[KB] "Deacon"-structing Burke Part Whatever

Cerling, Lee cerling at marshall.usc.edu
Mon Nov 3 18:04:02 EST 2014

Okay, Greg; that is a very helpful, clarifying response.  Here is a point on which I think we have a genuine disagreement.  You say in your response:

"But I do believe that as soon as a group of people believes a text to be the word of God it amounts to stepping on a banana peel and initiates a skid straight into authoritarianism. And there may also be a bundle of motivations involved in believing a text to be divinely inspired, but one clear consequence is authoritarianism—even where the text in question may claim to be, as you claim for the New Testament, anti-authoritarian. You can’t fight the authoritarian fire with more fire. And the history of the Catholic Church as an institutional religion perfectly illustrates this."

I think that is the wrong metaphor to illustrate how these kinds of texts function in actual human societies.  I think that, whenever a powerful text arises (whether there is the claim to divine inspiration or not), institutions arise that try to enforce specific readings of that text.   So in my view, powerful texts, sacred or secular, are typically appropriated by human beings toward authoritarian ends; and this is a feature of human societies, an anthropological/sociological point, more than a rhetorical point.  This is as true of the Declaration of Independence as of the (Jewish) Scriptures and the (Christian) Bible.  There is always an attempt at “institutional capture” of a text.

However, what is delightful and maddening in human history is that, however well-designed or well-intentioned the texts are (i.e., covenants/catechisms/constitutions/contracts/etc.), institutions can never absolutely control the meanings of texts, and the texts constantly break out beyond the bounds of the apparent intentions of their authors.  Thus, “all men are created equal” was appropriated by women and slaves, despite American institutional attempts to prevent those readings.

I believe that language always does that; that this is characteristic, irreducible power (dynamos) of human language.  And I believe that this power (dynamos) can be even more present in texts believed to be divinely inspired than in “secular” texts.  Thus the biblical language that describes divine speech is frequently organic:  seed, fire, rain, light—always moving, growing, transforming, changing, illuminating things.  Language is not static; this is a point well recognized in the Western religious traditions, and I believe in the Eastern traditions as well.

So to me, the history of the Catholic Church as an institution illustrates the exact opposite of what you take it to illustrate:  despite its attempt to control the reading of the text, it failed completely and utterly, resulting in both the hundreds of Protestant denominations, and even resulting in the Enlightenment and contemporary secularism, by my way of reading history (fwiw, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation makes that kind of an argument).

For a Burkean, this rhetorical overflow and richness of language that necessarily results in multiple readings of the text is an obvious logological point.  For a theologian, such an array of readings might either be taken as a sign of the Holy Spirit (I.e., Luther’s own view), or as a sign of devilish schism (I.e., the Pope’s view).  Regardless, there is this rhetorical point:  the language cannot be always appropriated for authoritarian ends; the language that authoritarians rely on to reinforce their authority always slips out of their control to ends that subvert their intentions.  This loss of control of the text is a deliberate rhetorical project; and a great part of the delight of knowing Burke, in my view, is that he helps us see much more clearly how this rhetorical process works.

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