Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Commenting in the Celestial Lands

I remember a conversation one day in the Curtis Room at Meadville Lombard Theological School, where among the students that had gathered were several seminarians who were active UU bloggers, myself included. We were discussing some of our motivations for our regular online writing about our Liberal Faith tradition, about what the benefits to us were in our theological formation, and about what some of the challenges were of maintaining such a public online presence.

The conversation predictably turned to a few of the more obstreperous personalities that like to post comments in the UU Blogging world (several of whom are bloggers themselves), and to the topic of freedom of speech vs. responsibility. As I have had some private conversations this week with one of the obstreperous personalities who is a denizen of the Celestial Lands, that conversation in the Curtis Room has come back for me. As we talked about a few of those obstreperous persons, I remember thinking, “Nothing would tickle their fancy more than to know that seminarians at one of our denominational seminaries are spending their time discussing them for an hour”.

I have hesitated to write this article for that very reason… that even having this “process” discussion encourages the online behavior that some find offensive, abusive, or disruptive. In writing this article, I want to make it clear I am not talking about any one individual, nor am I seeking to critique how anyone else manages the different people they meet or relationships that they form through their practice of blogging. In truth, with my military connections and stated Christian identity I seem to garner a whole different group of individuals who leave comments either in my email or on my blog that are of questionable intent. My most regular engagement with online personalities that are “difficult” comes in the form of emails and posts from very conservative Christians that center around my eternal damnation. Some frame it a little nicer in the beginning… but we eventually get there. Some of those seek to offer a counterpoint to my theological articles so as to “save the souls of any innocents who come by and are deceived by me” (to paraphrase one post). Others are just pretty graphic in describing what they “know” will happen to me after I die.

Notice that you almost never see these comments actually appear on the Celestial Lands. Every once in awhile a conservative Christian will begin a conversation with me that seems open and engaging, only to move to one of these two places after a few posts. I’m always deeply saddened when that happens, because I really do love engaging the theological system that I left in my young adult years. I find that open engagement with that theology helps me to grow in Liberal Faith.

The more common group of posters that some in the UU blogging world have found to be obstreperous have been commenters who operate from a single-issue or single-focus place, and seek to move any discussion or article that you write toward these areas of their interest. This is actually a bigger “hook” for me in general, especially because the straw-man type tactics that such commenters often employ are very frustrating to me… and so instead of just declining their comments, I try to engage them and pull them back to the original topic of the article. I have gotten better at simply declining comments that appear to be going this route.

One colleague told me recently that she really wanted to comment on a post, but she was intimidated by one particular commenter who kept trying to pull the conversation away from the topic and to something that was only tangentially related. At the end of reading the exchange between that commenter and I, she was so worn out she decided to just talk to me about her thoughts the next time she saw me. While I loved her observations on my article, I wish she could have shared them here at the Celestial Lands. Lesson learned.

So, I have developed my own standards for what comments I allow to be posted at the Celestial Lands. In light of the conversation within the UU Blogosphere around how we engage with those who comment on our blogs, I thought I would share those with you. I will state from the outset that there are a few theoretical stances I took in developing this system of standards, and perhaps it would be best to begin there. These are my opinions, and I am not claiming they should be adopted by anyone other than myself.

Concept 1: Freedom of Speech does not mean that anyone gets to post anything they want in the Celestial Lands. Freedom of Speech means that each person has the right to have their own blog or website and post what they wish there. I would advise them to be aware of the libel laws, but beyond that, say what you will on your own space. Blogspace is plentiful and, so long as you have internet access, can even be free (though I pay for Celestial Lands).

Concept 2: One of the aspects of a life journey in the Liberal Ministry is a life lived in public reflection. For many ministers, this is expressed primarily through our sermons, but for ministers who choose to blog I believe that public life extends to the internet. I am aware that some ministers choose to blog anonymously, and I respect that choice even if I do not agree with it. In my opinion when we accept a call to the ministry, we accept that we are living a public life, with all of the benefits and responsibilities that entails.

Concept 3: As the owner of the Celestial Lands website (and blog), the ultimate responsibility for what is presented on this website falls on me. I am responsible for what any commenter says on the web-space that I own and present. Therefore I have not only the right but the responsibility to monitor and moderate all comments posted on this blog to make sure they are not libelous, slanderous, or in other ways outside the bounds of respect and love. With that responsibility comes the privilege of making sure that the message that is presented on the website that I own and operate is one that is in-tune with my theology and values. I love debate, but only when both sides are open to it actually being a debate, and show a basic level of respect for one another.

