The internet would be a much more pleasant place to share ideas if we engaged in debate the way St. Thomas Aquinas did.
Sounds bites, talking points, deeply held, yet largely unexamined ideas, angry tweets, foaming at the mouth comments, fomented hatred, polarization … January 2019.
The internet is mad, and sadly it reveals a deep festering problem in our culture: We have forgotten that clarity and charity, truth and love, must always be wedded together. We are only half looking and half listening to the people, stories, and positions we engage. We read headlines, but not articles, and are often quick to share and comment. Too often we share and spread without vetting, and engage in horrifically dehumanizing banter. Also, we have forgotten nuance, breadth, and vision.
Catholic thought, beginning with Christ himself, encompasses the paradoxical both/and that most of Twitter just can’t seem to compute. When we follow Christ, our positions seldom line up tidily with political talking points or cookie cutter ideologies.
Our Faith teaches us to support the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable and to respect the right to private property. We oppose both abortion and the death penalty. Catholics are for the immigrant and for national sovereignty; we seek justice and prize mercy. We fast and we feast in proper proportion and season. You get the idea.
The Thomistic Method
Catholic thought is, and has ever been, the home of both/and. The Church is not the home of compromise, since the truth is uncompromising, but the Church is home for uncompromising balance and clarity, of lesser goods at the service of higher goods and equal goods held in tension with one another. Catholic thought demands the rigor of thorough examination and close reading. Take the structure of St. Thomas’ Aquinas’ Summa, for example.
In the Summa, St. Thomas, also known as The Dumb Ox, engaged in a four-step method of scholastic disputation which:
- Posed a question
- Anticipated and explored the strongest and best thought objections
- Stated a clear answer, and then
- Answered the objections.
This accomplishes much. First, it clarifies what we really want to know. Secondly, it helps us think well with the opposition, and thirdly it clearly states a position while taking into account the objections of others.
9 Tips for Commenting Wisely
Maybe memes, gifs, personal attacks, and angry slogans are easier, but I think we can all see that they aren’t really getting us anywhere. So what can we do to progress important conversations without getting sucked into the swirling vortex of the snarling, angry, and downright demonic? Here’s a list I’m making for myself, especially after a long angry January on the internet:
- Check facts and information before you share or comment.
- Read articles carefully and watch videos fully before you share and comment.
- Consider going through St. Thomas Aquinas’ steps before you say much about anything publicly. What is the central question? What are others, even and especially those who have wildly erroneous positions, thinking about this and why? How can I best state what I think and how can I effectively and charitably engage objections?
- Stop. Say a prayer and remember that Jesus died for whoever you are talking to or about.
- Ask whether it is more productive to comment or to shut your laptop, put down your phone, and pray.
- Have face to face conversations about the issues that are on your mind.
- Make it a point to find ways to be kind and to remind others of their dignity, especially when they are already in a rage.
- If you try 7 and get trolled … see 5.
- Set time to intentionally fast from the internet, even if you are often on the internet to evangelize the digital continent (see Luke 5:16).
OK. Now we can practice in the comments section.
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About Colin MacIver
Colin MacIver teaches theology and has served as the religion department chair and campus ministry coordinator at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana. He is the author of the guide to Quick Catholic Lessons with Fr. Mike. He and his wife, Aimee, are co-authors and presenters of Theology of the Body for Teens Middle School Edition. They are also co-authors of the Power and Grace Guidebook, and the Chosen Parent’s and Sponsor’s Guides.