In Layman's Terms - Bob Sullivan

Discussing faith on the internet

By Bob Sullivan 

A few weeks ago, a Catholic bishop was invited to give a talk at the corporate headquarters of Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif. This is amazing because Facebook’s corporate identity is blatantly adverse to Catholicism, and the corporate ideology of Facebook is one of secularism and moral relativism.

The bishop they invited was none other than Bishop Robert Barron, who is known for his eloquent explanation of the Gospel, and for his highly intellectual approach in doing so.

Therefore, this was not some invitation to a media darling who turns Christianity into a lukewarm system of options so secularists can feel like they are on the right track with or without God. This was an authentic meeting between the world and the word of God, through a bishop who provides an authentic and faithful explanation of the Catholic faith.

Bishop Barron explained that the internet has the potential to be a very powerful method for introducing people to Christ. I agree with Bishop Barron on this, but I’ve heard many Christians tell me that they have taken a personal oath to avoid religious discussions on the internet.

I don’t blame them. Online apologetics and evangelization is something that takes a lot of prayer, patience, time, confidence, and humility. The anonymity—or at least the lack of eye-to-eye interaction—can cause many people to type insults and accusations they would never utter in a face-to-face discussion.

Bishop Barron explained the difference between an argument and a fight. An argument is fueled by a search for truth through an intellectual exchange. A fight is fueled by emotions and this makes it highly unpleasant for at least one side. Many online discussions begin as arguments and turn into fights.

One thing I think Bishop Barron should have said is that one party can maintain an argument (an intellectual discussion) even when the other side is engaged in a purely emotional fight! If we can keep our arguments intellectual and focused on seeking truth without being pulled into an emotional fight, we are doing a very good thing.

I assure you, this works, as I have been in dozens of these situations online over the years. I don’t always stay out of the fight, but when I can keep my comments from being emotional, people respond. However, the positive response is rarely from the person with whom I’m having the “discussion.”

Approximately once per month, someone stops me at the store, at church, or at some social event, to tell me that they have been following one of my discussions on social media, and that they have learned something from the discussion. Sometimes we end up talking privately about other questions they have. On each of these occasions, the person has not commented online, and on most occasions, I didn’t even know the person had a social media account! About 50% of these people are not Catholic and most of my discussions involve Catholicism or at least a Catholic approach to a cultural issue such as morality, parenting, politics, etc...

I therefore keep reminding myself that a lot of people read what we write on social media (for better or worse). Therefore, the antagonist, the adversary with whom I am arguing, is actually doing a very good thing by trying to confront me, because without their side, the conversation would not take place. It actually benefits my argument when my adversary is rude, illogical and otherwise inappropriate because that magnifies any virtues I am contributing to the dialogue.

When our adversary is rude, we must be courteous. When our adversary is boastful, we must be humble. When our adversary is illogical, we must stress logic (reason).

When our adversary uses personal insult, we can point it out, but we must forgive them and respond with charity. They’ll know we are Christians by our love, right?

Basically, the more aggressive and insulting they are, the greater our opportunity to practice and demonstrate virtue. We must always strive to keep our own ego out of the mix because our pride is usually the culprit when a discussion or argument has turned into a fight.

Now for a nutshell version of Bishop Barron’s five points for online discussion of faith and morals:

- Faith and reason are not opposed. Faith is not only based on reason, it never contradicts reason.

- Science is a friend of faith, but the belief that science is the ultimate source of truth in the world (scientism) not only contradicts the most basic teaching of scientism, it ignores much of what makes us human such as our soul, art, literature, relationships, etc…

- We do not want others to merely “tolerate” our beliefs, nor should we be satisfied to tolerate theirs. An honest pursuit of truth protects religious freedom and guards against the privatization of faith. 

- Voluntarism says that something is true because, “I want it to be true.” This results in a clash of wills and the conversation turns into a fight in which the most powerful wins, regardless of the truth. Voluntarism often leads to aggression and sometimes to violence because the goal is not to find truth.

- We must be patient, courteous and good listeners in an attempt to honestly understand our adversary’s position.

In summary: We can always be confident in discussions of faith if we are faithful in our pursuit of truth. Since God is truth and the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth, no Catholic has any reason to shrink away from any discussion of faith.

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