Public Theology in the Digital Age
I had hoped to video call into a seminary course that my friend Kyle is teaching on public theology, online engagement, and how/why Christians might responsibly drive these nascent digital conversations. Due to a flight, I unfortunately wasn’t able to join the class live, but I still want to reflect on the questions that Kyle shared with me. I hope these reflections will be as helpful to the course as they were to me, and to other interested readers.
What motivate(d/s) you to bring your theological studies into the public sphere via social media?
I’ve found in the Internet much of what many relatively lonely people, from LGBTQ teens to white nationalists, have – a place where I can connect with others from a wider community that reminds me I am not alone. A place to build momentum and find fellowship that extends beyond my local community.
I started to use social media in the same way that many young people do: without thinking critically about it, just imitating how I saw others acting. As I began to pivot towards using online spaces to engage critical questions of theology and power, I was forced to start thinking more intentionally about my practice. But there certainly wasn’t always a critical reflection embodied in my engagement, lacking sound theory there were certainly more thoughtful ways I could have contributed. We know that what we put out there is always out there, and that’s a scary thought: my great, great grandchildren will have full digital access to my well-intentioned half-truths and mistakes. I hope my children and future generations think more critically about this stuff from the outset.
It wasn’t until college, through participating in online video call book clubs, swapping blog platforms, tweeting, and then co-curating my own projects like the Theology of Ferguson and #StayWokeAdvent anthologies, I began to realize the organizing power of the web.
At first, I really didn’t think that anyone would really care what I was writing or talking about. Questions of representation have influenced how I see myself occupying space online. Knowing that there weren’t many Japanese American or queer or mixed race theologians being read or discussed in general, I became more interested in lending my voice in a public way. I think being present in online spaces is also healing for me, given my years of participation in traumatic forms of Christianity that didn’t really invite authenticity.
How would you describe the relationship between your local community of formation and your broader online community? How does each contribute to your studies and your theological identity?
I was formed by Christian traditions that tended to share a healthy skepticism for positive uses of the Internet: we were encouraged to think of social media with metaphors of temptation and wildfire. These days, through seminary community and my work at a local Episcopal church, I feel lucky to have a community that honors my public witness. I don’t feel as much like I must hide who I am anymore, which is enormously healing…I have met many other people online for whom local community is toxic or otherwise lacking, which can make for a profoundly isolating journey of faith.
I’ve made many intimate and rewarding friendships online, many of whom even across distance by technology have been actively diffused into my “local” and daily emotional life. Sometimes, though, fusing these two realms has been difficult for me. I know in-person witness and online activity would both be greatly improved if I were able to figure this out better.
What is challenging about hosting and participating in theological conversations online? What is exciting about it?
Many things excite me here: the ability to participate in progressive theological commentary in the public square (not just micro-echo chambers), how this space can help infuse values of ecumenism, feminism, antiracism, and the friendships that can emerge from this cataclysm of pixels and passion.
I was in what I would now call a spiritually abusive faith community in college – when I was eventually placed under discipline for my “spirit of division,” I was asked to sign a contract asking me to stay off of Twitter and my blog for 16 weeks while I read church-selected texts instead. Looking back, their fear really reflects what can actually be a liberating dimension of these spaces, sharpening each other, broadening horizons.
Throughout history, Christians of different traditions were never able to engage each other so immediately. This can bring insight, but also venom…of course, much of the world’s poor is still without Internet access, and for them joining many of these “exciting new” questions is not an option…
There are plenty of other dangers. Of course our culture’s hyper-individualism is a constant threat. I know many people who embody compulsive and extremely unhealthy activity encouraged by constant beeps and pings of news somewhere else. Disputes online are often quickly vicious. With the bridle of personal responsibility clouded by anonymity, people aren’t often as accountable for our words. This manifests in hate speech very frequently, especially directed towards women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, sex workers, etc.
You think and write a lot about the intersection of race, sexuality, gender, theology, and the public sphere. What have you learned about the practice of online discourse and community around these particular topics?
For one, I see learning from others through pointed conversations on social media as an active part of my own theological training. Twitter in particular has supplemented and improved my ability to think theologically by introducing me to the work of many diverse and faithful people with whom I otherwise never would have encountered. Given the racial insularity of most Americans’ social networks (especially true for whites, especially true in worship and church spaces), by connecting with the theological insights of other people of color online I have been able expand the tiniest bit further outside of my own social/ethnic bubbles.
In my experience Twitter, as a digitized urban space where anyone is able to connect with another without shared physical location (in-person) or prior relationship (Facebook), serves a unique and educational purpose, as well as a movement-building space for those interested in doing theology online in a just way. Again, this engagement has been personally helpful for not uncritically producing unconsciously racist white or myopic theology in my own life and work.
Something to watch out for is that all the dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, and power as manifested in physical interactions between people are all still at play in virtual spaces – often without being named as such.
What advice do you have for other faith leaders who want to participate in public theological conversation?
Hop in, with both feet! Ask questions and create content that you are passionate about, that engages pressing theological issues. (This could look like collaborative projects like @ThirtySOL or public conversations like #PresbyIntersect or #SlateSpeak or something entirely different). Form relationships, do not just push your project. Especially if you have a larger platform, boost and share content from people who are experiencing harm in concrete and overlooked ways. There are plenty of people with a public platform that will influence many people who have less than nothing to do with helping create imaginative and liberative theological content.
As encouraged in your course syllabus, I would suggest reflecting on and creating a personal “rule of life” around social media engagement/consumption to limit unhealthy behavior. This is an area in which I struggle, and would like to grow further. I would be eager to hear from others how they are able to increasingly honor their own physical community as well as lend a voice to broader conversations.
There is something unique that you have to add to this conversation. The cosmic cocktail of DNA consciousness flesh ancestors spirit that produced you has never before appeared, and never again will. You can bring your unique perspectives to the living questions of how to heed the call of Christian discipleship in the midst of awful social woes. You can help keep the same voices from dominating the theological conversation. Each of us is impoverished to go the journey without you.