[KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology

Edward C Appel edwardcappel at frontier.com
Fri Mar 6 13:07:34 EST 2015


A quick P.S. to my post of yesterday:

Terrence Deacon's Ginn Lectures in Atlanta WERE the two he gave to "theologians."  They were presented last October 6 and 7 at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.  This is an annual lecture series on the subject of the relationship between theology and modern science.

The other addendum I feel constrained to offer is this demurrer on Melia's take about Burke as perhaps more than just a "secular Christian." Melia asked at that ECA Burke panel what kind of Christian Burke may have actually been.  My reply would be: Unless you're talking about a doctrinally blanched, eviscerated far-left Protestantism of the kind you'd find at Judson Memorial in New York City, Burke, as I see it, was no kind of Christian.  No notion can be farther from Burke's comic frame than the historic doctrine of eternal hellfire for nonbelievers.  No conceivable "sacrifice" or "victimization" can be more "perfectly" horrible for a more "perfect"  duration.  I have never heard that doctrine preached in the Mainline Protestant Church.  It is absent from the three 20th century creeds of the Presbyterian Church USA.  Eternal separation from God can be found in the denomination's 1967 credo, but nothing else.  The Presbyterian Church was a bit right of
 center at the time.  I would assume other Mainline Protestant denominations would reflect a similar divergence from historic Christianity.  That would certainly go for the liberal Evangelical Reformed/UCC denomination I grew up in.

Burke was, to me, a prolific "user" of Christian materials and themes.  Burke might even have vouchsafed such "use" according his precept that most all things synbolic, most all genres of drama, are "useable," if you "discount for language."



On Thu, 3/5/15, Edward C Appel <edwardcappel at frontier.com> wrote:

