On Promises

We read in Deuteronomy 1, “Support me, O Lord, according to your promises….” It takes a certain amount of boldness even to ask the Lord to keep His promises, let alone to recognize that He made any to us.

Much of our contentment and discontentment arises over the keeping or breaking of promises. An oath or a pledge is a declaration that we will keep a promise. A vow is a solemn promise, often made to God, designed to emphasize the seriousness of the promise, the intent to keep it. A contract is an agreement that something will be done or delivered in a specified manner, usually at a specific time. Too many lives are filled with broken promises. Hence, oaths and contracts usually have some specific legal penalty or remedy if the promised act is not fulfilled. Others depend on us to keep our promises.

Promises may or may not have time factors involved in them. Marriage is, or should be, “till death do us part.” A contract may read that I will deliver this load of coal on December 20. Promises enable us to configure a future that yet has no present order. A promise identifies how someone will act or speak in a not-yet future. It allows us to make our own promises on the surety of those of others.

The question comes up about promises that we never should make, or carry out if made. I think of Herod Antipas. He swore that he would give his dancing daughter up to half a kingdom. Only she asked for the head of John the Baptist instead. The king, since he made such a fuss, had to “keep” his oath and promise. Plato pointed out in a famous passage in the Republic that the greatest crimes need mutual agreement and promise among gangsters for the worst schemes to be accomplished. Promises arise out of our understanding and power to will. They are part of the discourse on free will and its relation to reason.

The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)
The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)

A promise is a way to organize the future, as Hannah Arendt once explained it. The past has happened. We cannot change it. To lie about what happened in the past is an evil that can be checked against facts. But the future has not yet happened. Now we might be believers who claim that we so trust in God that we do not have to “do” anything. We just let whatever happens be “God’s will.” We excuse ourselves by saying that we follow “God’s will” wherever it leads. But this thesis merely bypasses the whole meaning of what it is to be human: to be able to act and take responsibility for our actions.

The regularities of nature, the sun rising and setting, go on without our will having anything to do with them. We can praise them, but not change them. This necessity is true of our own existence as far as we ourselves are concerned. But our existence depended on the promises of others, hopefully of our parents, of their promise to raise what is begotten of them. But other things will only exist if we plan for them. Just to have a plan is not enough. We must will it, resolve, and promise to carry it into existence.

In his famous essay, “In Defence of Rash Vows,” Chesterton wrote these remarkable lines:

It is most interesting to listen to opponents to marriage. . . .They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy (of keeping a vow) was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words – “free love” – as if love ever had been or ever could be free. It is the nature of love to bind oneself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

It has never been said better. Love is a choice to be free by binding ourselves to what we love in such a way that we keep our promise to the one we choose. Broken promises and vows do not free us. They merely explain to us how we chose not to be free.

In the confessional formula, we firmly “promise” to make amends for our sins. Without this promise, things are at a standstill morally and sacramentally. If we break a promise, and who hasn’t, we should not use that as an excuse to break every other promise. But if we find ourselves constantly breaking promises, solemn and ordinary, we are nearing the condition of that “free love” to which Chesterton referred, that love that binds us to nothing but ourselves.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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