This blog is just about a year old, and it is a good time to take a breath and examine the direction in which we have gone and the possible places to go from this point on. There has never been a precise idea of what the content of this blog ought to be like, and perhaps that is a good thing. Yet there has been a general understanding that we produce intellectual posts that relate at least somewhat to Christian theology or religion in general. Let us divide such content into three groups: (i) confirming or illustrating a point of view that Christians generally agree on, (ii) arguing for one or both sides of an issue that Christians disagree on, and (iii) presenting a completely new issue that has not yet been talked about in most circles, and thus not quite agreed or disagreed on.
Maybe shockingly to some, I will begin by coming out against category (i) as the dominant form of our future content. In general, this type of subject matter is best presented by a wise elder or at least a priest or a pastor. Affirming what everyone already believes can be classified as teaching doctrine, something that is best done by someone with qualification for this purpose. This category is what I referred to in my previous post as “writing sermons,” something that I certainly do not see myself as qualified to do. (Others are free to make their own judgments about themselves.) Now it must be said that I would equally object, if not more, to non-sermons passing as sermons. I have previously experienced sermons (including even from a few Orthodox priests) that focus on partisan politics or even pop culture. Such sermons may occasionally be more interesting than the traditional homily, but they are not, in my opinion, appropriate for the liturgical setting. Similarly, content that resembles a sermon, or what a sermon should be, is not my preferred direction for this blog. This direction that I oppose is easiest to define concisely as simply substance affirming or embodying basic Christian ideas that we generally agree on, i.e. the previously denoted group (i).
Now group (ii) is significantly better, especially given that theological debate has historically served as the foundation of our community. Yet when we make such posts, it may be productive to ask ourselves some of the following questions.
1. Do I expect to convince anyone with my reasoning? 2. Will I change my mind if my opponent’s reasoning is convincing? 3. Should I even change my mind in such a circumstance, or should I instead trust the centuries of historical debates on this issue within my own Church? 4. Are the reasons that I am providing in my post my real reasons for being on this side of the issue?
None of these questions are meant to be rhetorical, and I am also not saying that one should or should not make posts in category (ii) in case the answer to any of these questions is anything in particular. These are just a handful of warnings, especially for those of us who are Orthodox or Catholic, when we make posts of the debate type. For example, I can debate all day with an Evangelical on whether or not it is appropriate to venerate icons. But no matter how much we turn and twist the commandment about the carved image, I will always have, in the back of my head, the fact that this issue has already been covered over a millennium ago. In fact, the whole and universal Church called a tremendously large council dedicated to this issue, where it was decided, after much debate, that I am right.
Smugness aside, progress can, in theory, be made in these theological debates, even when done by lay people. But historically these debates have been held primarily by priests or even bishops. Any indication (that I am aware of) that theological debate was common among early Christians is generally limited to notable bishops, such as Peter, Paul, or James.
And the third group, category (iii), concerns new ideas that most of us have not yet formed an opinion on. And this is the category that I would like to move towards. Category (iii) allows us to focus on asking questions rather than dictating answers. We can also earnestly attempt to produce our own attempts to answer, since these issues have not yet been solved. Our reasoning on these issues would also reflect our real reasons for taking the side that we are on, because the issue is brought up together with the reasons.
Some may object, asserting that bringing up completely new topics may be too difficult to do, and it may require more creativity than making posts in other categories. Thus it would be appropriate to bring up the fact that the authors of this blog are, almost exclusively, either college students or recent college graduates who once finished the Stanford Online High School. For this demographic it is common to be exceptionally high in intelligence and creativity while certainly being on the lower side in wisdom and experience. Once again, it follows that category (iii) is more suitable for our authorship than category (i).
Now let us bring in some nuance. Of course, there is no need to fit every post into a box of one of these three categories. Articles can have elements of one or more of these groups, or they can have nothing to do with any of these groups at all. In fact, probably not a single one of our articles would fit 100% into the first group, the category that I take issue with the most. But even having only some elements of group (i) may give our blog an uncomfortable look. To illustrate, we will examine some features of Daniel Sutkowski’s article “Becoming Like Little Children.”
It must be first said that Danny has produced a rich amount of wonderful content on this blog.
Even the article in question has some positive aspects. It has a few elements of category (iii), as it is the first to connect the rift between “becoming like little children” and “putting our childish ways behind” with Pearce’s distinction between “childish” and “childlike.” But this article can just as easily be read as a homily in any good Christian church. The question now is: what is the mechanism behind this article being so similar to a sermon? I would argue that it is the article’s elements of category (i).
Consider the following quote from the article: “To be child-like as an adult is to re-engage our appreciation of every aspect of God’s creation, live every moment to its fullest, and bring an innocent optimism to how we carry ourselves.” This sentence attributes agreed-upon positive concepts to an agreed-upon positive quality; therefore the value of this statement is less in bringing forth a contention and more in teaching a moral lesson. (The context of this sentence is the end of a paragraph describing a childlike trait of the author’s brother as a child.)
It is also good to be careful about the title. “Becoming Like Little Children” has an implication that something is being taught rather than just introduced or described. Most people who are proficient in Christianity already know that we are called by Christ Himself to become like children and that it is necessary to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not even about how to become like little children: then it would be “How to be Like Little Children.” It instead has a connotation of a leadership process into becoming like little children. Of course, the title is not part of the actual substance, but it is still important; to some people it is all they read. The problem can extend to other titles that begin with a verb in this form. Zach’s article title “Understanding Galatians 4:7” follows the same pattern. Contrast it with another title from Zach, “American Politics Needs More Religion.” Whether or not you agree with the content of the article, the headline makes it clear that it is arguing for an unpopular opinion and for a point of view that has not yet been given attention in any well-known piece. (The argument also is not really about theology, so the problems that we have seen with category (ii) do not apply to the full degree.) Similarly, some form of ironic click bait (which I may demonstrate in a later article title) is, in my opinion, more appropriate than that of the former kind described here.
I was not able to articulate entirely everything that I was feeling about this issue, even after taking two extra weeks to write (and still barely finishing on time). Some of the arguments may be incomplete for this reason. Yet I have just recalled a quote from philosophy student Coleman Hughes that may be useful in this situation. During an interview with Dave Rubin, Hughes said: “There are […] two ways to study history. There is the conventional way, which is: you study World War I, you study the causes and consequences, read different takes on the significance, and once you studied all you need to know, you move on to the next topic. But then there is a religious way of studying history, which [implies that] it’s not enough to know the facts. We have to go somewhere on Sunday every single week and learn [or] talk about the same stories over and over again. […] In my view [on] how we are looking at the history of race relations in this country, we are more and more putting it in the religious category of history, where I can read a piece about the history of lynching in the New York Times almost every few months.” Now we know as Christians that studying Christianity the “religious way” has its place for us. But the role of teaching it the religious way, in my opinion, should not be our role. Lastly, I will take a moment to put myself to the same standards as everyone else. Of all my articles, the one about “Individualism and Christianity” is probably my most “sermony.” I invite anyone to read it and judge whether or not I am being consistent with my own actions.