The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America


Predestination and Social theory

Submitted by Jim Aune on July 19, 2011 - 1:04pm

I had a small revelation this morning, and I'm curious what the more theologically inclined among you (Joshua? Ryan?) think about it. The central problem in sociological theory since the 18th century has the been the relative role of "structure" and "agency" in society (Marx would be heavy on structural determination, classical liberals and existentialists heavy on agency, and Giddens trying to strike a middle path). Could it be that this central problem in social theory is a replaying of the Reformation debates on predestination (single and double) versus Arminianism? A Chiasmus, then: in church we theorize social problems, while in social theory we theorize fundamentally theological problems. So, contra John Milbank it's social theory AND theology, at the same time, given the peculiarities of us as created beings trying to eff the ineffable--both the Almighty and the social structures and webs of signification we have spun for ourselves. Even the renaissance debates on magic (so ably illuminated for us by Ryan Stark) display this dynamic. Or is there some deep Levi-Straussian cultural grammar we keep playing out as a way of resolving contradictions? Thoughts?

Submitted by Jim Aune on July 22, 2011 - 4:05pm.

I've not fallen for the Agamben among enlightened folks in rhetorical studies, but looks like he's hit on a similar point in this forthcoming book:

Of course, if you're radically incarnational in focus (as I think Catholics across the Anglican-Lutheran spectrum should be), it's both AND.

Submitted by Daniel L Smith (not verified) on July 26, 2011 - 9:55am.


Last summer, I read Spangle's The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu's "Spirit of the Laws." I think you'd find it interesting and thought provoking.


Submitted by Ryan J. Stark on July 25, 2011 - 3:54pm.

Thanks for calling attention to Agamben’s forthcoming book. I like the chapter titles. The biographical blurb on Amazon underneath Nudities, 2010, describes him as a “radical political theorist.” The blurb under The Kingdom and the Glory says “political theorist.” I find that amusing for some reason. I’ll be curious to see if he gets into any of the heresies and their parallels in social structures. --For example, docetism—the Neoplatonic and Gnostic idea that Christ is pure spirit. Or Arianism (Milton’s position)—the idea that Christ was created and not co-equal with the father. Socinianism? Come to think of it, debates about the trinity were flourishing in seventeenth-century England. I’ll also be curious to see if he gets into theories of hell’s architecture.

On a semi-related note, your post made me think of Blake’s “And Did Those Feet”:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Submitted by Joshua on July 19, 2011 - 8:04pm.

I think--and we could extend the same claim into theorizing history, psychology, economics, etc.--that certain aspects of any field of study require certain inescapable categories of consideration to be decided upon in order to proceed further in theorization and subsequent application. For example, in science, one must address the category of "fact" in order to determine what constitutes a "fact" of science. With causation, one must consider to what extent proximate factors are determinative with prior factors, which may themselves be determined by other prior factors (for example, my eating dinner is a proximate cause that is dependent upon my wife's having made it, and her having made it upon other prior factors) or even with teleological factors, which are temporally subsequent to agent action (i.e., the teleological goal of buying a car at a later time causes me to save money now). So the extent to which structural and agent causation dominates is both a presupposition ("it is more likely that structure/agency is determinative") as well as an immediate consideration ("in the present case X, it appears that agency is more causative than structure").

The theological consideration is one of the inescapable categories of consideration. The question of whether an all-powerful agent lies behind all other structural or agent causes (secondary causes) is one that is automatically addressed (explicitly by the theologian who claims God as the fundamental category of consideration, implicitly by the sociologist who ignores God as a categorical consideration at all). In this sense, every theoretical departure must presuppose "God" or "no-God" in consideration of its theory of causation. The extent to which such questions are "bracketed" is simply the extent to which one unconsciously presupposes a categorical choice--since, as an inescapable category of implication, theory does proceed apart from some conclusion concerning the God/no God question (this is not to ignore the secondary question of metaphysics, which is "what kind of Being is God," or "what governs Being, given no-God").

Effing the ineffable ultimately returns to the epistemological question, which is, upon what foundation do we know or attempt to know? Is it principally Scripture (the Reformation claim), the Church and its Pope (the Roman Catholic claim), the Church and its councils (the Eastern Orthodox claim), autonomous reason (the Modernist claim), or fragmented communities of signification lacking any ultimate grounding (the Postmodernist claim), or something else? If all were ineffable, of course, it would make no difference what choice is made, but insofar as knowledge is possible and skepticism is not absolute, then the claim to some effing ground must be ventured of necessity (I would even argue that absolute skepticism cannot avoid such a step, however hard it may try to do so).

Am I coming in clearly?

Submitted by Ryan J. Stark on July 20, 2011 - 12:46am.

It is possible that I have misunderstood what you are saying, Jim, but if you are tacitly suggesting that Foucault is a secular Calvinist, that Foucault borrowed heavily from Calvin and simply substituted “discourse” and “woody words” for “God,” then I agree.

Josh’s comments are very helpful to me (thanks Josh). There seems to be a heightened sense of “worldview theory” in the humanities of late. Or, maybe I just hope so. I love hearing people explain aspects of their worldviews: the Big Questions about God, agency, self, love, loss, death, ghosts, becoming, etc.—questions that sent some of us into the humanities in the first place. (Aside: I took a 20th-century analytical philosophy class once and was told that many of my big questions were naïve and somewhat embarrassing in the serious world of philosophy: I then took Nietzsche and Nihilism—loved it; wore a black turtleneck). Worldview banter almost always has an edifying diagnostic effect, when specific arguments have stalled. Maybe Weltanschauung clues should appear on RSA conference badges, along with names? …So, you’re a Lutheran Lacanian who likes to go trout fishing, interesting….

What about a supernatural grammar? How many theorists will leave open this possibility, or investigate it? Maybe many! Late in his career, James Kinneavy was working on some sort of universal rhetoric of ethics that he was going to send to the U.N. (I might be confused here), but I do not mean “universal” in the way he meant it. I mean really universal. The refreshing “religious turn” in the humanities is just getting started, and if combined with the linguistic turn, then all sorts of interesting things might happen in rhetorical studies. I’ve read several pieces of late about rhetoric and animals and plants (including Rich Doyle’s mystical “evolution of the noosphere” book), but I anticipate hearing more about the eloquence of angels and devils. And for some of us, the linguistic-turn-meets-the-religious-turn turn is a reawakening of ancient notions of language and reality. John 1:1. Psalm 33:6: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Davida Charney’s RSQ essay, Vol. 40.3, 2010. Jacob Boehme’s Theosophy. Cabala. Prayer.

Caveat: I am presupposing an active and interventionist Christian God who helps us to write the universe—and who counts every hair on every head (Judge Holden from Blood Meridian has no hair). Addendum or Diminuendo, depending on your perspective: Agent Cooper solved the murder of Laura Palmer via dreams and—for lack of a better word—magic (Twin Peaks).

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