as I knew it...
For those who don't know, I used to run a women's forum. Operative term: used to. The original name/community may go on, but my role (founder and moderator/owner) is coming to an end as of January 1. We've been together for seven years; I hosted the first retreat when 13 women came to my house for the weekend having never met in person before. We've met five other times since.
If any of you have planted a church, started a group, organized a book club and it grows into precious friendships, you probably have some idea of the pain I'm in. The worst part, however, has been continuing to invest in people when we don't share the same goals.
I started with a desire to offer mothers at home a way out of the dailiness of household duties. We could talk about books, art, music, movies and faith online. This was back in the early days of online communities. A group of us started out together on a discussion board and it quickly became a popular place to read and chat, argue and laugh. One of the primary planks of my original goals included a desire for diversity - the idea that it would be great to get to know women whose ideas and life experiences were different than mine. I admit to being a bit of a junkie for new stuff. I love to examine and experience difference. It's not enough to me to read about a foreign country, I want to be overwhelmed by it, to live in it, not just visit.
And I was a former missionary. Seeking out worldviews besides mine has been my spiritual DNA since Campus Crusade in college. I've never been a part of the lockdown "enclave" culture of homeschooling Christianity.
As I've changed in my own spirituality, my reasons for wanting to know others has also grown. There's so much mischaracterization of anyone different from us that it seems important to know people on their own terms, to understand them for who they say they are, not who my group thinks they are.
So I had this idea that discussing the humanities in a diverse group of women would lead to enriched lives. In that group, I pictured Muslims, atheists, Jews, agnostics, all sorts of Christians, rich, poor, working and stay-at-home moms, feminists, traditionalists, all colors, and even different nationalities (though I had no idea how we'd find them). I knew it would take time to organize a climate that would be inviting to such a disparate group and contented myself to begin with who I knew: Christian homeschooling mothers.
I know--sounds counterintuitive and it was. Why would I think homeschoolers (the group known for withdrawing from the culture to protect their children) would be open to and interested in the even wider culture of our globalized world?
Well, they said they were... at least, they were as far as other Christianities were concerned.
Over the last seven years, among us, several reformed Protestants have converted to Catholicism, some of the conservatives have left the faith all together, and others have simply modified their understanding of Chrisitanity to include ways of being Christian they had not known or understood before. Lots of parenting and schooling changes occured, some of the women were unhappily divorced, others brought new friends to us that changed our group from mostly Republican to including a few Democrats.
For me, every addition of a new perspective charged me and made me feel I was tapping into this larger world. I brought what I was learning in grad school to the table with me to share and discuss. It felt exciting.
But something happened, particularly in the last four years. Conflict over religious beliefs grew. Rather than being able to hear a perspective and simply understand how it works for the other person, debates about which ideas were more true became common. Those debates at times led to deeply hurt feelings. To cope with the hurt, some members stopped posting in threads about religion or controversial topics (homosexuality, feminism, agnosticism, goddess worship) and some of the agnostics et. al. quit posting all together feeling unwelcome.
Over time, I gradually realized that this group did not ever really buy into the original vision. In point of fact, when I started the group, I was still an evangelical Christian. As I've changed, the anxiety about where I would "take" the group grew and I felt it.
Finally, this past month, I realized that the community needed to be set free from my aspirations. It was extremely painful to say goodbye to my vision and to watch friends I have loved show such relief at having the chance to define themselves away from the desire to know other people and points of view. So many of them have now said proudly and boldly that they never supported my vision, that theological discussions seemed "weird," that they had no interest in nor were curious about what a Muslim or atheist thinks, blah, blah, blah. It's pretty stunning, actually.
What I don't understand is this: How can traditional Christians of either Protestant or Catholic extraction criticize the media, Muslims, atheists, scientists and secular humanists for mischaracterizing Christians when these same Christians don't even want to know those people, or read about their ideas? Why would non-Christians have an accurate understanding of Christians they can't know and who don't want an accurate understanding of them?
And one last question: Have any of you seen an online discussion group succeed at fostering diversity in their conversations? If so, where?