Ideas and feelings

The world of the Internet is a strange one: it can become so depersonalizing that you can debate someone for an extended period of time, engaging their ideas but forgetting that there’s another human being on another keyboard arguing back at you. That makes for some very blunt and uncharitable remarks at times; I know I’ve been guilty of it, and if I’ve offended anyone over the past year or two of blogging, I humbly apologize.

However, as I think about the exchanges I’ve had, I think there’s another trend at work that goes beyond the Internet to the society at large, and creates the situation where such impersonal exchanges of ideas become offensive. It wasn’t always this way: there was a time when someone’s intellectual ideas could be divorced from his person, so people could vehemently disagree yet remain fast friends. George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton are a good example. I wonder what caused the shift from being able to engage ideas and people separately, to being forced to almost equate a person with his stance on a given issue. I suspect it parallels the transition from a world of truth to a world of relativism. If my ideas are as good as yours–if my truth isn’t necessarily yours–then it follows that I would be attacking your person if I attacked your illogic.

Relativism is one of the facets of this barrier to substantive discussion; I also catch a hint of fideism, at least in my conversations on religion. While I still find it possible to have logical discussions on things such as science and history, where it is possible to convince someone purely based on reason, and it is still admirable to change your view if your evidence or logic are found to be lacking, that is not the case with religion. Take, for example, a discussion of the role of Scripture in Christian belief. Logic dictates that, since the Canon was not established for more than three hundred years after the death of Jesus, and that the Gospels were not written until 30+ years after His death, and since history shows that the Church existed prior to either point, that Christianity cannot rest on Scripture, at least not Scripture alone. The fundamental basis for our faith is not the written Gospel, but the actual event itself, which need not have been written down to be redemptive. However, faith in reason has been lost for the most part. It’s all about “faith” as an arational leap that cannot be contradicted. So, no amount of airtight arguments matter, and to make them is at the very least to be dismissed, or even to be deeply offensive. No matter how much I would like to pick holes in sola scriptura, it is pointless as long as fideism in religion remains strong.

So, we end up offending people, either by disparaging “their truths”, or “their faith,” or both. I suppose I’ve come full circle to argue that the Internet, for all its offense, actually gets one thing right: by virtually stripping the person from his ideas, reason can come back into play.


3 Responses to “Ideas and feelings”

  1. 1 Fred May 13, 2006 at 11:13 am

    The Internet is a pretty disincarnate medium. One is reduced for the most part to a rationalistic (ideas, concepts only) or fideistic (faith, emotions only) approach. The original Christian method is that of the person, so extra effort is required via the Internet. No matter how much power computers have, their bandwidth will be much more narrow than encounters in the flesh. To realize the limitations of the Internet means that we must supply those things that the Internet can be defecient in: stability of identity, repeated discussions over time, discussions of matters that go beyond the merely conceptual or emotional. It seems that reflection upon action can be a powerful way of transcending the medium. Not that I am an example in this regard: online I am, alas, all concepts, a rationalist.

  2. 2 Edmund C. May 13, 2006 at 2:35 pm


    Excellent points: along the same lines, I’ve noticed a polarizing quality to the Internet as well. Jonathan Last, in his much maligned (somewhat rightly) essay in First Things back in December of last year, ended his review of religious life on the Internet with the following:

    But even at its best, the Internet is a weakening of reality, and with its consumer satisfactions, politicizing impulses, and substitutions for the body, it constantly lures us up into thinner and thinner air. Isn’t religion supposed to enrich the world around us instead? Shut off your computer. Take a deep breath. Go to church.

    It’s almost as if the virtualization (if that’s a word) produced by the Internet shifts us into a dualistic mode, separating mind and body. I find it extremely dangerous to my spiritual life if I am not grounding myself all the more firmly in the Mass, in prayer, and in community. On the other hand, I would probably not be Catholic today if not for the information and interaction “at your fingertips” provided by the Internet. So, I can’t condemn the virtual world entirely. Moreover, the polarization is not just mind vs. body, but also “Left” vs. “Right”, rationalist vs. fideist, modernist vs. traditionalist–the list goes on and on. Perhaps, over time, as this new medium becomes old hat, it will moderate.

  3. 3 Fred May 14, 2006 at 6:45 pm

    In some ways, the Internet seems to be a tool that embodies an Enlightenment idea of the human person (dualism, rationalism, etc). I think the only way the Internet will have a more moderate impact will be through the deliberate cultivation of a more human world, both in real life and on the net. You are absolutely correct when you say that the way that helps us in this struggle is found in the sacraments, in prayer, and in community.

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