The Rhetoric of Religion
by Kenneth Burke
University of California Press, 1961
Here Burke lays out his intentions for the book. Burke argues that
studying how people talk about The Word (logos, verbum), or theological
language describing God, helps us to understand words that explain the
material world. Through examining religion through a rhetorical
lens, rather than a theological lens, Burke hopes to share insights
about the nature of words: “[W]e are to be concerned not directly with
religion, but the terminology of religion . . . the close study of
theology and its forms will provide us with good insight into the
nature of language itself as a motive” (vi). By defining theology
as “preeminently verbal” (vi), Burke focuses his
study to how religion is used as a form of persuasion.
Additionally, it is in the introduction that Burke first defines the
term logology as “studies in words-about-words” (vi).
Introduction: On Theology and
Burke starts the introduction by again defining the term logology by
paralleling it to the term theology. He continues by defining
religion as primarily a verbal
phenomenon: regardless if the entity God exists, the term god exists
and is used by humans. Burke then argues that by studying the
nature of theological language,
more can be learned about language in general: “Our purpose is
simply to ask how theological principles can be shown to have usable
secular analogues that throw light upon the nature of language” (2).
Burke also defines the concept of “god-term” as any term that allows
for the generalization of a variety of particulars so that they can be
that term (2). After giving a brief summary of the following chapters,
Burke spells out his specific goal for the study: to bring about
a greater understanding of the
concept of “Order” and the “sacrificial principle which . . . is
intrinsic to the idea of Order” (4). He continues by claiming
that he hopes his study will shift attention
from the focus on human differences to a focus on human similarities,
specifically “their role as symbol-using animals” (5).
Chapter 1: On Words and The Word
In this chapter, Burke gives six analogies that show how The Word,
language used to describe the supernatural realm or theological
language, gives us insights on
words, language used to describe the material realm. He points
out the paradox of theological language: words are borrowed from
the material realm to describe the supernatural realm, which then can
be borrowed back to describe the material realm in new ways because of
the implications gained from the supernatural usages (7). Burke
claims that this paradox of theological language shows that all
language is not simply referential, but in fact, it “does add a ‘new
dimension’ to the things of nature” (8).
Burke’s six analogies are:
1 “The likeness between words about words and words about The Word”
(33). Because God is associated with logos, any language that is
used to talk about nature of words will be analogous to language that
is used to talk about God (13-14).
2 “Word are to non-verbal nature as Spirit is to Matter” (33).
Just as an person’s spirit is supposed to be more than his/her material
manifestation, so language represents more than just the material
object it names. At the same time, both the symbol and the
symbolized are greatly linked, just as the spirit cannot be separated
from the body (16-17).
3 “Language theory, in coming to a head in a theory of the negative,
corresponds to ‘negative theology’” (33). As negative theology
describes God through what it is not (i.e. immortal, infinite, etc.),
language describes material objects through a negative definition, in
naming an object it defines what that object is not (i.e. a penguin is
not a tree, or a horse, or a window). In addition, just as
positive descriptions of God are only analogies (i.e. calling God
“father” does not mean God is a father in the literal sense, but
the term father helps us to understand God’s nature), words are never
the object that they symbolize (18-23).
4 “Linguistic entitlement leads to a search for the title of titles,
which is technically a ‘god-term’” (33). Both the study of
language and the study of religion are looking for a god-term to
help organize all forms of knowledge underneath their particular
focus. Theology can claim to include all forms of knowledge under
the concept of god as God is creator of all things. Likewise
logology can claim to include all forms of knowledge under the concept
of language as they are tied to verbal formations used to understand
and share the knowledge (24-27).
5 “’Time’ is to ‘eternity’ as the particulars in the unfolding of a
sentence are to the sentence’s unitary meaning” (33). Eternity,
although non-temporal, is made up of specific moments happening in
temporal succession. Similarly, the meaning of a sentence,
although more than the sum of the meaning of the individual words in
the sentence, still is the result of the individual words (27-28).
6 “The relation between the name and the thing named is like the
relations of the persons in the Trinity” (34). Christian theology
describes the members of the Triune God as both separate and
unified. Words can be seen to work similarly: although the word
is not the object it names, there is a correspondence between the two
Burke continues by explaining that the analogies between theology and
logology work both ways: insight can be gained by look to the sacred
language help explain
the secular language or the other way around (35-36). He then
give the three types of order that this study is to enlighten:
natural order, socio-political order,
and symbolic order (37).
