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Rhetoric and the Sacred in the 21st Century

Leaders: Robert Glenn Howard, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Susan Zaeske, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  Rhetoric and the Sacred in the 21st Century

Robert Glenn Howard (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Susan Zaeske (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Since Plato's fantastic imaginings of the Ideals, thinkers have struggled to reconcile the arts of rhetoric and the powerful certainty that the sacred seems to offer. In the early years of Christianity, Augustine attempted to heal the rift he perceived between the truth of the divine logos and the "words" that serve as mere medium of that logos. He argued that, like the gold of Israelites' idols, the pagan arts of rhetoric must be marshaled in the service of evangelism in the name of the divine. In that spirit, powerful rhetors have harnessed the sacred to profound effects throughout history. Today, evangelical Christianity, global Islam, and the surging trend to individually constructed syncretic systems of religious belief, all demonstrate the powerful persistence of the sacred.

In light of the transhistorical power of the sacred, this workshop seeks to reconsider the enduring question of rhetoric's relationship to religion.  Our inquiry rests on the premise that a profound tension forms at the nexus of the rhetorical act and knowledge authorized by the sacred. Intersecting from several vectors, this tension emanates from fundamental distinctions such as that between the singularity of religious truth and the necessity of adjusting to a rhetorical audience as well as between the fundamental quiet of meditation and the raucous disparate voices of the agora.

In light of these tensions, what questions can rhetorical critics seek to answer about the religious?  How does the sacred extend its influence in the discourses of the twenty-first century?  What impacts do new media have on the emerging politically infused global religious movements? How do secular scholars negotiate the fine line between social criticism and intolerance?  How do religious scholars mediate their roles in academic institutions still prone to under value the sacred?  Fundamentally, what do individually held experiences of the sacred inform publicity?

Key questions such as these will occupy workshop participants during an initial session and throughout our proceedings. We will also arrange for pre-circulation of work-in-progress in order to help individuals progress in their research on rhetoric and religion. The workshop will conclude by contemplating future directions for the study of rhetoric and the sacred, including the organization of a table of contents of a special issue of a journal devoted to rhetoric and religion.

For inquiries, please contact Susan Zaeske:

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