Rationality, religion, etc

There’s a really good article in the new issue of CCC by Patricia Bizzell on the arguments used in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263. It’s a model, I think, of the kind of stuff I’d like to do in my dissertation, although in a much more exploded and in-depth way. But the thrust behind her essay pushes all the buttons that I like pushed – rhetoric as a double-edged sword, the manner in which rationality can serve or hinder religious and political thought (the ethos of using logos when people’s worldviews are based on pathos, perhaps?), and how religious texts with an assumption of holy inerrancy are presented and digested by various groups.

I was just plain glad to see some NT & OT discussion in a comp journal, too. My particular interest is way, way before the 13th century, before Christianity formed orthodoxies capable of setting up one-sided debates like the one Bizzell describes, but the question of how reason can sit with religion (and in particular with religious texts) is essentially the same. She’s spun it with a modern classroom twist – which I supposed is necessary for CCC – which I agree with fully, though I would take it a bit further and say the religious texts that our culture is/was largely based on are fair game for analyzing and teaching argument – not just the debates surrounding them. Friar Paul and Nahmanides are not just making arguments centered on textual evidence, they are doing argument analysis, creating arguments about polemic religious claims that are themselves arguments, much like any student in one of my courses writes an argument analysis paper.

Now while the act of analysis is technically similar, there is also the religious and political charge of analyzing a text that is supposedly inerrant after centuries of textual corruption and redaction. Pick your testament – they had less knowledge of manuscript transmission in the 13th century than we have now.

Inerrancy assumes, I would argue, that any claim in an inerrant text is not an argument or part of one – it is truth, and stating truth is not an argument, per se. Reason, however, sees a claim as a claim, whether it is in the Gospel of Mark, the New York Times, or President Bush’s latest speech. Claims, if they are to be believed beyond faith, require reasons, evidence, etc, the whole Toulmin model. When much of the NT cites the OT for evidence (quite often inaccurately, alas) that Jesus is the Messiah (the key subject of the Barcelona debate, I gather), there is a tacit assumption that those ‘inerrant’ claims need evidence. But if they are true to begin with, why descend into the realm of reason at all? It’s still difficult for me to deal with Christianity’s historical concerns for proving itself in terms of reason when faith, it seems, is all that is required. Even a holy and inerrant text seems superfluous. Why all the concern over documentation? Does the Bible come down to just being a conversion tool?

Anyway, that article really cheered me up, as I’ve been having some doubts that I can write a dissertation concerning NT and early Christian rhetoric without creating an impression I’m some sort of biblical studies person lost in an English department. That’s just not the case; that area is just the angle I tend to think about composition and agrument from these days, along with whole text/paragraph theory. my general obsession with diction, and a concern for the visual from technical writing.

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