Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's the end of my online world

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?

11 comments:

Tia said...

"To your last question: yes. It was "diaper" loop of all places. Back when I was cloth diapering my 4th child I got on this loop as part of the Born To Love company. A group of us quickly became friends. We were: a practicing christian, a non practicing christian, a catholic, a buddhist, an athiest, and a pagan. We were from parts of the US and Canada, some rural, some urban. We conversed for about three years, until the point when all of us had no diapered babies and we just got involved in other things. We still send christmas cards. It was a just a conversation, a group of friends, with no agenda other than to love one another. Very much like Alanis's Utopia.

Ish said...

The problem is that when we actually listen to other people's points of view, we might realize that we have been wrong about something.

This line of reasoning then says, "If I was wrong about that, what else am I wrong about?" Identity crisis soon follows :-).

Yes, it's a slippery slope argument. BUT, and it's a BIG but, it is a very common thought process. I've wrestled with it, and I know many others who have also. I think it's the problem that Jesus ran into, too. His words changed people's hearts and minds.

People don't like change! :-)

Oh well! Glad you find it easy, and glad I'm finding it easier.

Dave said...

So... do you feel fine?

As a list-owner and "community founder" myself (the PoMoXian group), I empathize deeply with the sense of loss and transition you describe here. It sounds like you came to this decision yourself... whatever the case may be, I can understand having some complex, mixed feelings about it all, especially given some of the responses from others that you mention.

I think it's truly difficult to maintain an ideal of diversity in on-line forums, unless the forum itself is clearly and strictly dedicated to that purpose. There's little that compels people to participate in them, especially if the going gets rough or they don't feel ego strokes from having their ideas and beliefs validated by the majority as much as they'd like. And even if there's a period of time when diversity, dialogue and lively debate flourishes, as it has in your group and in mine, the time seems to inevitably come when what's to be said has been said and people move on to other things as their lives and perspectives change.

I think PoMoXian has hosted some great exchanges between people of diverse points of view over the years, if I can do a little self-promotion, but even so, the diversity is relatively limited, and from some perspectives, the differences would not seem very significant at all - for the most part we're a bunch of middle-class white suburbanites engaged in refined if not obscure theological discussions. Anyone could subscribe, but relatively few would feel that they have something to contribute that would be taken seriously, if one considers the general population.

But your second-to-last question is, to me, the more penetrating and significant one, and really exposes the self-serving nature of most ideologically-driven movements, whether they be religious, political or more generally cultural in nature. People are often less interested in understanding and being understood than they are in "winning" - until we are able to regard the other as worthy of respect and integral as they are, rather than as either "ally" or "enemy," considerations such as dialogue, exchange, exploration, pluralism, and mutual understanding really don't have much value, other than as tactics aimed at giving us a relational advantage (by winning trust and causing the other to let the guards down.)

But we often have a hard time admitting such calculations, even to ourselves.

Ampersand said...

Wow, Dave, what an awesome comment. Sadly, I think you are right -- especially about people not really wanting to understand and be understood.

What people really do want, I think, is to feel a part of a group or community. And a shared ideology enhances that feeling.

Kim

julieunplugged said...

Ish, I will say that I don't fiind it easy to listen to others, but that I feel compelled to anyway. I consider it a moral obligation, akin to paying taxes and being honest.

Curiosity is an under appreciated virtue because at heart, Americans have been trained in ideological provincialism. We are tutored in it daily in our technologically saturated world where we can create self-selected environments that never trigger discomfort let alone challenge.

Yet to lead a life that is genuinely open to others is what creates a world of peace and ironically, is what Jesus modeled. we love his stories but hate the thought of living them out.

Julie

julieunplugged said...

Dave, you said:

People are often less interested in understanding and being understood than they are in "winning" - until we are able to regard the other as worthy of respect and integral as they are, rather than as either "ally" or "enemy," considerations such as dialogue, exchange, exploration, pluralism, and mutual understanding really don't have much value, other than as tactics aimed at giving us a relational advantage (by winning trust and causing the other to let the guards down.)

I stopped right when I got to the word "worthy." Worthy of respect... isn't that funny that we actually have to consider human beings, made of the same cytoplasm as us, worthy (worth our time, interest, faith) before we will get past our own myopias?

I was thinking the other day how much we crave being known as we are, not according to stereotypes, not according to someone's dismissive comments, not according to a pundits summary...

So we have to ask: how rigously have I committed myself to the discipline of doing likewise? Golden Rule writ large.

Julie

julieunplugged said...

Tia, do you think the fact that your group focused on diapering and lifestyle made it different than a group who has religious dialog as its objective?

Julie

Ampersand said...

So we have to ask: how rigously have I committed myself to the discipline of doing likewise? Golden Rule writ large.

I am definitely going to keep this qustion before me.

In the consulting firm that worked for, we used to say that leadership was to show the way by going first.

TiaDavidandOurLittleChickens said...

"Tia, do you think the fact that your group focused on diapering and lifestyle made it different than a group who has religious dialog as its objective?"

I'm glad you asked because I was washing dishes last night and thinking this very thing! We started talking about diapering and then went to OT as long as the list tolerated it and then when it didn't, we formed our own.

I think an outside commonality (diapers) brought people together who found that they "clicked" with one another; found a kindredness beyond diapers and unbound by religous walls.

I think we hurt ourselves a group though when we formed our own list. It was too sequestered and the conversation began to lag.

There must be a balance some where between a huge group with little intimacy and a closed group that stagnates. Or at least I hope there must. It may still only be beauty in the eye of beholder.

Kansas Bob said...

I used to think that one of the secrets of life was encapsulated in the word "relationship" ... not sure that I now think that. I think that a better word is friendship ... something that is built on a heart connection and not just a common interest. Friendships will survive when realtionships implode.

So sad that so many Christians only have friendships amongst themselves and not among others outside of their belief system. I think that is because of a deep insecurity that is challenged by people who are different.

Bill Tammeus, a retired KC Star columnist, hosts a very diverse weblog where I sometimes comment. We commenters recently shared a meal with Bill ... it was a wonderful experience.

Steve said...

Julie:

First, may I share my feelings on this. Here: arrrggg. There, feel better already. I will be posting soon on my coffee conversation with a very cool Fuller professor who I chatted with about the missional church. We so DON'T get it, what is means to really follow Christ (me included). Duh!

I have to go now, and get on my furskin coat for the Creation Museum West....NOT!