Concept 4: I am responsible to many different entities other than myself, by my own choice, and I may moderate any comments at Celestial Lands based upon those responsibilities. This includes, but is not limited to, my responsibilities to the U.S. Army, to my colleagues and fellow ministers of Liberal Faith, to my denomination/association, and to my family and friends. Therefore I am empowered to decline or approve comments based upon how they affect the web of responsibilities that I hold.

Concept 5: Celestial Lands exists primarily for the benefit of David Pyle (aka, me). Celestial Lands is a place where my thoughts and ideas are privileged, and I make no excuses for that. This is not a discussion forum. I run Celestial Lands because I find it useful to put my thoughts and ideas in the public sphere for comments from colleagues, as well as for my own internal process of clarification. I’m willing to admit I have selfish intent with this site… and the benefits I have reaped from it over the years have been incalculable.

Concept 6: Commenting on the Celestial Lands is not the only way to communicate with me. I have at least one public email address (david@celestiallands.org) and a plethora of others that are not hard to find. If someone really wanted to discuss something with me, they could easily find an email. So, if someone is dead-set on posting their comment after I have offered to discuss it in email instead, I am obviously not who they really want to talk to. If their comment or question is germane to the topic of an article, wonderful! If not, and I’m really who you want to talk to, send me an email. Otherwise, write about it on your own blog. Some of those who have had such email conversations with me can testify, I really do respond to email conversations!

Ok, now that some of the theoretical points I use to approach my practice of blogging are out there, here are some of the question guidelines I use in approving or disapproving comments.  I’m not perfect, and they do not cover all situations… but here is what I try to think about in making the decision about a comment: 

1. Is this comment on topic with the article that it is related to, or does it seek to move the conversation away from the topic I have presented?

2. Is this comment a re-hashing of an argument/debate that the commenter and I have had several times to no resolution?

3. Does this comment violate or endanger any of the multiple layers of responsibilities that I hold?

4. Is this comment presented in an open and engaging manner? Does it show a basic level of respect for myself and for the values that I hold?

5. Does this comment present a challenging line of thought that I would find it useful to engage with?

6. Is this comment a disguised advertisement for the commenter’s own website/product/organization/pet project etc.?

7. Would this comment be better addressed in response to a different article at Celestial Lands?

8. What I am saying theologically, culturally, or ethically by allowing this comment to be posted? Does it violate any of my core values?

9. If the comment is not appropriate, is there a way that I can negotiate with the commenter to bring the core of the comment into the discussion in a productive and engaging way?

10. If the comment is not appropriate, can it be engaged in another medium (such as email, or the writing of a new article, etc.)

11. If the comment is questionable about whether or not it is appropriate, can something of the commenter’s intent be learned from how they have previously posted comments on this or other websites?

Whenever I choose not to approve a comment, I send an email explaining briefly why the comment was not approved, at least the first couple of times. I have found that some people do not respond (or even notice), and that for others such emails explaining the reasons are just fuel on an already unstable fire. What has amazed me is that, on a few occasions, such emails have turned into deep and abiding conversations around many different topics. A few of the conservative Christians who wrote posts telling me I was going to hell were able to become very engaging and somewhat open when the conversation was moved out of the public sphere of the blogs and into email. I have enjoyed those conversations immensely.

Yet in all aspects of Celestial Lands, I have found a mantra that has been my guide… I must be true to myself. This website and its attached blog are a reflection of who I am, and I will work to make sure that it stays that way. It is my little space on the World Wide Web… and everyone else is entitled to their own little space.

Just like a guest in my home, if you cannot respect my space, I will ask you to leave. But if you can and do, then I welcome and love the fellowship!

Yours in faith,


2 Thoughts on “Commenting in the Celestial Lands

  1. A quote from an old blog posting:

    One observation that Teresa Nielsen Hayden made which I’d never heard expressed quite in this fashion before was (to the effect that–a paraphrase, he said sadly): I’ve seen a lot more speech suppressed by arguments over free speech than by moderation.

    (I can’t believe my anti-spam word for this is “reason”.)

  2. Donald Wilton on Thursday May 13, 2010 at 15:28 +0000 said:

    I think that its important that you have stated rules that determine who you eliminate and that you publish them. I have hesitated to ask about your policies since I have never been censored even if you have never replied 😉

    Your policies make sense since you are publishing your posts on the blog for your reasons and replying to people who fail to see that the underlaying reason is one of a Liberal theologial nature. You aren’t publishing to argue with people for its own sake, nor providing a service even if you do refer people to resources. This is a career builder for a military chaplain and when people respond to you they have to fall into a utilitarian category relative to your reason for having the blog.

    Thanks for posting your rules.

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