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Complementarianism vs. Internet Plausibility Structures
When it comes to certain biblical doctrines, technology might matter more than argument.
I don’t think we talk often enough about how the epistemological infrastructure of the Internet makes certain theological claims feel more implausible than they otherwise would. By this I mean that the Internet presents human selves in a particular way, and this particular way skews toward intuitive norms that often conflict with what theology teaches us.
One example is suffering. While the Bible does not call Christians to endure any and all suffering, the Bible’s view of suffering is not unequivocally negative. Jesus and the apostles both teach that is better to be taken advantage of than to stick up for yourself in a bad way. In the crypto-therapeutic world of social media, this is a horrific message, and one reason is that in the social economy of the Internet, “your story” is your worth, and a story of willingly enduring suffering is seen to undermine personal worth. I’m not saying people don’t think like this in real world settings, but decentralized, disembodied technology calibrates our sense of self in ways that especially repudiate enduring suffering for some greater moral good.
The go-to example is complementarianism. I honestly suspect that no book or article will ever accomplish as much for egalitarianism as the Internet has. Traditional notions of gender roles are extremely controversial, period, but the Internet introduces a further plausibility problem by separating us from our bodies and flattening the concept of teacher. From the view of the Internet, “teacher” only means someone who talks a lot. Podcasts create “internet pastors” and blogs universalize spiritual writings and render local contexts (church, community, etc.) seemingly irrelevant.
If we’re conditioned to think of preachers and preaching as digital tokens, male-only eldership seems inexplicable. What difference does the anatomy of the person on the screen make? What does their gender “do” to their words? Online, complementarianism feels at best arbitrary, and at worst like one of those elite, exclusionary social dynamics that the Net was supposed to fix by now.
Contrary to the impression one often gets from these debates, the theological case for complementarianism is complex and richly layered. The New Testament doesn’t offer a simple syllogism, a 2+2=4 for why only men should exercise authority over the assembled congregation. The argument is rather rooted in the way the world really is: A discernible pattern and order to creation, subject to fallenness and sin but reawakened in the New Creation-embassy church. One of the reasons online debates over gender roles are frequently off-putting is that complementarianism is an earthy doctrine that’s inseparable from a physical encounter with creation and with real, embodied image-bearers. Online discourse is bad at a lot of things, but one of the things it is worst at is capturing and expressing beauty.
It’s also bad at helping us track with this kind of complex theological reasoning. It’s fair to wonder whether the Internet makes certain doctrines implausible simply because it makes our brains less receptive to any idea that isn’t self-attesting or intuitive. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr summarizes the limitations the Internet places on our cognitive abilities:
Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process.
When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas.
With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source…such intensive exercise, when it becomes our primary mode of thought, can impede deep learning and thinking.
We could say a lot more, but the main gist is this: The primary medium of learning and communicating for a majority of people today is a medium that disembodies the self and makes penetrative thought harder and less rewarding. This isn’t just a sociological phenomenon, it’s a doctrinal one.
There’s likely a groundswell of opposition to certain traditional doctrines that is based not foremost on arguments, but on a kind of imaginative capacity limit brought on by years of thinking through the Internet. It might be worth thinking right now what engaging that kind of opposition would look like, and where we might be already getting it wrong.