaters grant that their opponents make a good point, or attempt to put the best face on their arguments.

In sum, these two virtues—intellectual prudence and openness—are seen in Jesus’ life and teachings, and can enable us to better follow him on the internet, an arena where discourse is so easily polluted by hatred and vice.