I have been thinking lately about the violence of rhetoric. Not violent rhetoric, but the violence that is often lurking just beneath the surface of our language, our reasoning, and our ways of arriving at truth. Most of us have probably had some kind of disagreement with someone in which they use arguments in a way that we have a hard time refuting but leaves us feeling hemmed into a corner. We have no choice but to agree that the person we are talking to is “right”—they “win.” At a deep level, though, we might not really believe they are right, and so we experience their arguments as a kind of coercion and untruth, even if it is one we can't find the words to refute.
Many of us also know what it is like to be on the “winning” side in these kinds of encounters. Perhaps such moments are sources of pleasure—we have dominated others with our superior knowledge, or rhetorical skill, or access to the “truth.” But perhaps just as often, we leave these exchanges feeling discomfort and dissatisfaction at having silenced someone in a way that ends rather than invites continued conversation and growth in friendship. We are left wondering if it might have been better not to have spoken at all and if the truth has been helped or hurt by our approach, however true our words in themselves might have been.
The problem I am describing is in fact deeply embedded in the Western philosophical tradition, going all the way back to Socrates in the fifth century BC. Socrates built his entire philosophy upon a method of dialectical or syllogistic reasoning in which he would force those he was in conversation with to concede one minor point after another through seemingly innocent questioning, all the while guiding them in a direction they were not aware of, until at last they would find themselves trapped in a position they would have to agree was “true” on the basis of the accumulated facts they had granted Socrates along the way. And there is in fact a great deal of wisdom and truth in these dialogues (as recorded by Socrates’ disciple Plato).
At the same time, Socrates’ method often seems to involve a conscious manipulation, or coercion, of the minds he is encountering—a kind of violence, really. Outcomes are sometimes forced through semantic tricks. People are lured into agreement on seemingly innocuous points without allowing for other possibilities to be fully explored, and this restricts their freedom when faced with more important points later in the conversation. There is more than a little will to power at work here, and in the nineteenth century Nietzsche was to conclude that the will to power is in fact at the heart of all truth claims.
The urgent question that arises for believers, then, is what about the truth claims of the Gospel? Is the language of the New Testament also just another cleverly masked method of power and control? Does it also box us into positions where we have no choice but to accept its assertions, where we are crushed by its rhetorical force and inescapable logic? Or is the truth of the Gospel a truth that takes a very different form? Is it a form that, from beginning to end reveals, not domination but reconciliation—not the violence of rhetoric but an alternative grammar of peace?
I have to confess that I often do not feel at all at peace when I listen to the language of media savvy televangelists, who take to cities and airwaves like dive-bombers in a blitzkrieg. But are these aggressive purveyors of what they assert is the “good news” unique? Or are they just doing in a more blunt form what all Christian attempts at persuasion are, at a deep level, doing?
In fact (and perhaps surprisingly to some), the Christian euangelion does not use anything like Platonic or Aristotelian logic (or televangelistic verbal pyrotechnics) for its truth claims. What we find in Scripture instead is narrative, poetry and history, and theology embedded in ad hoc letters of practical counsel to specific church communities. But the Apostle Paul, far from describing the Gospel as logically irrefutable or rhetorically irresistible, goes so far as to declare that the Christian message is a “scandal” and “foolishness.” From the standpoint of any disciple of Plato or Aristotle, the Christian claim that Jesus—a poor peasant Jew who was executed on charges of sedition by means of an instrument of Roman torture—is in fact Truth personified, is both politically subversive and intellectually repellent. Yet it is this offensive weakness—this scandal to all of our pretensions to intellectual certitude, as well as to political power and control—that is somehow paradoxically God's saving strength. And the way we know the Gospel of Christ is true is not by its rationalistic power but by its fruits, by the fact that it results in a powerful “bond of peace” between persons who were formerly enemies and strangers.
An authentically Christian rhetoric of persuasion must therefore refuse not only physical violence and coercion, but intellectual violence and coercion as well. I am not suggesting that discipleship means that we should stop thinking, talking, and making arguments, or that belief is “irrational.” And there are probably times when the most charitable thing one can do for a pompous, ignorant, or arrogant man or women (or the people who listen to them) is to call pomposity, ignorance, and arrogance by their rightful names. But it seems to me that far too much “Christian” rhetoric, whether directed at non-believers, or at believers who don’t think the “correct” thoughts like “us” (wherever we happen to stand on the theological spectrum), is marked by use of epistemological closure, of one-upmanship, and of will to power. The intention is to silence the listener, rather than to invite conversation in a humble search for the truth and the peace of Christ. Of course I am deeply implicated in that which I describe! But these are not games that Christians can or should play. They are certainly not games the New Testament writers played. There is an urgent need for followers of Christ to diligently strive to show “humility and gentleness” and “tolerance for one another” in order to preserve “the bond of peace.”
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Ronald Osborn is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California; he is a frequent contributor to the Spectrum website.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2100