Burke wraps up this chapter with highlights of his theory of Dramatism,
viewing language as “symbolic action” (38). He comments that
language should be
approached as a type of action rather than a way of knowledge. He
distinguishes between action, requiring motives, from motion, the
simple material occurrence of things. He then finishes up with a
shortened version of his definition of man: “(1) a symbol using animal
(2) the inventor of the negative (3)separated from his natural
conditions by instruments of his own making (4) and goaded by the
spirit of hierarchy” (40).
Chapter 2: Verbal Action in St.
Burke starts with a brief section outline of this chapter.
Burke begins with the claim that Augustine is an ideal candidate for
the study of logology because both his Confessions and De Doctrina
Christiana address the
relationship “between secular words and the theological Word”
(50). Burke starts with an examination of the etymologies
that Augustine provides for verbum (word) is “to strike” and for nomen
(noun, name) means to know (50). In this Burke argues that
Augustine sees a “relationship between language and volition” (51),
that language affects the will.
Burke then moves to a quick overview of Augustine’s Confessions.
In through three sections Burke highlights key concepts in
Confessions. He begins by focusing on how Augustine describes
God: with positive terms, negative terms, and with paradoxes (52).
Burke argues that each time a term is used it implies its negation,
that “praise can serve as a form of dispraise” (56). He uses this
as a foundation to work on the dialectical pairs that Augustine sets up
through his Confessions in later sections of the chapter.
Burke then moves to the last word in Confessions: open. Burke
highlights theimportance of this last word for the ideas that Augustine
expresses for The Word.
Being a verb, it highlights the action that underlies the nature of The
Word; open also represents what The Word did for Augustine, it opened
up knowledge for him
(61). Burke makes the correlation between this nature of The Word
and words in general later.
Lastly, Burke introduces Augustine’s central dialectic pair for Burke:
“conversion” and “perversity” (64). Burke argues that this pair
is made clear through the set up
of Book II of Augustine’s treatise: Augustine first looks at his time
of perversity (pre-Christian) and then moves to the time after his
conversion to Christianity (64-
In the next few sections Burke does a close examination of how
Augustine build the dialectical nature between perversion and
conversion. This pair hinges of the idea that perversion relies
on selfishness where as conversion is a selfless act. Augustine
starts his time of perversion with his infancy. He considers this
perverse because infants are completely self-absorbed, and would act
upon their desires if they only had the physical ability (67). He
moves to childhood for the
example of disobedience (68), and then to adolescence, where he
performs unethical acts for the sheer desire of doing it. He ends
with his life as a teacher of
rhetoric, because of the arrogance he developed as a teacher (69).
Burke then explores how Augustine’s understanding of the existence of
evil helps to explain his understanding his views of perversity.
For Augustine, good and evil are not equal powers working in the
universe, rather good in the only power in the universe and evil “an
eclipse of goodness” (87). Therefore, the goodness in
motives (or lack thereof) defines whether an act is good or evil.
Burke develops Augustine’s argument by looking at how what might be
viewed as adolescent pranks as highly unethical acts through an example
of when Augustine steals some rotting pears from an orchard to give to
some pigs. Augustine sees this act as immoral because he did not
steal the fruit for an redeemable reason (i.e. he was starving), but
rather for the thrill of stealing the pears. Because Augustine
was aware of the symbolic implications of this action, he saw it as
most depraved because he acted out of the joy he took from
disobedience, despite the fact that there was no actual harm caused by
the action (94-6). The evil in the action is not in the nature of
the results but in the lack of a motive of goodness. Thus, all
acts that are motivated by personal pleasure are perverse (98).
Burke then moves to Augustine’s conversion, which Burke notes is the
structural climax of Confessions. For Burke, the key to
understanding the dialectic pairing of
perversion and conversion is that Augustine saw conversion as a
selfless act in the most literal understanding of the word. Burke
notes that in much current
theological talk on conversion views it as “decision-making” (101),
however for Augustine, conversion meant that “something was decided for
Augustine was converted in the passive sense—God did something to him.
(104, 117). What happens to Augustine because of his conversion
is that his motives
moves into goodness, no longer eclipsed by selfishness (107,
113-5). Burke uses this discussion of conversion to draw a link
between the power of The Word on
Augustine and the power of words on individuals (121).
Burke then moves on to the idea of memory in Augustine’s
Confessions. Augustine viewed some memories as images of other
things (125) but others “as the thing themselves” (127). Burke
highlights the transcendent nature of words: they don’t just
name/represent other objects but can be the object that is named, i.e.
