A little while back I observed that we can quickly start throwing charges of heresy and insults about. You can read the article here. I particularly observed that we were often quick to accuse people of being Gnostic or at least allowing Gnosticism to influence our beliefs and practices. The insult has replaced the long-standing Protestant accusation of being papist.
I am returning to the issue because the word made an appearance again the other day at a conference I was attending online. One of the speakers was talking about he importance of physical gathering and why we must prioritise this at all costs. One participant asked the question as to whether or not the speaker thought that are willingness to persist online and reluctance to gather physically is caused by Gnostic tendencies in our thinking and theology. The speaker was only too willing to demur.
I asked the participants to be careful as brothers and sisters in Christ and watch out for the sin of slander. This brought a response both from the moderator and the speaker that of course no-one was being slandered, this was just a general point and no individuals were being named. The questioner responded similarly to me arguing that they had not named specific people and that this was a genuine question. They raised the concern that we needed to be aware to historical dangers which keep returning and that we need to be willing to engage in robust conversation.
So, I want to respond here not by going over the question again about whether or not those who have been happy to use zoom and Facebook and those cautious about returning are doing so because of latent Gnosticism. I think I have dealt with that previously. Rather, I want to talk specifically about when robust debate slips into insult and slander.
My starting point would be just there, the recognition that arguments have already been engaged. If there has been a claim by some that our online meetings were not proper church so that our communication services were only pretend and our orthodoxy in doubt, well then I have to say that people have taken time to carefully respond to such claims and to rebut (in my opinion refute even) the accusations and claims. So, if people are going to debate with those they disagree with, then it is important they disagree well by knowing their opponents arguments, being able to rehearse them accurately and then be able to respond to them.
As someone who very early in the pandemic took time to do some careful Bible study to think through questions about online church, communion, compliance with Governments etc I have personally been disappointed at the lack of engagement with what I and others took the time to argue. When I hear people speaking against such positions, I am still yet to see them engage with the actual argument made. Rather it seems they have a couple of speeches and arguments up their sleeve ready to deliver. There is no argument, no engagement, not attempt to learn, no attempt to win others over. It is just “playing to the gallery.” So instead, what we have is a cheap insult which requires little effort.
My next concern is the way in which we go straight for the nuclear button. I don’t think it a great sign, or particularly robust when we go straight for the insult. I think we do better when we take a step back and give time to listening. Rather than quickly saying “Your views sound like x” why don’t we take time to ask people more details about what their views are?
This brings me to my penultimate point. In this context the speaker was very obviously like to support the Gnosticism thesis so this was no so much a challenging question to push him but rather a set up for him to put into the back of the net. Really, if we are going to have that proper open, robust debate, we need to make sure that we ask the questions of those we think we disagree with. Why not give them chance to explain and justify themselves before we label them? And this means we must take responsibility if we are given the set up pass. It may seem great to bang home the rhetorical goal but what do we gain as believers in terms of growth? Surely we want to focus on ways of learning from each other.
Finally I want to respond to the suggestion that this kind of thing is not slander, here seems to be an assumption that if you don’t name the people, then you are not slandering them. However if you are encouraging people to believe something that is not true about others I would gently suggest that you don’t need to name them out loud to slander them. It is often quite obvious who you are talking about
I am firmly committed to open and robust conversation. I think this article makes that clear. However I think it is possible to do this whilst disagreeing well, showing courtesy and respect and thinking the best of each other.