Workshop 21: Rethinking Religious Rhetorics
Jeff Ringer and Paul Lynch
The phrase “religious rhetoric” often denotes discourse about a religion, as in the familiar equation “the rhetoric of X.” So “Muslim rhetoric” is about Islam, just as “Jewish rhetoric” is about Judaism, and so on. In this formulation, religion already possesses content that can be poured into some persuasive form. But this formulation risks distortion to both religion and rhetoric. Religion is about more than a set of beliefs that identify a person as a member of a particular group, just as rhetoric is about more than discursive decoration. If we say that rhetoric is embodied, ambient, and constitutive, then “religious rhetoric” is less about persuasion toward a particular identity or set of beliefs, and more about the ongoing invention of identities, beliefs, and practices that make up the type of human experience we call “religious.” A further problem with the idea of religion-as-identity is that certain identities have tended to attract more scholarly attention than others. As a result, the religious epistemology of a single faith may be taken to outline the contours of faith in general.
This workshop will challenge these reductive formulations by exploring religion and religious rhetorics in ways that transcend belief and identity. It will do so by investigating concepts from a variety of fields, including sociology, anthropology, history, folklore studies, religious studies, and rhetoric, among others. The goal of the workshop is neither to escape established traditions nor to seek commonalities that erase differences. Rather, the goal is to observe the phenomena that make specific traditions and experiences religious in the first place. As Luigi Spina puts it, “one should always talk about religion in the plural and about religious phenomena in the singular” (214). This workshop seeks to understand the singularity of religious phenomena (including liturgy and practice, along with reading, speaking, and writing) while inviting a pluralism that welcomes particularity. We therefore see this workshop as inhabiting and even inviting a tension between the “religious” (as a specific kind of human experience) and “religion” (as a team sport). For these reasons, the workshop leaders are especially keen to invite scholars studying a diverse range of religious traditions.
Participants will work together to grapple with definitional questions (of terms like “religion,” “tradition,” “practice,” etc.), as well as with the methodological implications of redefining religious rhetorics. The first two days of the workshop will be spent working through a set of readings that prompt us to expand our conceptions of religion and religious rhetoric. The closing day of the workshop will offer participants the opportunity to present their ideas about how expanded conceptions of religious rhetoric might inform their research.