The Rhetoric of Worldviews: Narratives of Violence and Peace

On September 16, 2014, an incident occurred at James Madison University (JMU) that soon attracted the attention of national media news outlets. A self-described preacher arrived on campus and began vilifying students in the immediate vicinity, calling them sinners and claiming that they were headed straight to hell. Some students challenged the man, and eventually a crowd gathered. What happened next was unexpected— soon a portion of the crowd began to sing the lyrics to “How He Loves,” a popular worship song, with one student leading on guitar. Eventually, the singing grew so loud that the preacher’s denigration was drowned out.[i] A YouTube recording of the scene (also embedded below) has garnered over a million views, and the actions of the students have earned praise for representing a true Christian response to conflict.

The communication dynamics in this scenario are fascinating, in no small part because two different representations of Christianity are jostling for validity in the eyes of the functional “audience”—locally speaking, the student body at JMU, though the viral broadcast invites the entire Internet to listen. One emphasizes a God who is defined by actions of condemnation; the other, by actions of love. In a sense, the audience is witnessing two different forms of rhetoric on the same subject. Furthermore, these forms of rhetoric are not only in communication with the audience, but also with each other; their shared temporal space and juxtaposition exerts an effect on how the respective messages are conveyed and how the audience receives them. The whole display is one massive feedback loop of rhetorical construction and perception, centered around one important question: what is the core of the God of Christianity? It is clear that the two discourses do not, at first glance, present a unified answer, and that they serve as an example of what many perceive to be fundamental contradictions in Christian doctrine. A casual observer, however, would be mistaken to cite this incident as an example of theological disunity. A better characterization would be rhetorical disunity. The concept of a God who has the capacity to love and to condemn is internally reconcilable; the rhetorical discourses each focus on a discrete attribute and amplify it (potentially stepping away from biblical foundations in the process), creating a conflict that seems irreconcilable.

This is not surprising, however, because human history is shot through with examples of seemingly irreconcilable rhetorical discourse. Discerning truth in such a mix of disparate, conflicting perspectives has been one of the perennial tasks of the human race. Yet, postmodernism appears to resign itself to the notion that determining truth is an impossible endeavor, a stance that is fundamentally opposed to that of the Christian worldview. Christianity claims that absolute truth is contained within God himself, and that he designed rhetorical communication as a tool through which humans could uncover this truth. Moreover, while the human ability to communicate was broken when sin entered the world, that brokenness does not capture rhetoric’s essential, original character; rather, it twists this character into a mangled shadow of its true essence. The postmodern worldview, however, sees this broken character as a primacy of rhetoric. This divergence in how these two worldviews construct their respective concepts of rhetoric is crucial because how each worldview views rhetoric is indicative of its overall view on the nature of reality. It is on the primacy of brokenness that the metaphysical structures of postmodernism are built—ultimately yielding a system of ontological violence in which virtually nothing can be known, rendering all human inquiry pointless. The Christian worldview offers a reconceptualization of this desolate state by elucidating a redemptive understanding of rhetoric founded upon an ontology of peace in which violence and strife are impositions onto the created order, rather than the original metaphysical concerns that postmodernism would claim them to be. The striking conclusion here is that postmodernism is not necessarily a wholly inaccurate picture of how the world operates, but it instead captures the broken reality that Christ came to redeem. But, in order to understand how the Christian understanding of rhetoric is the lynchpin in this conclusion, one must first consider how Christianity influenced the development of rhetorical thought, then the specific way in which Western society’s notion of rhetoric changed over the course of history, and finally the metaphysical tenets particular to the two systems that directly impact how each constructs its notion of rhetoric.

First, it is important to define exactly what we mean by “rhetoric,” since the scope of the term’s definition has widened dramatically over the centuries. The ancient Greeks considered rhetoric to consist of political discourse, primarily public speaking and argumentation for the purpose of shaping policy and legal decisions. Contemporary scholars have since expanded the concept to include an innumerable variety of discourses beyond the political, such as science, art, and religion. Philosopher of rhetoric, John Boyd White, holds a more reductionist perspective— he claims that any use of language itself is a form of rhetoric because of language’s “reciprocal character… for while a person acts both within and upon the language he uses…his language at the same time acts upon him…language is in part a system of invention, an organized way of making new meaning in new circumstances.”[ii] All of these definitions can be broadly encompassed under the macro-definition of rhetoric as communication along an interval of difference, or an envoy between two entities that are unalike in some way. The interval is the distance between the entities that is necessarily created by their difference; without difference, the boundaries between the entities would dissolve and there would be no space (or need) for communication to occur. Naturally, since there are no two entities in the observed world that are exactly the same, all existence is marked by intervals of difference, and therefore marked by rhetorical communication.

