[KB] "Deacon"-structing Burke Part Whatever

Cerling, Lee cerling at marshall.usc.edu
Wed Nov 5 23:13:30 EST 2014

Hi, Greg--

Just a quick response:  First, maybe we should have a panel on this or a related topic at next year's NCA?  I won't be there this year, unfortunately; but I'd love to participate in something along the lines of this discussion, if there is interest.

Second:  I think we agree on everything in your post below, but two things:

1)  Your claim that the "only" function of a claim that a text is divinely inspired is to render a particular reading unassailable is, I think, as reductionistic as to say the "only" function of rhetoric is to make the worse seem the better cause.  Creating a cover for unaccountable readings is one function; but in truth, I think it is only an *attempted* function, because I think it rarely works that way in practice.  That is, the claim is generally either contested or ignored; it is rarely accepted, in actual historical practice, simply on those grounds.  In practice, it is a clumsy attempt to foreclose argument; and I think it virtually never works, either at the institutional or the individual level.  No one pays attention to the preachers yelling at the people going to the football game where I live, even though they claim it is the Word of God.  And the history of the Catholic Church is a history of argument about what the Word of God, and other things such as Tradition, actually say.

2)  You question why anyone would want to salvage claims of divinity for either persons or texts.  The most obvious reason would be to continue to allow for the possibility that a person or text actually partakes in the divine, in some significant, non-trivial way.  But more than that, when I commute on the train each day, and see all of the blue-collar workers using this precious bit of free time each morning to try to read their Bibles in Spanish or Tagalog or English, and who believe that they are reading the Word of God to them personally, and trying to find comfort or meaning or guidance or something to help them through the day, why would I, as an academic, want to take this away from them, and use my position to say, either verbally or in my mind:  "There is no Word of God; you are foolish to believe it"?  And when, for example, Bishop Tutu told the apartheid-stricken South Africans that they *must* attempt reconciliation, because that was the Word of God--why would I not want to, as you say, "salvage respect for such a claim"?  I think the claim is simply not always used in service to unaccountable authority; you will have to do more to persuade me!  Perhaps at an NCA panel?

Many thanks for the response,


Sent from my iPad

On Nov 4, 2014, at 9:29 AM, Gregory Desilet <info at gregorydesilet.com<mailto:info at gregorydesilet.com>> wrote:

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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