Devil Terms, God Terms, and Biblical Terms: Debate in an Age of Polarity
In an age of polarity and political division, Richard Weaver, the University of Chicago rhetorician, is an exceptional resource. He is most known for his book, Ideas Have Consequences, but he also wrote, The Ethics of Rhetoric. In this second book, Weaver evaluates what make a good argument and what constitutes a bad one. The best argument is one based on Definition. It is objective. If inferences go awry, one can always refer back to the definition and restore the argument. The word “definition” literally means “of the finite”. We define things by their limitation and function. Things must be small enough to wrap words around them, to be distinguished from other things, if we would define them properly. So how then might one define God if He is infinite? This leads to the second best argument, one based on Similitude. Since God is infinite, we will never be able to define Him fully, so we discuss His nature and character, as well as his acts, by means of the argument from similitude. Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of Heaven by saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” The Scholastic theologians and philosophers wrote of “The Way of Analogy” to speak of God, and Jesus taught in parables to help His hearers grasp important concepts. The least ethical form of argument, in fact the most unethical, is the argument from Consequence. It begs the question by expressing itself with notions that “If you vote for my opponent in this next election the whole country will go to Hell in a handbasket”! I do not necessarily know where the country might go after any given election. Consequently, to say that I do, would require a prophet who sees into the future, or a fool who claims to have knowledge where he had none. To speak as if we know the future is not objective at all. There is no confirming reality to support the assertion. The argument from consequence is therefore, manipulative. It seeks to create fear in the hearer and manipulate a response without valid support. The argument from consequence contributes to polarity and excludes honest debate.
Weaver also sees another hindrance to clear thinking and honest dialogue. This is the use of what he calls “Devil Terms” and “God Terms”. The devil terms describe those we do not like. The god terms describe those we do like. The devil terms indicate the person disliked can do no good. The god terms indicate those we like can do no bad. Both of these practices inflate rhetoric and distract from honest engagement. These both fail to identify nuance. If a person is all-bad, no argument from the other side can salvage the reputation and therefore one not listen to the other side. If they are all-good, no argument can detract. The fact is, most of our heroes have feet of clay, and most of our villains can stumble into the occasional good act. Consequently, the study of the Bible, and reflection of the Biblical characters can go a long way towards modeling the kinds of rhetoric necessary to heal polarity. Biblical heroes have feet of clay. Rhetoric about them, to be honest requires us to speak of what C. S. Lewis called “the roughness and density of life”. Biblical terms are nuanced. They allow honest thought in a broken world. They have the potential to minimize polarity.
This is especially important in an age of Political polarity. Humans are essentially sociological beings by nature. We are made in the image of one who exists in community. The fact that we can feel loneliness tells us much. Just as feeling thirsty tells us we need drink, and feeling hungry tells us we need food. So too, feeling lonely suggests we are by nature sociological, we need others. Furthermore, if we are by nature sociological, we are also by nature, political. Societies need order. Politics are not bad, bad politics are bad. Bad politics isolate us. They lead us to dismiss others of different political persuasions assuming their points of view can be encapsulated in “devil term” rhetoric. Furthermore, those of our own party need no infusion from others as we, couch our leaders and our points of view as meritorious of “god term” rhetoric. The Bible is an antidote to such poisoning of the wells. All in the Bible could have introduced themselves in some kind of a recovery group. Virtually all are flawed. They too walk with feet of clay.
In such a world, the Gospel is necessary. It breathes realism into any discussion. The unconditional love of God allows people to look honestly at themselves. Moreover, the fact that God forgives sin allows people to minimize pretense. Furthermore, inviting God to enter our lives begin the process of bringing order out of the chaos. This is also first step towards bringing order out of the political chaos of a polarized society. It is easy for all parties in an age of polarity to acknowledge the existence of a problem. It is next to impossible for parties caught in the rhetoric of consequence and the vocabulary of “god terms” and “devil terms” to see the part they also play in the polarization. The Gospel must be introduced with sensitively and persistence if sanity is to be restored to a society. Faithful use of Biblical terms is a long step in the right direction.