Christianity is no stranger to the discipline of rhetoric—indeed, the development of rhetoric predates the birth of Christ. Many ancient Greek theories of public speaking and communication were recorded in the fourth and fifth centuries BC; meanwhile, the ancient (Old Testament) biblical tradition made great use of rhetorical forms. Over the course of a millennium, Christianity became one of the dominant world religions, and theologians began to show interest in how it could be communicated. Many were specifically interested in how it ought to be communicated, or the morality involved in selecting and arranging language for the purpose of explaining the faith. St. Augustine, one of the most influential medieval Christian theologian-philosophers, wrote extensively on the intersection of rhetorical principles and faith. He argued that “the eloquence of words may be used for both good and evil;” Christians could employ rhetoric as a tool to locate and express God’s absolute truth, although it could just as easily be used, by Christians and non-Christians alike, to obscure truth.[iii] It is important to understand the distinction between rhetoric and truth itself; the eloquence of words was meant to facilitate the discovery of the “immeasurably greater eloquence of realities.”[iv] In this view, a harmony exists between words and truth. Truth is not contingent on words—it can be known by its own inherent force of veracity. Rhetoric merely helps humans grasp and comprehend it.

The belief that rhetoric could be used to access truth is not limited to Christianity. In fact, Plato, who also believed that rhetoric had a dual capacity for good and evil and should be used to pursue epistemic truth, influenced St. Augustine. A majority of Plato’s contemporaries, however, did not emphasize truthseeking as the primary aim of rhetoric. Instead, another function was stressed: persuasion. According to Aristotle, who published the most influential secular treatise on rhetoric, the discipline is concerned with developing “the faculty of observing in any case the available means of persuasion.”[v] The focus here is on how the persuasion occurs, rather than the inherent validity of the content being presented. While Aristotle himself did not claim that persuasion is inherently antithetical to truth, his emphasis on the former is the most enduring legacy that he bequeathed to the discipline. Persuasion became embedded in Western cultural consciousness as the practice’s paramount aim. Yet, as the philosophical currents of history have progressed, culminating in postmodernism, society’s basic concept of persuasion has shifted. The ancients may not have viewed persuasion as antithetical to truth, but the two are sharply divided in the postmodern worldview. Because postmodernism rejects the notion of absolute truth, it necessarily casts all persuasive rhetoric as ontologically violent, meaning that violence is rhetoric’s fundamental state of being. This necessarily leads to the desolate conclusion that violence is a primacy of existence itself. This sequence of logic may appear extreme, but if we carefully examine how our society conceives of rhetorical discourse, it becomes clear that postmodernism ultimately assumes that the basic fabric of existence is violence itself— an assumption that is fundamentally opposed to a Christian conception of reality. For example, consider:

Rhetoric (n.)—“Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.”

The definition of rhetoric cited above is the second that appears in the Google Dictionary entry for the term.[vi] Similarly, the first of seven definitions of rhetoric in the 2014 Random House Dictionary is “(in writing or speech) the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast.”[vii] Both definitions seem to imply that rhetoric is fundamentally a collection of techniques meant to influence an audience’s thoughts. Such influence is facilitated by the ambiguous nature of reality and the fluidity of human perceptual capacities. Indeed, if the average American’s distrust of political and advertising rhetoric is any indication, it appears that our society nurtures the belief that rhetoric’s chief aim is the manipulation of ambiguous information in order to induce a perception of reality that may or may not be true. This belief has three key implications for the nature of reality, and these implications intimately influence each other and are sustained by the metaphysical assumptions of postmodernism.

