The Common Good

What Karl Barth Says about Blog Comments

The comment code of conduct for the God's Politics blog includes familiar commitments to civility, courtesy, and respect, and even connects these pledges to biblical passages. But what if we went a step further in our understanding of blog comments -- and, for that matter, all of our online communication? What if we recognized our forays into online commentary as doing theological work?

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Karl Barth invites that kind of thinking in his 1963 Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. In his chapter on the "community" -- a word that he argues is, theologically speaking, much better than "church" to describe the body of believers -- Barth makes the case that each member of the community of faith has the responsibility to bear witness to the Word. We do so, Barth says, in our very existence, in our service to "the handicapped, weak, and needy" in the world, and in our prayer. The community also does so in spoken and written words by which it "attempts to make its faith audible."

It's in the act of moving from faith to speech that, for Barth, theological questions arise. What is at stake in such speech, for people of faith, is nothing less than the "quest for truth," and the community has the responsibility to hold one another accountable in that quest:

Even the most able speech of the most living faith is a human work. And this means that the community can go astray in its proclamation of the Word of God, in its interpretation of the biblical testimony, and finally in its own faith. Instead of being helpful, it can be obstructive to God's cause in the world by an understanding that is partly or wholly wrong, by devious or warped thought, by silly or too subtle speech. Every day the community must pray that this may not happen, but it must also do its own share of earnest work toward this goal. This work is theological work.

While "too subtle speech" doesn't often seem to be the problem in the blogosphere, Barth's point is that the community of faith is responsible for correcting understandings that are wrong, devious, warped, or silly. And isn't that exactly what happens in blog comments? People jump in to render their version of the truth. Barth makes clear that the responsibility isn't only for the community of faith, but for individual Christians as well, who are also "responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian."

Imagine the consequences if all Christians, or all people of faith, took that to heart. What would it look like if we consciously approached our online commentary as theological work, as seeking explicitly to serve as a vehicle for the Word of God? How would that understanding change our tone, our spirit, the way we express ourselves and the content of our reflections? At the very least, thinking theologically about the way we post online might help us to elevate the level of discourse here on earth.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine and a research fellow for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, where this was originally posted.

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I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

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