Rhetoric can be defined as the art of effective verbal expression or persuasion. Demosthenes, the great Greek orator (385-322 B.C.), often comes to mind in this context along with other great ancient Greek and Roman “public speakers.” Thanks to the false self we are more likely to be deceived by demagogues than to believe those who have our best interests at heart. …Cicero’s brother Quintus drew up for him a manual of electioneering technique. ‘Be lavish in your promises,’ Quintus advised; ‘men prefer a false promise to a flat refusal…Contrive to get some new scandal aired against your rivals for crime, corruption, or immorality.’”  The art of persuasion can quickly morph into the art of deception.

Sacred Rhetoric

The pulpit has long been a refuge for scoundrels, the demented and the silver-tongued, which was fortunate for those facing long sermons. Persuasive speech has always been the specialty of politicians and parsons. The rhetoric of the fear-mongers who claim to speak for a wrathful god wreaking vengeance and rewarding righteousness, or demagogues who claim a special connection to a god who would rather have his servants become Caesar than “render unto Caesar.” If you are not afraid, you will be after you read this unless, that is, you are already dancing on the grave of P-B.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) was one of the most skillful practitioners of sacred rhetoric. Taylor’s style is one of the most ornate and elaborate in the seventeenth century, so abounding in imaginative concepts and in figures of speech that he has been called a prose Shakespeare.  Of course, a 500-year-old style will not sound attractive to our ears today but the content is instructive.

The slavery of the damned in hell is such, that all their senses, and powers of soul and body, are subject unto eternal pains and torments…As the slaves of the earth are whipped and punished by their masters, so the slaves of hell are tormented by the devils… The torments of the eyes shall be also very great, in regard that those which have given other scandal, and make others fall into sin, shall see themselves, and those others, in that abyss of torments.

The hearing shall not only be afflicted by an intolerable pain, caused by that ever burning and penetrating fire, but also with the fearful and amazing noises of thunders, howlings, clamors, groans, curses, and blasphemies…in hell…each body of the damned is more loathsome and unsavory than a million of dead dogs… 

Such is an early version of unconscious humanity’s worldview and we have since updated the details of the narrative but not the fundamental dysfunctions. The style and content have changed but the purpose of persuasive rhetoric is still to frighten and manipulate people who sense that all is not well in P-B.

Will the art of sacred rhetoric continue to serve those who use fear as a weapon in P-B or will humanity learn to express its deepest identity in the service of compassion? Those emitting “hot air” have been around since the first tribal chieftain or prophet rose to command the attention of those seeking the security found in a leader who could manipulate their emotions. America had Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) who sowed the seeds of the Great Awakening in 1734, historically important because it brought it about that Christianity expanded with the frontier, and that the new independent America, like the old dependent colonist, inherited a strong Christian tradition. 

Edwards’ influence was widespread, not only his sacred rhetoric but his written word as well. The young John Wesley was inspired by Edwards and founded the Methodist church in England. The Reverend George Whitefield read Edwards’ Faithful Narrative (sacred rhetoric in print) and preached a revival in Philadelphia (which made even skeptical Ben Franklin empty his pockets into the plate).  Now that must have taken an extraordinary eloquence! 

The goal of sacred rhetoric has ever been the loosening of the congregant’s purse strings but other effects have been somewhat more damaging. Persuasive pulpit rhetoric has been a bulwark of our unsustainable P-B. In Puritan Massachusetts Edwards promoted Calvinism and proved that man with no will of his own was yet perfectly free to choose a fate predetermined before he was born.  So much for self-realization, self-determination and common sense for that matter; the belief that being human was to be a helpless victim and a hopeless sinner became firmly established in the American collective unconscious. Edwards’ Great Awakening turned out to be the “Great Asleepening!”

Pastors, pols and pundits have before and since railed against Saracens in Jerusalem, witches in Salem, aliens in UFO’s and liberals planning to snuff out grandma; which brings us to the nexus of religion and politics and new opportunities for sacred and not-so-sacred rhetoric.

