The Kingdom of Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of the Kingdom:

The Kingdom of Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of the Kingdom:  what Classical Christian Rhetoric Teachers can learn from Augustine’s First Encounter with AmbroseChris

Classical Christian rhetoric teachers are not too wise to mine the classical Christian rhetoricians for wisdom nor too foolish to follow their examples.  Two great teachers from whom one can learn much are the larger than life Augustine of Hippo and his catechist, Bishop Ambrose of Milan. Augustine’s account of his encounter with Ambrose upon arriving in Milan as an aspiring young rhetoric teacher is certainly a wonderful springboard for reflection upon Christian rhetoric.

When Augustine arrived in Milan, where the emperor was then residing, he made a point to meet with Bishop Ambrose, who was well-known as a very good speaker. Augustine records that Ambrose greeted him “like a father,” showing him genuine human warmth. While at the time Augustine had absolutely no confidence in the church or its teachings, he could not help liking Bishop Ambrose because of the kindness he showed to him. Augustine began to listen enthusiastically to Ambrose’s sermons to see what he could learn from the bishop’s rhetorical style.

Ambrose’s warm, fatherly welcome of Augustine suggests a natural context for Christian rhetoric, loving relationship. That we are more likely to listen to people who genuinely care for us is only human. While relationships are not sufficient to produce rhetoric, it is hard to imagine that humans would talk as much if they did not live in communities, families for instance. For many of us, our first experience of rhetoric is the voice of our mother beckoning us not to cry as she offers us her breast. Rhetoric quiets the soul and leads to life. Love is the mother of rhetoric.

Of course, the fact that most animals survive all right without rhetoric suggests that distinctly human life is more than food. Acute observers such as Aristotle have marked that human beings gravitate to the city, where talk goes on non-stop. Rhetoric is the shared communal life, the creative life-blood of the city, the means by which human movers and shakers move and shake things up. The way buildings rise to touch the skies has always included rhetoric, not to say babble.

The question naturally arises concerning the nature and origin of that distinctively human trait, rhetoric. In his most recent book, The Kingdom of Speech, New York’s babble-king Tom Wolfe reports that after over 150 years of serious and continuous research, the scientific establishment has concluded that they still do not know what human speech is, let alone how it came about. But such scientific discourse is, as Wolfe points out, but the most powerful form of human speech going, the favorite idiom by which the cultural elite demarcate their hegemony over the backwoods margins of modernity.

The very use of rhetoric which Wolfe revels in unmasking, as a tool to gain advantage at the expense of the other, may suggest the limits of the human city, which generally degenerates into violent culture wars. If love is the mother of rhetoric, envy is the wicked brother, sharpening words like a knife to silence the rival and prevent him from inheriting this or that cultural domain.

Darwinian struggle can account for the silencing of but not the arrival of rhetoric, but classical Christian rhetoric has other resources at its disposal to account for the beginning of human rhetoric and its degeneration into struggles for power. According to the Bible, the very genesis of man follows from divine rhetoric: “Let us make man in our own image,” God says, waxing as a king holding royal council. The fact that God goes on in the next verse to create man and woman in his own image, commanding them to have dominion and be fruitful and multiply, has led Christian theologians to conceive of the rhetorical community of men and women which gives rise to human culture as an image of the Trinity, whose royal word of love calls man into being.

The degeneration of the human community into violent struggle through the action of the brother-murdering Cain, founder of the first city, the Bible grounds in humanity’s prior rebellion against God. Through an act of disobedience, man rather pitifully positions himself as god’s rival. And so the original rhetoric of love degenerates into one of conflict, a patois of force and fraud.

Christianity’s counterpoint is Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh. Because there is no comparison between God and man, the rhetoric of God does not rival human cultures but offers Himself as their savior and redeemer. Opposed by the violent rhetoric of human powers, Jesus refuses to respond in kind but offers on the cross God’s word of forgiveness. Christian rhetoric is uniquely a rhetoric of reconciliation between God and humanity in Jesus Christ, God making his appeal through us, be reconciled to God!

Returning to where we began, Augustine’s encounter with Ambrose, we see how Ambrose embodies the message of the Father’s open arms extended to humanity in Jesus Christ when we welcomes Augustine like a father and treats him with genuine human kindness. Ambrose’s Christian attitude is what opens Augustine to listen to Ambrose’s message and makes it credible. As Classical Christian rhetoric teachers, we do well to model Ambrose’s classical Christian style by welcoming our students like fathers and mothers, showing them genuine human kindness, and not failing to pass on the saving rhetoric of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.

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