There is little doubt that we are living in a “digital age,” an age characterized by a move to the virtual and the electronic. The COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated this trajectory to the point of no return. From an ecclesial perspective, parishes are equipped to live-stream their liturgies, and the need for a functioning and updated website has never been greater. From an academic perspective, virtual learning has become mainstream, along with conferences and webinars that scholars can participate in from the comfort of their home. Amidst the flurry of these innovations, one shift has remained under the radar: the role of theological education in the Digital Age.
Since its genesis, Christianity has embraced the media necessary for effective communication. This is why, for example, St. Paul wrote letters to various church communities to convey his message as opposed to painting pictures on the walls of a cave. From writing letters to composing dense theological treatises, to radio and television, to our days of the Internet, Christian leaders have found it necessary to utilize the best forms of communication in order to spread the Good News. But the democratization of the Internet—the fact that anyone can publish a blog or upload a video—has had unfortunate consequences for theological education. While there have always been false teachers, never before have such teachers been able to reach millions of souls in seconds.
There exists, simultaneously, both theology and pseudo-theology in the Digital Age. By this, I mean that the same channels used to promote authentic and well-researched theology are also used, and oftentimes in greater numbers and force, to promote a hollow “theology” which lacks basic and fundamental coherence. One needs only to search “Orthodox Christianity” on YouTube to find a variety of armchair “experts” who spread a garden variety of errors to their tens of thousands of viewers. Lacking a proper theological education and formation, they tell their audience that baptisms not done in triple-immersion are “invalid,” that the Catholic and Orthodox communions ruptured over “scholasticism” (unaware of Orthodoxy’s own scholastic tradition), as well as rehashing old, tired polemics on the papacy, Mariology, and ecumenism. Across various social media platforms, pseudo-theology spreads virally through tweets and memes, while monographs and careful studies remain untouched by everything but dust.
While such polemical and little-researched views are by no means novel to our current age, it is concerning how increasing and influential these views are to a wide audience. For example, one particular internet personality who has effectively become the public face of “Orthodoxy” in the West, uploads dozens of videos which often reflect the ahistorical, myopic view of Orthodox Christianity that, thirty years ago, one would find in the pamphlets of fringe communities. Whereas one scholar’s reflection on natural theology in the Orthodox tradition gained less than 1,400 views, the aforementioned internet personality’s video decrying Rome, ecumenism, and the idolatry of Catholics has reached 30,000 views and counting. A parish priest’s presentation entitled “Gay Iconoclasm: Holding the Line against the Radical LGBT Agenda” has 78,000 views; a more nuanced and focused discussion of same-sex identity and the Orthodox tradition has less than 400. It is not uncommon to see the comment section filled with people who credit their conversion to Orthodoxy to these popular speakers. In my own personal experience, I have come across many people who credit their conversion to YouTube channels more than to their actual, lived experience within a parish community.
There is no shortage of Orthodox theologians today, but there is a shortage of interest in their scholarship. There is a radical disconnect between the work of these scholars and the content consumed by the majority. Of course, academic scholarship has always had the academy itself as its main target audience, and there is certainly a place for specialized communities. But what is happening now is that those qualified and able to teach Orthodox theology are not the main teachers for the majority of Orthodox Christians. Even pastors themselves, once considered the main source of knowledge and education for the average Orthodox adherent, have lost influence due to the Digital Age. Instead of being formed by the local parish priest or one’s spiritual father, Orthodox Christians today are influenced more by strangers on the Internet who claim to be authoritative teachers of the faith, and whose savvy with digital communication seduces vulnerable minds. Put simply, it is entirely possible for someone considering Orthodox Christianity to have Internet pundits and personalities as their primary formators and teachers, many of whom are not equipped with the intellectual, spiritual, or moral discipline needed to teach the faith. Meanwhile, most Orthodox theologians continue to write for the academy and often remain isolated in their metaphorical ivory towers. Whenever they do emerge from the academy and venture into the public sphere, they are ridiculed and dismissed as heterodox.
Our digital age is also called the “Information Age” because of the vast amount of material that is available by a simple click of the mouse. And despite its usefulness, such unlimited access to information can be dangerous. If in the past, one needed to be trained in philosophy and theology before teaching, the present age is rife with untrained teachers who themselves never truly learned the material they claim to know. Access to information, such as the works of the Church Fathers or the canons of the Church, does not necessarily mean that one understands the information one possesses. And yet, in the digital marketplace of ideas, the loudest voices are the ones who can shout simple platitudes over careful argumentation and explanation. As the modern world continues to turn to the digital, it is imperative that Orthodox theologians engage the public. Part of winning a battle is in the act of showing up, and until more theologians consciously work to combat this pseudo-theology by engaging it directly on social media platforms, it will continue to be a one-sided affair.
John A. Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at Duquesne University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.