The church attendance of Democrats and Republicans was about equal in 1980 but since then we have begun to see throughout our society a kind of sorting and the growth of the illusion of “the other.” Robert Putnam’s book American Grace cites one of many categories of divisiveness among Americans. He finds that church attendance is going up among Republicans and down among Democrats and the “people are changing their involvement with religion as a function of their politics.”  It is as if both ministers and policy-makers are campaigning to foment another civil war with their uncivil rhetoric. Are we destined to relive our most catastrophic experience as Americans where 600,000 died in a war where brother fought brother and fathers fought their sons?

Americans seem to be engaged in the process of choosing sides and have little interest in compromise to avoid the coming cataclysm. “Americans are self-segregating,” says Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort (2008), and now choose “in their neighborhoods and their churches, to be around others who live like they do—and every four years, vote like they do.” 

“Political activism is much easier when you’re surrounded by like-minded others,” said Diana Mutz, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who wrote Hearing the Other Side. But, of course, when we are more and more “sorted” like apples and oranges, we hear only the “holy rhetoric” of polarized and power-seeking religious and political leaders. The images we are hearing of the horrors of hell (P-B) drown out the message of the possibility of heaven on earth (P-A).

We are even segregating ourselves when we set out to buy food. David Wasserman who writes for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, calculated that 89 percent of the Whole Foods stores in the United States were in counties carried by Barack Obama in 2008, while 62 percent of Cracker Barrel restaurants were in counties carried by John McCain. 

The movement by American society from fear toward compassion, from violence toward peace, from injustice toward greater equality and from chaos toward sustainability and harmony is precisely the movement from segregation and sorting toward Oneness. We are heading the wrong way in 2011 and most of us don’t even know it.

Europe also has its practitioners of sacred rhetoric in the Netherlands which seem to have forgotten its history. The Dutch freed themselves from Spain after a long struggle to gain religious freedom and are now falling prey to the hate-speech of Geert Wilders who wants to deprive Moslem immigrants of the right to practice their traditional religious values. He wants all immigrants and their children deported and warns of the supposed Muslim plot to create “Eurabia.”  After a decade of growing public anger, an aggressively anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politician, Geert Wilders, leads the third-largest party, which keeps the government in power. 

The essence of the problem which exists around the world and is easily exploited by demagogues has to do with the answer to The Second Great Question—namely—identity. Who are we? Ahmed Marcouch, 42, son of an illiterate Moroccan immigrant and a Labor member of Parliament has children who ask him “Who am I? Where am I really from? Can I be Dutch?” He described his own son, 22, discussing these questions with his 10-year-old sister. “They won’t recognize you as a full citizen,” his son told her.  

Complicating the identity issue brings us to The First Great Question: Where am I? Most Muslims came from poor, less-educated parts of Morocco and eastern Turkey and clung to traditional values. “They didn’t speak Dutch, they didn’t know Holland, and they saw the sexual revolution, feminism and youth anarchism as a provocation, as part of a decadent society.”  

Simple Reality posits one human community and one identity and global harmony supported by compassion and mutual self-interest. All of the nightmarish political and religious conflicts inflamed by sacred rhetoric can be effectively addressed by a paradigm shift. Without such a profound change in consciousness, there is little reason to hope that there will be any change from the conditions we have described over the last 500 years.

But in the final analysis, the most laudable human expression has nothing to do with words but rather how far we have come on the hero’s journey, that is to say, expressions of conscious behavior, of compassionate behavior, of being in response to life in the present moment. Indeed, creating a sustainable human community is measured precisely by where we are on the continuum from fear to compassion. Those spouting “sacred rhetoric” would keep us mired in fear for their own fear-driven religious or political purposes. Rather than showing respect and reverence for the good, the true and the beautiful, our politicians and religious leaders too often treat their fellow human beings with contempt. Sacred rhetoric has turned out too frequently to be profane and hate-filled rhetoric.


References and notes are available for this article.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.


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