 Subject: [KB] Burke, Deacon, and Theology
 To: kb at kbjournal.org
 Date: Thursday, March 5, 2015, 3:52 PM
     I’ve posted at length here on
 intersections between Burke and Terrence W. Deacon, Chair of
 the Department of Anthropology at Cal Berkeley, you may
 recall.  (Of equal importance, Deacon is a
 neuroscientist, as well.)  In response to a recent
 e-mail of mine on his aptly described “tour de force,”
 Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (Norton,
 2012, 2013), Professor Deacon kindly sent me additional
 materials of his: two more of his published articles,
 bringing my cache to seven in toto; and several series of
 exceedingly well wrought powerpoint frames and other visuals
 he has used in lectures at the University of Oslo in Norway,
 in Holland, the Ginn Lectures in Atlanta, and a couple of
 presentations to theologians.
     As some of you will likely suspect, the
 theology theme immediately piqued my interest.  Here we
 have, it seemed to me, another important point of
 convergence between Burke and Deacon, adding to the
 considerable list I’ve already
 outlined.   The focal reference here will be
 to Deacon’s coauthored article (with Tyrone Cashman),
 “The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of
 Religion,” Journal of Religion, Nature & Culture,
 2009, Vol. 3 No. 4, pp. 490-517.
     I want to begin, in this post, with my
 take on Burke’s anfractuous relationship to theology, then
 in a subsequent edition, summarize Deacon’s position.
     Burke, we know, claimed publicly that his
 interest in theology was entirely secular. 
 “Logology,” the late-Burke title for his philosophy
 looked at as an “epistemology,” was solely about the
 contours of symbolic action, its motives and tendentious
 operations, not about any putatively transcendental
 reality.  Logology was the “systematic study of
 theological terms for the light they might throw on the
 forms of language,” theological terms being the most
 thoroughgoing, far-reaching, ultimate terms in language,”
 language, in Burke’s pat phrase, taken to “the end of
 the line.”  Tim Crusius doubled down on Burke’s
 affirmation in Kenneth Burke and the Conversation After
 Philosophy (Southern Illinois UP, 1999), and in his review
 of Greig Henderson’s book,  Kenneth Burke: Literature
 and Language as Symbolic Action, in QJS 76 (1990), pp.
     Add to Burke’s official position on
 logology (was it, or was it not, something of a façade that
 a cluster/agon analysis can maneuver around?---I ask, and
 have asked) Burke’s private claim to have been a
 nontheist.  Wayne Booth  (“Wax ‘N Wayne,” as
 Burke would call him privately) was a frequent correspondent
 of KB’s.  In his chapter, “Kenneth Burke’s
 Religious Rhetoric: ‘God-Terms’ and the Ontological
 Proof,” in Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry
 (Yale UP, 2000, pp. 25-46), Booth takes note of Burke’s
 demurrer.  (See, also, “The Many Voices of Kenneth
 Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to
 Me,” in Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about
 Kenneth Burke, Eds. Henderson and Williams [Southern
 Illinois UP, 2001, pp. 179-201], where Booth offers a second
 reprise on his 1996 plenary address at the Duquesne
 Conference, i.e., the Third Triennial.)
     On his actual belief or nonbelief, I
 think we have to take Burke at his word.  Let’s
 assume he was the nontheist he told people he was.
     That having been said, Burke’s
 demonstrable theological obsession cannot be gainsaid. 
 In Literature and Language (1988), Henderson looked behind
 the curtain: “For Burke logology is in some sense a
 surrogate theology.”  Greig added, “The analogies
 he makes for heuristic purposes betray a psychological need
 for a sense of permanence akin to a religious faith in the
 curative power of the word made flesh” (p. 105). 
 That same year, at ECA (April 29), Trevor Melia speculated
 about “what kind of Christian” Burke was, suggested that
 the label “secular Christian” can only be a starting
 point, and concluded that Burke was at least “up to his
 ears in Christianity.”
     At length, I had already corresponded
 with Burke on the matter (late 1983, early 1984), my case,
 “Kenneth Burke: Coy Theologian,” later published in the
 Journal of Communication and Religion (September,
 1993).  Burke had even allowed at the Philadelphia
 Conference (March,1984) that I had made a “powerful
 argument” that he was a theologian.  I got that news
 from Herb Simons, who was present at the after-hours
 discussion several key scholars had had with Burke after the
 first day’s seminars.
     Other names that can be added to these
 speculations about Burke and religion include, as per Booth
 in that Yale publication, Burks, Carter, Duerden, Durham,
 Freccero, Gunn, Gusfield, and Jay.  And I can add
 Richard Thames and Steven Mailloux to their number
 (Steve’s paper at the Ghent Conference: “Under the Sign
 of Theology: Kenneth Burke on Language and the Supernatural
     I won’t lay out my entire case on Burke
 as “coy theologian.”  But I’ll highlight a few
 central points:
     The bottom line in my correspondence with
 KB, and in my journal piece, was this: It doesn’t matter
 what Burke personally believed or did not believe. 
 When a theorist posits that symbolizers are inherently
 “theotropic”---I’m borrowing a term from Steve
 here---that theorist is at least a “generic”
 theologian.  A “lure” in rhetoric, whether in
 “error” or not, strongly nudges homo loquax “Upward”
 not only toward a “god term” in general, but also toward
 the most “perfectly” satisfying God-term of all (GM, pp.
 306; RM, pp. 275-76, 290-91; RR).
     And especially when it can be related to
 extant or historic theological systems, that generic
 theology takes on some kind of shape, affords a bit of
 implicit commentary this ubiquitous attribute.  I’ve
 characterized Burke’s dramatism/logology as a
 quasi-gnostic (a radical sense of a “Fall” into
 language, not into a lustful body) universalism (the quest
 for a “god-term” that unites all of humanity, and a
 focal program aimed at “purifying” conflict and
 “war”), friendly to Whitehead’s process theology (with
 its dialectics, de-perfecting of the Godhead, and rejection
 of a life after death; note what Burke said in the movie
 shown at Airlie House, 1993).
     Add to these pillars of support what I
 would conceive as Burke’s occasional drift into
 theological principles in the paradigm sense, i.e.,
 statements that have to do with, or surely adumbrate, the
 actual existence of a Divine Essence of a kind.  When
 Burke says the “extrahuman ground” out of which humans
 proceeded “contains the principle of personality, quite as
 it contains the principle of verbalizing,” that this
 “’nonverbal’ ground must have contained the
 ‘potentiality’ of the verbal, otherwise the verbal could
 not have emerged from it,” Burke has crossed the line, I
 would suggest, into theology or religion proper (RM, pp.
     An analogous proposition is found in the
 Calabi-Yau version of string theory via the “anthropic
 principle,” the “notion that the observed laws of nature
 must be consistent with the presence of intelligent life
 and, specifically, the presence of intelligent observers
 like us.  Put in other terms, the universe looks the
 way it does because if conditions were even slightly
 different, life would not have formed and humans would not
 be around to observe it” (Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis,
 The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of
 the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions , Basic Books, 2010, p.
     Analogous, also, as I see it, is this
 quotation highlighted in one of Deacon’s two Ginn
 Lectures: “We need an understanding of nature such that it
 is not absurd to say that it has us as its products,” by
 Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine and the physicist Victor J.
 Stenger.  (“Naturalizing Teleology: The Redemption of
 Science by the Rediscovery of Self and Value,” Deacon,
         Illustrative of what different
 observers will “see” in a given statement, question,
 lacuna, or phenomenon, Stenger was one of the “new
 atheists,” author of God: The Failed Hypothesis: How
 Science Shows That God Does not Exist, 2007.  Stenger,
 former blogger for the Huffington Post, famously said,
 “Science flies you to the moon.  Religion flies you
 into buildings.”  One could just as “truthfully”
 say, “Religion prepares meals, low cost or free, for the
 elderly and needy in Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania, and in
 other communities across the world.  The likes of
 godless communism and Nazism kills a hundred million
 persons, give or take a few tens of millions, in quest of a
 ‘heaven’ on earth.”
     As Burke says, symbols unite and divide,
 select in and select out, induce attention toward and induce
 attention away from.  Pick the blinkered lenses of your
 choice.  They’re all free!
     So, later, an examination of the case for
 the ubiquity of religion Deacon and Cashman make in the
 article that concludes: “We speculate that something like
 a religious predisposition, in the most general sense of the
 term, should be considered a universal consequence of the
 symbolic capacity evolving, whether here on earth, or in any
 other context where symbolic cognition might arise.”
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