The Influence of Religion on Apologetic Rhetoric (Part 1)

In Apologetic rhetoric on September 9, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Religion plays two important roles in our understanding of apologetic rhetoric. First, it is the foundation for many of the terms and concepts that shape our understanding of apologetic exchanges. Second, religion impacts our ongoing understanding of apologetic rhetoric through the examples of apologetic discourse that are delivered by religious leaders. In this post, I discuss the first aspect—the terminology—in greater detail.

As I said above, much of the psychology and terminology of apologetic rhetoric—such as redemption, mortification, atonement, absolution, and forgiveness—comes either directly from religious principles or, at the very least, carries strong religious overtones. In other words, religion provides generic norms and concepts that function as lenses for understanding and analyzing apologetic discourse. For example, Kenneth Burke (1969) ties apologies to the religious aspects of guilt and redemption—which, ultimately, help re-establish social order. For Burke, members construct and maintain social order through a set of values and principles that he labeled as hierarchies.

In other words, hierarchies provide a sense of social order through similar values and obligations. Acceptance of those values maintains the social order of a given group, and serves as terms and conditions for membership within the group. When someone violates one of these values, she or he upsets the natural order of the society, resulting in mystery for the group, as well as a sense of guilt and a loss of membership for the individual. To mitigate mystery and achieve reinstatement in the group, the offender must expunge the guilt.

According to Burke (1970), two major ways exist to efface guilt and achieve redemption: mortification and scapegoating. Mortification consists of the offender confessing his or her sins and receiving some form of punishment, while scapegoating (or victimage) consists of transferring the guilt to another person who represents the sin (Brummett, 1981). However, Burke (1969, 1970) also described a third non-redemptive way to deal with guilt, which he called transcendence. According to Brummett, unlike mortification and scapegoating which seek redemption, transcendence is not a strategy of redemption because it denies that guilt exists and therefore removes the need for redemption. By analyzing the use of transcendence, mortification, and scapegoating in apologetic rhetoric, rhetorical analysts better understand the role of guilt, social order, and redemption in negotiations of group membership.

In addition to Burke’s (1969, 1970) discussions of guilt, redemption, purification, and mortification, a number of scholars have also founded their theories of apologetic rhetoric on religious concepts. For example, John B. Hatch (2006b) described how religious rituals influence apologies and how religious traditions offer useful examples of genuine reconciliation. Drawing on Rothenbuhler (1998), Hearit (2006) also argued that apologies comprise a sacred ritual in which the offender voluntarily enters the public confessional, seeking absolution and restoration into the community. Moreover, both Hearit (2006) and Tavuchis (1991) likened this ritual of absolution to that of a confession.

Koesten and Rowland (2004) also based their theory of apologetic rhetoric on religious principles—specifically, on the elements of the Jewish prayer Unetanneh Tokef. According to their theory, the rhetoric of atonement functions as a sub-genre of apologia and consists of a person purging guilt and seeking redemption when the strategies of denial, deflection or justification will not work because the person is actually guilty. Similarly, Thomas Burkholder (1990) argued that martyrdom speeches function as a sub-genre of apologia in the sense that the people delivering these speeches symbolically sacrifice themselves and, thus, seek salvation in the same way that Christ did—through death.

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