In Jerusalem's ancient temple of King Herod, there was an outer courtyard in which Greeks, Romans and non-Jews could gather to pray, pose questions and debate with any religious authorities willing to do so.
Whether modern clergy want to admit it or not, Facebook has turned into a "Court of the Gentiles" for two billion-plus users, said Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaking recently at Facebook headquarters near San Jose, Calif. Social media is where people air their doubts and convictions, hatreds and hopes.
Religion is often a bone of contention on Facebook, said Baron, an auxiliary bishop known for years of work online and in mass media. However, these digital faith fights rarely offer constructive arguments that produce clarity and understanding, as opposed to anger and confusion.
What the Internet needs is better arguments about religion, he said, in a talk that featured numerous lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas, but only one allusion to President Donald Trump.
"Some people say, 'Why are you encouraging people to have arguments?' By 'argument,' I mean something very positive," he said, in a talk that, logically enough, has been posted on Facebook. "If you go on much of social media -- I've been doing this now for much of the past 10 years, doing evangelization through the Internet -- you'll see a lot of energy around religious issues. There'll be a lot of words exchanged, often very angry ones -- a lot of energy, but very little real argument about matters religious. …
"That's a serious problem, because if we don't know how to argue about religion, all we're going to do is fight about religion."
Many Facebook combatants act like they can force other people into agreement, he said. Others "throw up their hands" and assume it's impossible to make progress when dealing with religion. True arguments take place in the middle, among people who believe faith and reason can work together.
For example, explained the bishop, consider what happens when two people begin a relationship that's open to love and commitment. In this process, it's rational to ask lots of questions and do background work in search of answers.
But that is rarely how things get serious.
"If that relationship deepens, there will come a point when that person will reveal her heart to you. Right? That person will speak truths about herself that you could never even in principle have discovered through a Google search or a criminal background check or your own rational investigation," said Barron.
"Now, mind you, let's say that she said something about herself that was radically out of step with everything that you discovered through reason. That might make her a rather 'incredible' person. You see, when she reveals her heart to you, now you've got a choice to make. Do I believe her, or not? Do I trust what she is telling me, or not?"
The religion of the Bible argues that God has revealed himself to humanity, a process theologians call "revelation." However, Barron stressed that reason is always involved, as seekers and believers wrestle with the many parts of life that are both rational and "suprarational." Reason does not "go to sleep."
Facebook fights about religion, he added, often pivot on the claims of "scientism" -- which argues that all knowledge and wisdom can be reduced to the scientific forms of information that can be tested in a lab.
In these kinds of debates, religious believers can point to centuries of art and literature, as well as philosophy. It's hard to test the contents of Dante's "Divine Comedy" in a laboratory and the same is true of Plato's "Dialogues," said Barron. "Shakespeare's plays are not science. … Don't tell me that there's nothing true in Shakespeare's plays."
The ultimate goal is understand what others truly believe, rather than settling for encounters in which people "pat each other on the head" and promise to keep their deepest convictions private, like hobbies that never affect real life in the real world, said the bishop. This means people should treat their debate partners with respect.
"What's off the table? Nothing, as far as I can tell," said Barron. "If you can say, 'I wonder whether there's a God,' that means all these questions are fine and fair."