It was a busy week at Wheaton College last week. In addition to Edward Mendelson’s visit, which I mentioned in a post the other day, the distinguished theologian Miroslav Volf came to town to discuss his new book Allah: a Christian Response. In the past few days he and I have been having an email conversation that touches on certain matters relevant to the concerns of this blog.
In his talk, Volf raised a simple but profound question: How do people from different religious traditions learn to live peacefully with one another in the same world? He outlined some ways in which we can be generous towards one another, and can identify some important common ground, especially among believers in the Abrahamic religions. His arguments were compelling, but they also (for me) raised a question: If it is often necessary to seek common ground, do rhetorical situations arise when it’s important for a religious believer to emphasize what’s unique about his or her own religion?
Miroslav’s first response to this question was that emphasizing uniqueness as such is not a value for religious believers, or for Christians anyway: rather, we must strive to be faithful to our beliefs and commitments, and let uniqueness come as it will. A very wise response, I think, though one that had not occurred to me.
But then — and here’s where the concerns of this blog come in — he pointed out that while one might want to speak differently in different rhetorical situations, might strive to adjust one’s language to suit different audiences that have different needs, in practice we do not live in a world with “bounded” rhetorical situations. “Everyone is listening,” he said, thanks to the World Wide Web, as it is accurately called, which takes what you say to one audience and broadcasts it — as text, audio, video, or all of the above — to pretty much anyone who’s interested in finding it.
One of the most fundamental principles of rhetoric has always been decorum, that is, suiting one’s language to occasion and audience. Those of us who teach writing typically think it vital to get our students to think in these terms — to see that they must adjust style and diction, evidence and argument, to reach the readers they most want to reach.
Such imperatives will never cease to be important. But it also seems likely that we will have to train students to be aware — and will have to train ourselves to be aware — that much of what we say and write can find audiences we never intended. And the consequences of our words’ extended reach will not always be positive ones.
Increasingly, these will be matters of import for everyone. But given the intensity of feelings that people have for what Paul Griffiths calls the “home religion,” religious believers whose lives have a public dimension should be especially thoughtful, careful — and prayerful.