The first implication is the difficulty inherent in differentiating persuasion from manipulation. According to Forbes,

manipulation is coercion through force to get someone to do something that is not in their own interest. Persuasion is the art of getting people to do things that are in their own best interest that also benefit you.[viii]

It might be natural to assume that people are inherently aware of their own best interests, but various emotional and psychological factors can foster a mental blindness to these interests, which consequently muddles the discernment of rhetoric that encourages people to act on their interests. Ironically, one of these factors is a negative reaction to being told what to do; this is called psychological reactance, which occurs “in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy.” Moreover, “research indicates that some linguistic features evoke the perception that free behavior might be curtailed… language that is dogmatic…controlling…or explicit, provokes reactance.”[ix] This includes words such as “must” or “need”—which are often found in rhetorical communication. The principle of reactance reveals that the human mind instinctively interprets language that is directive in nature as an act of restrictive force against itself. In a sense, it reacts as if such language is ontologically violent; restriction is perceived as threatening, and therefore harmful. If the mind goes one step further and perceives the formation of language itself as an act of power as Foucault suggests, then all language becomes a threat.[x]

The second implication, which emerges from the first, involves trust. If an individual is uncertain of whether or not she is being manipulated, or if she is experiencing psychological reactance, she will likely feel distrust towards the rhetorician. Moreover, the combined action of several localized incidents of distrust directed at a specific source can result in a generalized attitude of distrust toward any form of communication along an interval of difference—and within a postmodern framework, the space between any two people is cast as an interval of difference. Therefore, since any communication between two individuals is inherently rhetoric and potentially divorced from truth, all human interactions become suspect. The spread of generalized distrust among the American public in the last four decades is evidence of this epidemic; only one-third of Americans today believe that people can be trusted, down from half in 1972.[xi] People resist one another’s words because they are unwilling to trust that the other party does not wish to do them violence through manipulation. Thus, difference always carries the threat of violence in a postmodern world. If difference is a primacy of existence, then violence must be a primacy as well.

The third implication, which is the most significant anathema to the central unity of the Christian narrative, is the idea that truth is utterly unknowable. It proceeds logically from the previously posed problems. If all rhetoric, or all communication along an interval of difference, is inherently violent and so cannot be trusted, then there can be no objective way to determine if any rhetoric presents actual reality. Reality is molded according to the beholder, and any attempt to create a universal moral code for society is meaningless because “force or tenderness, retreat, conquest, or charity are all equally ‘true.’”[xii] Contradictions cannot be definitively resolved. All rhetoric becomes a tool constructed to advance the fulfillment of its creator’s impulses, but there is no transcendent standard that can truly claim that one impulse “is sufficiently concrete to counter other impulses.”[xiii] The absence of truth means there is no real escape from the violence of existence; the only solution we see enacted is the restraint of violence with violence, or political and ethical mandates that are enforced by societal will and physical force. In the postmodern landscape, intervals of difference must be filled with strife, and nothing can truly be known. The realization of such an existence can only lead to despair. If Christianity is a worldview that claims to offer boundless joy and hope, the polar opposite of despair, then it must support a notion of existence in which violence is not an ontological primacy, but a corruption of the original state, which is completely devoid of conflict. Such an existence is defined as an ontology of peace.

This peace is categorically different from any notion of the term that fits within the postmodern system because it is founded on a conception of difference that is not inherently violent. Any talk of peace in a postmodern system is “at most a necessary fiction, and occasionally a critical impossibility” because any reduction in violence is only achieved through the increase of another violence; the true absence of opposing forces is nowhere to be found.[xiv] Any concept of true peace must propose that the reality of difference does not naturally lead to violent conflict, but instead allows for co-existence. This cannot be a co-existence maintained simply by the avoidance of conflict (noninteraction), because it is impossible to fulfill basic biological necessities without communicating along an interval of difference. Differences will interact; what they cannot do is clash. Therefore, rhetoric that reflects an ontology of peace must view difference as “harmonizable (not synthesizable),” and such an idea is “a prospect of peace otherwise unimaginable [outside of ] theology.”[xv] In music, harmony is the combination of different musical notes to produce unique chords that have a pleasing effect; similarly, a harmony of differences would produce something that neither element could embody on its own. Such a phenomenon, however, appears to reject the idea of boundaries that is inherent in the finite nature of everything seen in the world. If an interaction between differences resulted in a novel element, postmodernism must claim that the boundaries between the two dissolved, and thus the new creation was born out of violent force. To maintain the boundaries of the finite, the new element must be present in the interaction itself, somewhere within the communication traveling along the interval of difference. And, if the new element was not produced within the finite boundaries of the different elements, then the rhetorical interaction must have touched upon something infinite and boundless— an element that transcends all the differences seen in existence, but that has a distinct connection to those same differences. Postmodernism cannot account for any such element, but Christianity offers a compelling exemplar in the form of the Triune God.

