Fred Clark at Slacktivist unearthed a letter from Karl Barth that showed purity tests of orthodoxy existed in the 1960s and have found new birth on the Internet today.
Purity Tests, not Conversation
Karl Barth was a prominent 20th century Swiss theologian whose 8,000 page Church Dogmatics is one of the greatest works of Christian literature. But he had his detractors, and most persistent among them was American Cornelius Van Til. Van Til wrote two books in opposition to Barth, one of which, Christianity and Barthianism, alleged that Barth was outside of Christianity. Van Til never directly engaged Barth, but instead sent, through an intermediary, a list of questions for Barth to respond to.
Barth responded to the intermediary, not with answers to the questions, but with clear reasons why he would not respond to Van Til and his friends:
… These people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest!
None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.
Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.
Purity Tests on Social Media
I have a lot of sympathy for Barth, having recently experienced my own scenario (click the comments) when I was alleged to be outside Christianity by two members of my own denomination online in an almost textbook example of Barth’s letter.
My experience is not unique. For folks who engage in online conversations about religion, they know that the “prosecuting attorney” approach of conversation did not fade into history, but instead found new rebirth on the Internet.
Twitter, in particular, has a format that yields itself to 140 character questions expecting only 2-3 character responses of Yes or No. They are often written in such a way where even an appreciative response leads them to another prosecutorial question. As Barth says, often the interaction is not meant for conversation, but confirmation of already-held judgment.
But not all contentious conversations online are bad. Disagreement is good for building convictions and exploring differences, and I’ve benefitted from the “iron sharpens iron” conversations ever since I ran my first online internet forum in 2002, and this blog in 2008.
So how can you tell if it is a disagreement or a prosecution?
The key “tell” between a prosecutorial and a familial response (as in “I disagree with you as a brother/sister in Christ”) is to see if the response would be different if you were interacting in person. For example:
- If you asked your pastor (or supervising pastor) “I’m having trouble with atonement and I’m not sure Jesus died for our sins, but rather because of our sins. Does that make me not a Christian anymore?” and they responded “of course not, everyone has their doubts, let’s talk about it” then you know the Christian familial response has carried the conversation.
- If you asked the same question online, and the response is “you are a heretic and not Christian” then you know the prosecution complex has overwhelmed the familial fondness.
It’s a hard distinction, and I know at times I’ve acted in unhelpful ways online in random circumstances, but if the second approach is a persona’s “Way of Life” online…then you know.
What to do, part 1
There are two approaches to dealing with the prosecutors in online circles: one informed by Barth, and the other lived out by me.
Barth concludes his letter above:
You will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to CD IV,2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped.
I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.
For Fred Clark, to follow Barth by ignoring “prosecutorial catechists [who] do not ask their questions in good faith” is the way to go:
Regardless of whether or not you have any interest in theology or theological disputes, or any dealing with these particular gatekeepers, you will encounter many people who will demand from you “explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed” on you. And, as Barth said, you should not be expected to assist them in that.
You don’t have time for that either. Don’t waste time trying to please people who are determined never to be pleased by you. Good-faith questions deserve a response and good-faith criticism deserves our attention. But prosecutorial catechists do not ask their questions in good faith. They’re just collecting evidence they hope to use against you (against everyone, really), and there’s no reason for you to assist them in that
So “don’t feed the trolls” was as good in the 1960s as it is today. If that’s the best choice for your spiritual well-being, then that is a clear way to not give credence to folks who are not looking for conversation or relationship.
What to do, Part 2
But for me, I don’t like to cede the social media field to the prosecution. So last year, I wrote a three-part series on how to deal with trolls online, and the same techniques can be extended to the prosecution as well.
- Part 1 determined that you should best interact with people who are in your arena.
- Part 2 determined that in certain situations, you can be a honeypot and attract the trolls and keep them wasting their time with you instead of harassing other people.
- Part 3 determined how to handle the sludges of trolls (multiple coordinated people ganging up on you) and how to build up your own community online.
Check those out for specific recommendations on how to engage the prosecutorial catechists online in helpful, life-affirming ways for you and everyone who watches you.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading, and for your shares on social media.