Sunday, January 4, 2015

Some thoughts on rhetoric and the gospel of Jesus Christ

Rhetoric and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

I study rhetoric, which is a field much maligned. It is, in common parlance, manipulative, shallow and antithetical to good reasoning. I’m not surprised, but that’s not how I see rhetoric. That’s not how most rhetoricians see it. Rhetoric is a beautiful process by which human beings see other human beings, consider them fully and then “inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 43). This process is absolutely in line with the principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and is, in fact, illuminative of Mormon beliefs.

In the first LDS hymnbook, the one that Emma Smith compiled, she included a song called “Know This, That Every Soul Is Free,” presumably because it reflected some of the distinctive doctrines of the recently organized church. The first verse affirms that “God will force no man to heav’n” (hymn number 240) and this concept is indeed heavily endorsed by the LDS church; the principle of agency is so enshrined in Mormon theology that we see agency as extending before the creation of the world, when Satan proposed an opposite plan that would strip human beings of their agency and force them on a path instead of letting them choose to accept covenants and grace that would enable them to live a celestial life.

If God cares for his children as much as we say he does, but if he will not force them to divinity, how will he endeavor to aid them? The next verse of the hymn explains, “He’ll call, persuade, direct aright” (240, emphasis added). Persuasion is one of the tools that God uses, either directly, or through human or heavenly agents, to encourage righteousness, even if he will not ever “force the human mind” (240).

The ways in which human agents can use persuasion righteously are outlined further in Doctrine and Covenants, 121, a famous chapter of revelation directed to church leaders  about the proper use of their authority. Here, the Lord directs:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy. (D&C 121: 41-42)
The use of persuasion is listed along with such common Christian virtues as gentleness and love.. As international relations professor Cory W. Leonard pointed out in an address to BYU, “section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants places persuasion in close quarters with at least three qualities previously introduced: namely, meekness, long-suffering, and love. These virtues can modify and direct our persuasive efforts, especially as we interact in a world filled with conflict, strife, and disagreement” (“By Persuasion, Longsuffering, Meekness, and Love” 3 May 2011). I agree with Leonard, but might even go a step forward: I believe that persuasion is a kind of love, a love that restrains power and influence instead of wielding it oppressively.

That’s not to say there isn’t such thing as manipulative rhetoric, or practices that are underhanded and unfair, but good rhetoric, the only kind worth of the name, is a different sort of thing all together. To see where I’m coming from, consider Plato’s Phaedrus. It may seem incongruous to jump from a BYU devotional to a treatise that presumes pederasty, but hear me out. The Phaedrus is notable in rhetoric circles because not only does Socrates talk about rhetoric, but in a reversal of opinion from the Gorgias, he describes a type of rhetoric that he may actually like. In Socrates’ third speech, he describes how the lover who truly loves will want to support the object of his affection, helping him to grow and develop and become the best that he can. This relationship, Richard Weaver points out, is a metaphor for the rhetor and the audience—while the worst types of speaker and writers will want to keep their audiences ignorant and dependent, the best will see the divine potential within the beloved and do everything necessary to help that potential to develop. That’s the kind of rhetoric that is divine—the kind that recognizes something in the audience that seems eternal and then moves to articulate and realize that divinity.

In my mind, that is the essence of Mormonism: to see the divine potential in each individual and encourage them, though the exercise of their own agency, to develop it. That can only be accomplished by persuasion, because we, as agents of God, cannot “force the human mind.”

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