Christian metaphysics is grounded in the assumption that God is the creator and sustainer of all that can be seen in creation. All goodness and truth are contained within and spring forth from God’s character. Moreover, his effusive creativity is the basis of all difference seen in creation. Since God is infinite, he cannot be fully expressed in the finite limits that define all created things. God reveals different aspects of himself in the multiplicity of objects and creatures that he has created, and the interaction between those objects creates a fuller, though never exhaustive, image of the munificent beauty that is contained within God. Rhetoric, thus, is not a tool of destruction, but an arbiter of revelation, unveiling aspects of God that cannot be glimpsed outside of the interval of difference. It functions as Augustine claims—as a way to grasp and comprehend truth. The full truth of God cannot begin to be glimpsed without difference, and the rhetorical communication that flows between finite points of difference.

This is not to claim that violence has not permeated the use of rhetoric. Violence and disorder are an intrusion on the original peace of creation; they are “unnecessary, arbitrary, and sinful invention[s] of the will” that pale in comparison to the infinite peace embodied within God.[xvi] But, since sin has the power to separate creation from God, thereby severing the ties that bind transcendence to finite difference, violence is able to hijack rhetorical discourse and obscure the inherently peaceful design of difference. In this way, postmodern thought has correctly captured a reflection of how rhetoric operates in its broken state. While God, through the provision of common grace to all creation, does not fully give rhetorical communication over to utter chaos, it is clear that violent discourse pervades human existence. Unfortunately, this applies even to discourse that claims to truthfully represent Christianity, and conflicts between seemingly categorically opposed definitions of Christianity, like the JMU incident, serve as evidence of the reality that intervals of difference are still fractured even in the midst of a redemptive process.

Yet this redemptive process, the reassertion of God’s original, peaceful design for difference, was begun when communication was enacted along the largest interval of difference of all—the gulf between a perfect God and a broken world—in the form of Christ, sent as “a proclamation of the story of peace posed over against the narrative of violence.”[xvii] Christ is a living, breathing rhetoric that serves to restore the shattered interval between the Creator and his creation through the act of the resurrection, which returns violence (even the ultimate eradicative violence of death) to its proper orientation in relation to the infinite: weak, tiny, and powerless. Though violence still fights against infinite peace, Christ’s victory has assured that the process of redemption will be fulfilled in all who accept it—all who allow God to restore their capacity to touch truth through communication along an interval of difference. The state of rhetoric in a world that is sinful, yet in the process of being redeemed, is much how Augustine described it: therein exists the capacity for good and evil. The good is the peace of the infinite God, and the evil is the violence of manipulation and force.

i. Diego Jauregui, “Homophobic Preacher Ranting at JMU,” YouTube, 16 September 2014, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2jSVHc5NkM>.
ii. James Boyd White, When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
iii. Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, “St. Augustine’s Rhetoric of Silence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1962): 177.
iv. Mazzeo, 177.
v. Aristotle, Rhetoric (New York: Cosimo, 2010), vii.
vi. “Rhetoric,” Google, 1 January 2015, <https://www.google.com/search?q=rhetoric>. Google, in turn, draws its definitions from Oxford Dictionaries. See “Rhetoric,” Oxford Dictionaries, 1 January 2015, <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/rhetoric>.
vii. “Rhetoric,” Dictionary, 1 January 2015, < http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rhetoric>.
viii. Jason Nazar, “The 21 Principles of Persuasion,” Forbes, 1 January 2015, <http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonnazar/2013/03/26/the-21-principles-ofpersuasion/>.
ix. “Psychological Reactance Theory,” Psychlopedia, 1 January 2015, <http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=65>.
x. Mark G.E. Kelly, The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault (Florence: Routledge Books, 2010), 24.
xi. Connie Cass, “In God We Trust, Maybe, But Not Each Other,” AP-GfK Poll, <http://ap-gfkpoll.com/featured/our-latest-poll-findings-24>.
xii. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: W.B.
Eerdmans, 2003), 3.
xiii. Hart, 3.
xiv. Hart, 57.
xv. Hart, 107.
xvi. Hart, 3.
xvii. Hart, 59.

 

Jake Casale ’17 is from Redmond, WA. He is a prospective double major in Psychology and Geography modified with Computer Science.

 

Photo credit: EmmiP from morguefile.com.

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