[KB] "Deacon"-structing Burke Part Whatever

Cerling, Lee cerling at marshall.usc.edu
Sat Nov 1 23:16:48 EDT 2014


I thank everyone--Ed, Carrol, Greg, Bob--for your illuminating comments on this discussion.  Greg, your response is excellent, and I think I now perceive the heart of what is truly a profound disagreement between us, one that I don't know how to bridge.

Here is my sense of things:  Greg, perhaps I am quite mistaken on this point, but your language sounds to me like the language of a True Believer in the Church of "the Enlightenment”—a term that itself was created in order to contrast the  illumination that we derive from objective reason alone with the darkness that supposedly reigned when Divine Revelation was given a greater role in human affairs.  As a good member of that church, or so I imagine you to be, you wish to continue to exorcise the demon of "belief in the supernatural" from the thought and policy of societies and government.

But in my view, the Church of the Enlightenment has created its own Authoritarianism, and it is called "the University" (an institution which the Enlightenment has largely expropriated from the Christian Church, by the way, but generally without a word of gratitude or acknowledgment).  The University sanctions with its Divine Blessing (a degree) all who would seek positions of power or influence in the modern world:  doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists, politicians, educators, and even theologians and pastors!  (The only exceptions are people like Bill Gates, who did not get a degree, but who does have Money; and, much more dubiously, Hollywood entertainers, who have Fame.)  The reverse does not hold:  people in power do not particularly need the Divine Blessing of a religious institution in order to be successful, except in the case of politicians in places like Utah, where religion still holds considerable sway; or the nominal confession of religious belief that Presidents are still forced to acknowledge, or perish--to the great chagrin of the true believers in the Church of the Enlightenment.

For the members of the Church of the Enlightenment, those who believe in revealed religion are "the Enemy," "the Others" who do not follow the covenant; who are counter-covenant.  Those who do believe in revealed religion are only quite begrudgingly admitted a place in the University (though this is currently a source of internal division in the Church of the Enlightenment; some academics are now lobbying for all institutions that require some sort of creedal belief statement in revealed religion to be denied accreditation).  And believers in revealed religion are admitted to this Church, the Academy, under one condition:  that they keep their sin (of belief in revealed religion) very secret, and, whatever they do, they do not let it leak out or influence their scholarship.

The Church of the Enlightenment also has its ritual of scapegoating:  the Catholic Church, in particular, is a regular target.  Thus, the priestly pedophilia scandals uncovered in the early 2000's were an occasion of ritual shaming, humiliation, and scapegoating--Orange County alone settled for $100 million to bring an end to it.  In this story, pedophilia was a sign of the True Nature of the Catholic Church, the Enemy, the Other, that must be shamed into public confession of its transgression, followed by abject silence on social and moral issues.

This is quite in contrast to the public school system, where sexual  scandals involving teachers and students still occur nearly every single day, on a level that quite eclipses in number and duration the sins that the Catholic Church was publicly excoriated for.  But in the case of the public school system, these scandals are not taken as a sign of its True Nature; instead, they are treated as tragic, isolated events involving a number of rogue individuals whose idiosyncratic behavior should not reflect on the beloved Public School System, nor be a reason for it to be forced to endure the scapegoating that the Catholic Church is regularly subjected to.

I, on the other hand, am not of the True Faith:  I am a Skeptic.  I am doubtful that the story about revealed religion told by the Church of the Enlightenment is the True Story; in any event, I have a very difficult time believing in it.   I don’t believe your assertion below, for example, that it was Monotheism that escalated Authoritarianism by tying it to a divine source.  I think that Pharaonic Egypt, Nebuchadnezzarean Babylon, and Rome under, say, Nero—all of which bound themselves to claims of divine authority—were every bit as Authoritarian as anything created by monotheism.

At any rate, I think it is the Academy which today is most confident in, as you say, “the certainty of the rightness of its dictates.”  One may find a Jerry Falwell here or a Pope there whose dictates have a certain following among the benighted religious.  But at least in the West, it is the Academy and its co-religionists in Science and Government that decree how we are all to live and whose Divine Imprimatur we must seek.  It is irksome to this group that anyone still listens to the Pope.

