Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
[Thanks to C. Wess Daniels for the nudge!]
People have come to think of a concern for ideas as pathological.
When ideas come to matter more to us than our love for each other, it is pathological.
But people die when the ideas they love and the truths they live under fail to match; bad ideas can kill people as surely as intentional violence.
We have got to resolve our differences; we have truly got to resolve our differences — not smooth them over, not crush them under with whoever opposes us, not generate statements that everyone can accept but that bury real conflicts inside steel wool cocoons. We matter; and so does truth; and the world we inhabit is making both requirements urgent and impossible.
Face to face, most people de-escalate conflicts. The exceptions, the occasions when this breaks down turn out badly for everyone. But usually, conflicting ideas are kept in their pens; they bark but rarely bite — and remain unsettled. People whose souls demand they trade (and wrestle with) ideas are left starved, fended-off, isolated.
Across this divide, people can feel besieged by any crazyguy who keeps wanting to rant at them. But usually the boundaries stay up; peace is kept; nothing keeps right on happening.
Online it's a different playing-field. Somewhere in this world, the media promises, there are other madmen with the same unpopular enthusiasms.
Online, you can state your ideas as precisely as you care to; other people can read them as precisely as they care to — and if people don't care to read them as precisely as you care to write them, you too can quickly see where [what you think are] their ideas are headed, & how best to return their shots.
That is the tendency of the medium, and it is (far as I've observed) the tendency of us. Every so often we entirely miss the point that way.
Furthermore, in either venue, ideas have a way of becoming identity-markers. We're loyal to our ideas; we imagine we look good in them — and really, some of those ideas are even true. Meanwhile, some fool keeps trying to rip them up! And look what he's wearing! Maybe it's like this in that Chinese kite game, where rivals with abrasive-coated strings try to bring down each other's kites — but online, we can't be so sure that we've won — or if people know we've won, or whether they might even think we've lost! And we can be sure our Differently-Thinking opponent will return to the attack! (Or will he simply vanish, snub us, go off preparing some future incursion?)
Intense emotions get aroused; we may had have no idea how angry we made that exasperating fool who's started attacking us so viciously. But even as we strike a mighty blow at some silly idea, we're likely to feel unease. What's he going to say now? Back home in our embodied life, we wander about muttering possible rejoinders to people who aren't here and haven't even replied yet.
And people feel hurt. We see this most pressingly when we've said something we felt needed to be said — then afterwards, back home in life we go to Meeting and see somebody we've had harsh words with, out in that floating world of notions & sideshows. We don't want to fight with them; we never wanted to fight with them; but here we are having a hard time facing each other!
It would be entirely in tune with modern Quaker ways for us to think up some new institutional arrangement, an effort to speak more Truth among us while offending nobody. This is not a workable option. Any proposed Truth that doesn't offend somebody is either trivial, fettered or mistaken.
Efforts to prevent offense have worked largely to wall us apart, have left us feeling muzzled and yet fearful of what other Friends might think of us, what they might be too nice to tell us.
Speaking as a poet, I have to confess that efforts to hide things I needed to say have generally made me crazier and thus broken loose in forms that have hurt people in ways I never expected.
We have got to stop hiding from ourselves. We need to learn to trust God and each other more. We're only human, and not always safe to trust; but we are safe to the extent that we trust God rather than the sort of institutional and method-based defenses Quakers have come to be more comfortable behind.
This is important. We need to do something about it — and my best suggestion is that we pray about it, and follow what we hear in response, within ourselves and from others in our Meeting. Not the safe course that keeps us tossing in our boats, but out onto the water!