Burke then sets up another important dialectical pair: clinging and
tearing away. For Augustine, ethical choices are dependent upon
what individuals cling to in their lives. For Augustine, goodness
is gained through “clinging” to God (130). Temptation then
becomes for Augustine a tearing away from the truth, other
objects that the individual wants to cling to, which means they can no
longer cling to God (135).
Burke then returns to his analogy between Eternity and Time and how
meaning relates to temporal utterances. He focuses on Augustine’s
discussion of beginnings to enlighten this discussion. Eternity exists
outside of time, because the first act of creation must include the
creation of time itself; so “God was not before all time,
but that before all time God is” (146). Burke also draws
attention to how the creation myth associates speech to action; he also
establishes wisdom with The
Word, and thus wisdom with symbol using (150).
He closes the chapter with a conclusion where he highlights his main
points in the chapter and tries to clarify the analogies he made
between The Word and words
and prepares the reader for the next chapter. He rehashes his
choice of Augustine as an exemplar example because of his knowledge of
both rhetoric and theology, highlights the dialectic between conversion
and perversion, notes Augustine’s conversion as the structural impetus
for Confessions, and argues that it would be fruitful to explore the
section of Genesis that Augustine uses to discuss beginnings from a
theological stand point as a point to explore from a logological stand
point (163-4), which he does in the next chapter. He ends the
chapter with a statement that a study of beginnings in theology is
important to understand the development of social institutions.
Therefore a logological study of beginnings is a way to look for the
role of symbols in secular institutions (170). This idea will
come up again in the next chapter.
Chapter 3: The First Three
Chapters of Genesis
Again a brief outline of the sections begins the chapter.
Then Burke spells out his interest in looking at Genesis to help
understand the concept of Order. “Creation implies authority in
the sense of originator . . . The possibility of a ‘Fall’ is implied in
a Covenant insofar as the idea of a Covenant implies the possibility of
its being violated” (174). Burke then moves to how the idea of
covenants relate to order in general: “Logologically . . . we have the
‘divisiveness’ of ‘classification’ where we formerly had had a ‘vision
of perfect oneness’” (175). Anytime there is a classification,
the negative of the term used is always implied.
Burke continues by explaining that this chapter will focus on the role
of sacrifice intrinsic in the idea of order (178-9). Because
Genesis deals with beginnings, it can
be “interpreted as dealing with principles . . . it is dealing with the
principles of governance” (180). He focuses on the covenants in
the first three chapters of Genesis, although he dramatistically uses
the term Order, because “’Order’ implies ‘disorder’” (181), to
highlight the dialectical nature of classification. He ends this
section by noting that he hopes to show how the narrative structure of
Genesis reinforces a cyclical type of order (183).
Burke examines how any term has other implications within it. He
repeats the order/disorder pair and then moves on to the idea of
obedience/disobedience (186). He claims that moral disobedience
is a linguistic phenomenon, because the negative is only a linguistic
construct (187). He then discusses how the order established in
Genesis implies not an order/disorder pair, but a choice between two
different forms of order, establishing “Order against
Counter-Order” (194). Disorder can be seen as a failure to adhere
to order or “disobedience due to an out-and-out enrollment in the ranks
of a rival force” (195). This makes evil an less an issue of
failing to adhere to The Order and more of an obedience to a
Burke turns to Hobbes’ Leviathan to expand his idea of
order/counter-order. Burke starts with Hobbes’ definition of
humans, which is tied to the social order (196-7). In tying in
Christian doctrine with his ideas of social covenant and sets it up
against the Kingdom of Darkness (198-9), Hobbes emphasizes that “the
idea of a Covenant is the idea not just of obedience or disobedience to
that Covenant, but also of obedience or disobedience to a rival
Covenant” (199). He then moves to the idea of the scapegoat, and
the idea that sacrifice is necessary to rectify disobedience to a
In the fourth section, Burke discusses how the narrative style of
Genesis establishes an order, making each day of the creation a
separate classification of what exists in the world (202).
Additionally, the “narrative style would personalize the principle of
classification” (202), making the order seem natural. He then
goes through several examples of dialectical pairs produced in Genesis,
most notably work and rest (203). He then examines how death is
established as punishment for disobedience to the Covenant, leading to
the idea of dominion within the Covenant (206-7). This leads to
death being linked to moral mortification (212).
