I find myself meditating on a passage from a book by C. S. Lewis. In his great work of literary history, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis devotes a passage to what he describes, with a certain savageness, as “that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation.” For Lewis, the issues that divided Catholics and Protestants, that led to bloodshed all over Europe and to a seemingly permanent division of Christians from one another, “could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure.” Instead, thanks to the prevalence of that recent invention the printing press, and to the intolerance of many of the combatants, deep and subtle questions found their way into the popular press and were immediately transformed into caricatures and cheap slogans. After that there was no hope of peaceful reconciliation.
This is really quite a remarkable point. The Web is notorious for nastiness in dialogue (cf “flame war”). There is now distance between the persons in the conversation, and this distance allows us to get away with, now, what we never could in face-to-face talk.
It’s not that the technology causes the nastiness. The natural corruption in the heart of man is facilitated by the technology, which allows him to function subpersonally. Schism is facilitated. And – and! – this had a parallel in the emergence of the printing press, which allowed people to combat disembodied opinions, wordy ghosts with whom there was no real covenantal obligation to come through disagreement to Christian unity.
Bonhoeffer called forgiveness without cost “cheap grace”. This cold polemics is cheap in the same way; you get the feeling of having “contended for the truth”, without the cost of loving. The perennial agon of love, that which makes it love and not just words on a page, is having to hold unity during a difficult conversation, without either compromising or verbally killing. Success here results in new truth and new friends. The other way just makes another denomination, with your name on it.