Discuss "Canonical Doubt, Critical Certainty: Counter-Conventions in Augustine and Kenneth Burke" by Jo Scott-Coe

Situating Burke's Thought

This is the first of four posts totaling about 1300 words.

Jo Scott-Coe's article and Ed Appel's responses are both insightful and interesting, but one thing I would like to see more of would be an attempt to follow Burke's practice of situating his thought (e.g., the "purification of war" as an alternative to "fanaticism" at one extreme and "dissipation" at the other [GM 318-19]).

In one of his responses (12/13/04, 2:12 pm, p. 2). Ed refers to my remarks at the panel on Burke and education at NCA, but he misheard me insofar as he leaves out the situational side of what I said. My emphasis was not historical ("Robert Wess raised the question of why there's so much religiosity in the air right now") but situational: how should one respond to this religiosity, now that it's becoming more mainstream? More narrowly, since the panel was addressing the question of how to use Burke in an educational context, I was asking the panelists how they might use Burke to counter this religiosity in the classroom context. But my situational concern is not limited to this context.

I consider religion one of the most dangerous things in the world right now because of the way it's creeping into political decision making. Bill Moyers recently offered a striking example in his remarks upon receiving the "Global Environmental Citizen Award" from Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment. Moyers recalled, Remember James Watt, President Reagan's first secretary of the Interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in the light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." ( Regardless of whether this Watt anecdote is true in fact, it's true in principle insofar as it suggests why religious thinking about first and last things, however harmless in itself, is dangerous when it appears in people with political power. Burke's "rotten with perfection" should make us worry about what might happen if someone who thinks this way got his/her hand on the nuclear trigger.

How can Burke help one to address this danger in the present situation?

More in subsequent posts--

Bob Wess

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Scott-Coe's Essay

I certainly agree with both Hawhee and Fitzgerald that it's time to push Burke's RHETORIC OF RELIGION more into the mainstream, not just for its insight into the forms of language (it's surely gotten its share of attention, within Burke studies, on that score), but also for its shrewd commentary on the imperatives of human nature. At the panel on Burke and education at NCA last month, Robert Wess raised the question of why there's so much religiosity in the air right now. The woman sitting next to him on the plane (I think it was) reading her Bible, among other mainifestations of Christian faith to cross his path, apparently filled him with wonder and trepidation. Where's all this presumptive fanaticism---the gist of Bob's inquiry---coming from in this enlightened day and age? I responded with Burke's definition of logology---the systematic study of theological terms for the light they may throw on the forms of language---with its implicit assertion that theological concepts and beliefs will surely be with us always, even unto the end of the age.

I should have gone further with that thought, however. It's Burke's philosophy that can explain the recrudescence of Fundamentalism in our time, not any positivism, empiricism, or scientism. From a scientistic standpoint, red-state revulsion at rampant sexuality and secularism in our popular culture is inexplicable. To a modernist, maybe even postmodernist, mindset, liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick's naive prediction of 75 years ago would make eminent sense: Someday everybody's going to think like me. The dictates of the hortatory negative and its perfectionist residues will be rescinded. Under the irresistible weight of scientific demystifications, religion, except in its etiolated mainstream forms, will wither.

In my view, Scott-Coe brilliantly brings these issues to the fore once again. She makes Burke's inherently theological system (well, Chesebro called it a System in the title of HIS book) stand out clearly, figure/ground, in apt comparison with Augustine and counterpositioning with Ramus. Was Burke a theologian, and if so, what kind? Scott-Coe offers some neat stuff in partial answer to that query. (A definitive answer is not in the offing to that, as well as many other, questions about Burke and his philosophy.)

I hope to get to some of this neat stuff in later posts. If I can find them in my deep files, I might share, also, a couple of Burke's epistolary answers to my claim that he was, in fact, a theologain of a kind.

Poet, then actor, then theologian---aren't those the metaphors Burke proposed, in serial progression, for the symbol-using animal?

If you dare, tell me that's not so.

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rhetoric and religion

Jo Scott-Coe's article might be usefully brought into a larger conversation about new scholarly attention to religion. Today's Chronicle features a review-ish article by Alan Wolfe called Scholars Infuse Religion with Cultural Light, in which Wolfe points to the recent focus on religion among scholars, occasioned in part by the election's focus on religion (and also, I imagine, world religions). Wolfe discusses religion's importance sociology and anthropology, but it seems to me that rhetoric should and must be added to the mix. Cary Nelson, a former colleague of mine, and by no means a theologian, teaches Burke's Rhetoric of Religion to undergrads for precisely the point of moving discussions of religion away from truth or alliances with god. Is it time to push RoR into the mainstream?

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