Some language, especially religious language, not only fails the test of pragmatism but can leave one feeling skeptical, if not completely turned off. Some would call it rhetoric (at its best eloquent and pointed…at its worst, insincere and shallow).
I was watching a show depicting a community baptism in a cold river. A 13-year-old young man was immersed while the pastor pronounced, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You have died to your old life and have arisen to a new life.”
The 13-year-old is later interviewed, “it was the most wonderful experience of my life. I have died to my old life and I have been raised to a new life.”
The impressionable teenager’s half grin made me uneasy. I couldn’t fail but to judge the influence of the crowd milling about him. And his repeating the pastoral language, word for word, stirred in me an undefined awkward concern.
Language, especially religious or theological language, can be like that. A bunch of words spread too thinly on life. Though such rhetoric may arise from sincere devotion, and stated with great enthusiasm, it can fail at having much substance, and by its often intimate (yet vague) undertones provoke a self-conscious unease. I use the word intimate because much rhetoric, especially religious rhetoric, intends guidance, often wanting to touch us at a deeply personal level.
An example many of us have experienced is being unexpectedly confronted with the often insistent, “Have you been born again?” The vagueness of the question, and the deeply personal intention behind it, can provoke a desire to be somewhere else!
I have come to feel comfortable with the liturgical formats of my church, and most of the language used to describe the ‘mystery of faith’ (more rhetoric). However, I dare say that many new comers find that some phrases and wording in our creeds, prayers and Eucharistic rites provoke a disconnected awkwardness.
Rhetoric is everywhere. When it’s working it conveys a message not otherwise easily communicated. Unfortunately at other times it can, as one philosopher said, “disturb the clarity of rational thought.” And in our well-educated, well-connected, post (post) modern world, there is an increasing demand for churches and other such person-centered institutions to express themselves with rational clarity.
I like rhetoric, we all like a bit of rhetoric. It tickles our senses and rolls smoothly off the tongue, but if we want our message understood and accepted we must, at times, go deeper. For those of us in the church this becomes an evangelical necessity especially when conveying our religious notions and theological concepts such as the Trinity, being reborn in the spirit, and many other sacramental symbols.
The use of rhetoric, and indeed the acceptance of rhetoric, does not need one to fully understand the principles (and underlying agendas) involved. This is dangerous.
It is good that in these days people are rightly skeptical of institutional rhetoric and are demanding greater accountability. And I do pray that the above-mentioned 13 year old has come to know the real heart of being “born anew” (in its deeply psycho-social pragmatism). If not, he may become foolishly entrenched within a community-driven fog of obscurity.
As I see it, rhetoric can open our minds to possibilities by engaging us in a provocative dance. However, when the rhetoric itself becomes the fact of the matter, it can fuel shallow devotion and elicit or trigger energy that will backfire.