The Rhetoric of Religion by Kenneth Burke

It has been understood at least since Wittgenstein ( that there are varieties of human thought and discourse, and that they intersect in interesting ways. They have been described as ‘language games’. Each game in a school playground has its own set of rules. These are absorbed and complied with by the participants for the activity to be meaningful. So with discourse and thought. The proposition ‘water freezes at zero degrees centigrade’ is not at all the same kind of proposition as ‘I know my Redeemer liveth’. The former belongs to the discourse of physics, the latter to the discourse of religion. This point dawned on me upon reading Ian T. Ramsey’s book ‘Religious Language’ in 1979. ( Like all insights it seems staringly obvious once pointed out.

Ramsey’s 1957 book opened up a fruitful debate within philosophy of religion which is the territory of this work by Kenneth Burke ( and Burke demonstrates how language and religious thought intertwine by reference to a specific symbolic contexts. After a discussion ‘On Words and The Word,’ he analyses verbal action in Augustine’s Confessions.

He then discusses the first three chapters of Genesis, and ends with a brilliant and profound ‘Prologue in Heaven,’ an imaginary dialogue between the Lord and Satan in which he proposes that we begin our study of human motives with complex theories of transcendence. Burke believes that he has created a model of the symbolic act which breaks through the rigidities of the ‘sacred-secular’ dichotomy, and at the same time shows us how we get from secular and sacred realms of action over the bridge of language. He proposes religious systems are systems of action based on communication in society. They are great social dramas which are played out on earth before an ultimate audience, God. But where theology confronts the developed cosmological drama in the ‘grand style,’ that is, as a fully developed cosmological drama for its religious content, the ‘logologer’ can be further studied not directly as knowledge but as anecdotes that help reveal for us the quandaries of human governance.

This is a seminal work for anyone who has ever wondered what they are really doing when they speak and take part in human social life. Follow up with articles on philosophy of religious language here and pragmatism here   .

Check if this seminal work on religious language is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at

336 pages in University of California Press

First published 1961

ISBN  978-0520016101

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Kenneth Burke

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