I have been reading Marsden's biography of Edwards (the first biography of Edwards I have read ... yes, flog me now). It is fascinating and has provided several pregnant blog articles. I am waiting for them to be hatched.
Marsden devotes several pages (pp. 175-182) to controversy over the ordination of an Arminian, Robert Breck. It seems a controversy between the westerners and easterners (in Massachusetts). The westerners were ill-inclined to grant ordination to Breck because of his arminianism. So a war of sorts was launched in the press, including Boston newspapers. (Can you imagine that happening today? Not the theological war, but refusal to ordain an arminian making the local newspapers?) The westerners even resorted to having Breck arrested.
Of particular interest to me was this paragraph:
That the two sides could launch scathing polemics on an issue of polity and procedure while still remaining allies in the cause of vital religion is indicative of a dimension of the eighteenth century that separates it from our time. It was an age of debate. Higher education was largely learning the art of debate. One could fiercely rail against an opponent's arguments yet see in that nothing personal. In this case, since all the authors remained anonymous (though in such a small world it was not hard to guess who was who), the polemics remained particuarly impersonal—as though they were lawyers' briefs (p. 180).Though the easterners used ridicule and biting humor in their polemics, Edwards "[used] the weapons of the easterners against themselves, attempting to shame them for resorting to modern techniques unbecoming of the clergy" (p. 181).
In his writing Edwards called on the easterners to "'repair the injuries you have done to us.' 'Don't let us, reverend sir,' he summarized, 'try who can conquer at scoff and jeer, but let our arguments fight it out; not that we glory in the strength of our reason, but we glory in the goodness of our cause" (pp. 181-82).
While Edwards and company weren't in "the blogosphere," in the realm of public debate they were apparently able to separate attacks on ideas from attacks on people. Would that we, in a modern age of nearly instant communication, learn that to attack an idea is not the same as attacking a person.
"The cause" reigns supreme, not the personal sensibilities and sensitivities of the parties involved in the discussion.
In the blogosphere, the "black letter on white pages" (or whatever color scheme you have chosen) does not easily communicate voice inflection, body language, and sincerity. It is far too often that personal offense is taken where none was intended. And too often, the fault is not laid at the feet of the over-sensitive reader, but at the fingers of blogger. It is as if someone assumes the worst: "He mentioned my name and "excellent" was before it. He must be attacking me ... or my friend."
We would do well to read with dispassion and careful interaction. Rather than assume the worst, look for the content.
Let us glory in our cause, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let ourselves take a back seat so that even if we are personally attacked, we care not ... for we are not that important. Nor let us mistake the addressing of our ideas with the undressing of our person.
Be gracious; let your speech be seasoned with salt; but speak the truth in love.