After discussing the difficulties of limiting the symbolic aspects of
the narrative form of Genesis, Burke moves on to discuss how the
narrative form supports a cyclical order. Through out Genesis,
and the rest of the Bible, the narratives told continuously reproduce
the same story: covenant, disobedience, sacrifice, redemption
(217). The result is that the order becomes cyclical: “Thus when
we read of on broken covenant after another, and see the sacrificial
reaffirmed anew, narratively this succession may be interpreted as a
movement towards fulfillment” (217). “Logologically, the ‘fall’
and the ‘redemption’ are but parts of the same cycle, with each part
implying each other” (218). Burke then looks at how the Bible
describes the subjugation of women and the establishment of clothing as
a way to naturalize the differences of status within the social order
(219-20). Burke concludes his discussion of the effects of the
narrative structure with a discussion of the role of the statement “And
God saw it was good” (221). By establishing that the order as
good, the purpose of the order is also good (221).
Burke then compares the narrative and cyclical styles: “The narrative .
. promises an ultimate liner progression to end all linear progressions
. . . [while] the cycle of terms implicitly in the idea of worldly
order continues, forever circling back upon itself, thus forever
‘guilty,’ thus forever demanding ‘redemption’” (223). While the
narrative style implies a progression, the idea of Order makes the
world a never ending cycle, allowing for a reversed understanding of
the progression given in the narrative. Burke gives an example of
this by looking at the story of the Tower of Babel. The idea that
the fragmentation that results from the tower is implied in the
people’s feeling that they needed to create the tower (225).
Burke then gives several other examples of this, after which he moves
to the principle of governance. Because of these explorations
show how narratives of order function in a cyclical fashion,
individuals should be aware as there are two superpowers in the world,
each with their order narratives which requires the sacrifice of the
other to end the discord in its own social structure (236).
Burke ends this chapter with a logological conclusions drawn from the
exploration. Whenever a concept is implicit in another concept,
logologically there is a paradox: “For if we begin with idea A,
and meditate upon it untill we find idea B implicit, then so far as
time sequence is conerned idea B has followed idea A. . . . Yet insofar
as B was implicit the from the start, there is a sense in which its
presence in A preceded our discovery there. Thus in another
sense, our step forward [developing B from A] is rather like a step
Burke then goes to a series of post-scripts for the chapter. They
are essentially 15 further examples of the ideas presented in the
chapter. While they might be seen to help solidify his points in
the text, they really didn’t seem to bring any further insight into the
Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven
This is a dialog Burke created to use as a discussion on his ideas of
logology. There are three dramatic personas: Impresario, who
introduces the dialog and reassures the audience that this is a
logological exercise not a theological one; The Lord, creator of the
universe; and Satan, being The Lord’s negative.
Essentially, this dialog covers all the same ideas expressed in the
other parts of the book. While not adding anything new to the
idea already discussed, it does provide a good overview of Burke’s
goals and might be useful to read before diving into the rest of the
>From William H. Rueckert “Burke’s Verbal Drama.” Originally
published in The
Nation February 17, 1962. Excerpted here from Critical Responses
Burke, W. H. Rueckert, ed.
“[“The First Three Chapter’s of Genesis”] is a condensed version of
everything Burke has been trying to say since 1945 . . . Such an
God as the “Idea of Order” and leads to a consideration of . . . the
drama as a rhetorical wonder . . . Burke’s argument, here and elsewhere
book], is that this moral drama can be accounted for in terms of words
The Word because it is implicit in the nature of language and symbol
>From Joseph Frank “Symbols and Civilization.” Originally
published in The Sewanee
Review, vol. LXXII, 1964. Excerpted here from Critical Responses
Burke, W. H. Rueckert, ed.
“Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion, like everything else that
Mr. Burke has
written, is highly original, brilliantly stimulating, infinitely
suggestive, and ultimately
“The Rhetoric of Religion is thus a part of Mr. Burke’s continuing
effort to integrate
all types of vocabulary into this dramatistic frame work. In this
book he tackles the
vocabulary of theology to show that the fundamental terms used . . .
well be seen as the internal relations of discourse itself” (402).
“It is unlikely, however, that any reader will be entirely persuaded by
capricious analogies and conceptual acrobatics” (404).
“Mr. Burke seems caught half-way between the semanticists who strive
eliminate ‘the tyranny of words’ and the philosophers of symbolism who
types of symbolic activity as the foundations of human culture and who
not as an error but as an achievement” (405-6).
Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in
Logology. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1970.
William H. Rueckert, ed. Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke,
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1969.
Prepared by Aaron Bruenger