But I kind of like the Pope.  And I know I like the Bible, and its story of the possibility of love and hope and beauty, better than I like, say, Darwin and his grim story of brutal, purposeless, competitive aggression.  And if I were forced into an argument about it, I would say:  Yes, revealed religion did provide the rhetorical and other resources necessary for Luther to de-legitimize the Authoritarianism of the then-reigning Pope; and he didn't merely replace one Authoritarianism by another; but rather, through his rhetorical efforts and those of like-minded Protestants, and relying on the resources of texts they believed to be divinely inspired, an idea of religious Authoritarianism was decisively broken in Christendom.  (But that idea of religious Authoritarianism still exists in Islam.)

And one of the key texts for doing so was the text you and I both referenced:  Jesus’ disciples were arguing precisely for the institution of an authoritarian, hierarchical model, arguing amongst themselves as to which of them should be considered “the greatest.”  And Jesus replied, “You know how the Gentiles and their rulers lord it over one another.  But it shall not be so among you.  Instead, whoever would be first must be last; whoever would be greatest must be the servant of all.”  And Luther used that language, and similar language, to skewer and de-legitimize not only the Pope, but the very way of thinking about religious authority that the Pope had come to represent.

So our disagreement, I think, stems from two fundamentally different historiographies:  one that valorizes the Enlightenment’s attitudinal stance of scorn for revealed religion, and one that regards that stance as mistaken in some important respects.  And that is why I think we view texts with a claim to divine inspiration differently.  What do you think?  Is that a genuine disagreement that we have, and an accurate reading of its source, or not?

Many thanks for a helpful discussion; and my sincere apologies for being so unskilled a writer as to be unable to make my point more concisely.


Sent from my iPad

On Oct 31, 2014, at 6:08 PM, Gregory Desilet <info at gregorydesilet.com<mailto:info at gregorydesilet.com>> wrote:

Good response, Lee. You raise an insightful question here: “In your approach to these religious texts that you believe authorize Authoritarianism, is there room to acknowledge the ways in which they may, in actual historical practice, provide the means to resist and de-legitimize Authoritarianism?”
The examples you give from the Biblical tradition seem to be on point but I find them troubling when viewed in the broader context of a cycle. Certainly divine communications, as you say, can inspire resistance to Authoritarianism, but there are many ways to resist authority and I would view the Biblical examples you give as examples of Authoritarianism vs. Authoritarianism. It is more like a way of combating authority with a “higher” authority, like fighting fire with a greater fire. Or to borrow Lee’s citing of the Biblical phrase, “lording it over other people.” My God is stronger than your God.
But the fire used to fight fire can also spin out of control and end up burning those it was initially meant to save. This was perhaps the import of a lyric from a famous 60s song: “New revolution same as the old revolution.” The revolutions just keep revolving with no real change in the structure of authority. And I would argue, as many have, that it is the structure of authority that is the real problem. When we invest too much authority at the top and make it unaccountable, we are creating the potential for a wildfire. And this is exactly what has happened in the great religious traditions.
Furthermore, as the expression “lording it over others” suggests, Authoritarianism, in the certainty of the rightness of its dictates, opens a structure creating the role of “the enemy”—the one who in Burke’s parlance is “counter-covenant.” The “enemy” becomes the “others” who do not follow the covenant, deny the covenant, or who are not of the same essence as those of the covenant. This structure brings into play all of the themes developed by Burke relating to order, secret, sin, guilt, redemption, sacrifice, scapegoating, victimage, etc.
In support of what I’m saying about Authoritarianism vs. Authoritarianism, Burke argues in RoR that no other structure, essentially different from this, is possible for human community. The only way to go forward peacefully, in Burke’s view, is to work through the human “cult of the kill” tendency by re-directing it through symbolic scapegoating rather than real bloodletting.
So in answer to Lee’s question I would respond that, yes, religions and religious texts can and do provide ways to resist Authoritarianism but they most certainly do not, on Burke’s account and in my opinion, provide a means for de-legitimizing it. In fact, religion provides the means for escalating the legitimizing process of Authoritarian structure by tying it to a divine source. Monotheism perhaps escalated this process to the nth level, in the all-powerful, all-knowing unitary Godhead. But as Lee points out, Authoritarianism can grow in many different soils and does not require this divine source for its legitimization. Instead, it can be tied to ideas or ideals, in name only, such as Justice, Equality, Freedom—which were clarion calls for Authoritarian political regimes such as 20th century fascism, communism, and totalitarianism.


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