[KB] "Deacon"-structing Burke Part Whatever

Gregory Desilet info at gregorydesilet.com
Tue Nov 4 12:29:25 EST 2014

Lee—I agree with everything you say about language in this last post. But here I only see you making the same case I’m making. I agree that texts always slip out of the control of authorities and subvert their intentions. We see this with virtually every written law. But this is exactly why the claim to a divinely inspired text is a useful yet dangerous tool for authority. It serves as an artificial brake on the runaway nature of language and provides justification for authorities to rule out different readings. 

The claim that a text is divinely inspired or authored serves only to institute an “authorized” reading so as to render that reading unaccountable and unassailable. To every question put to the Bible, for example, the only answer that need be given is: “because it’s the word of God.”

The problem is attitudinal—the attitude that the divinely inspired text has only one true reading or message. Even where the hierarchy may not actually believe the text is the word of God, if this notion is successfully sold to the parishioners it serves to legitimize Church authority. In the history of the Catholic Church, for example, alternate readings are not just other readings but heretical readings. This quality of divinely inspired texts helped to institutionalize the authority of the Church for centuries. For who would challenge God?

I grant there are other non-religious texts that attain to similar status as so-called divinely inspired texts, such as the U.S. Constitution, but this only confirms the tendency to rigidify a text for purposes of “institutional capture” of its meaning. This process is just the secular equivalent to divinizing a text. But in the secular arena of the Constitution, this process is ultimately arrested and exposed to accountability because the Constitution can be changed—although the process is difficult. If the Constitution were held to be divinely inspired like the Bible, there would be no institutional process for changing its language. The language would be set in stone—like the Ten Commandments. But this is clearly not the case with the Constitution.

As I’ve argued previously, secular equivalents to divinely instituted religious authority occur when a leader assumes the position of unaccountable authority. This amounts to the divinization of the ruler. In some cases, as you point out, such rulers actually insist on being treated as divine beings. Others, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao effectively attain that status without claiming divinity, but nevertheless wield unaccountable authority like a god.

So, in my view, unaccountability is the broader problem. But one popular tool in the toolbox for unaccountable power is the claim to divinity—either for a text or a person or both. At the end of the day, I do not understand any desire to salvage respect for such claims, especially given what we know about language and human behavior.



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