The Great Commitment

Introductory Remark

 I: One thing I have learned here in practice (something that I already knew in theory); a man cannot live a good life without a vow; a vow towards God or to a wife (through God). Without commitment, there is no happiness.

R: The subject of “Vow” looks like it has some substance for writing. We should both write about it and then compare our ideas!

I: Do I smell a challenge there?

 The essay by Ricardo Bottino and the upcoming essay by Ivan Dadic pretend to be nothing else but a warm exchange of thoughts between two friends who are seeking for truth. Thus they were written in a contemplative manner, rather than a mere accumulation of research and information.


G.K Chesterton claimed that the making of a vow and being true to it is at least indicative of a now lost social sanity. We want freedom from all binds whatsoever, and since vows are a kind of bind, we want freedom from vows. The lack of vows is suggested to arise from the social abandonment of commitment. I will not argue the point further, I concur with Chesterton’s basic idea. Well, can I say anything else besides what's written in that essay by Chesterton A Defense of Harsh Vows that would be of any interest? I shall have to stretch the term vow, or perhaps it is not a stretch at all. After all, Chesterton wasn't really defending vows per se but the underlying idea of a commitment. I want to reflect on a certain problem within our common human nature. There seems to be a dichotomy between pleasure and virtue. It seems we are committed to two seemingly exclusive desires: the desire to be happy and the desire to be good. There is among the common consciousness a pull or a calling of allegiance, to vow in our hearts an unconditional commitment to virtue. But we don't want to significantly reduce our experience of pleasure. So, it seems to us, we must either be saints or be admirers and sporadic practitioners without fulling committing ourselves, especially true when being good is overwhelmingly difficult, to goodness. There is a paradox here, it seems we can't be totally happy as long as we don't satisfy the desire to not give in to the whims of desire but neither can we be totally happy without satisfying those same whims. Goodness seems to asks of us to make an impossible vow, impossible in the sense that we can't possibly keep it. But am I here in a way cheating? Am I really talking about vows or something analogical? Can I make a vow to an abstract idea or a platonic form such as Goodness? A far stretch of the meaning of the word vow. Perhaps, but then again whoever said we must side with Plato on this score? Goodness is a person and “He has made us for Himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”[1] I side with the great doctors of the church. I shall call the desire to vow our complete loyalty to God himself who is identical with Goodness, the Augustinian principle. Every corner of our being is begging us to declare this perpetual allegiance, it is not necessarily the case that everyone is immediately conscious as to what exactly it is that we owe our allegiance to. The Augustinian principle states that (1) there is this inner desire and (2) that the object of this desire is God whether we know it or not.

 

There are some desires we can go on living without satisfying. I have seen children beg for toys (When they have plenty they barely play with), to go see a movie (that's inappropriate for their age), and I imagine that the lack of having their desires satisfied in that regard has not made them any less (really) happy. I can easily imagine some of these children grow up thankful for not having been so spoiled in their youth. The point here is to demonstrate that not all desires are created equal. There are artificial desires as well as natural desires. You'd be wrong to deny a thirsty child water or a hungry one food. Of course, the philosopher David Hume has taught us not to confuse what is with what ought to be, that nature is a certain way does not entail that it ought to be that certain way; but under the right set of conditions and careful qualifications it is right and we ought to satisfy these natural desires. There is a distinction the Christian can use, and that is the distinction between fallen nature and ideal nature. Whatever desires flow from our fallen nature (the one we have now) that are in accordance with what would have flown from our ideal nature (the one we had pre-sin or will have post-resurrection) ought to be satisfied. It could be contended that the fact of Adam's fall is a counterexample to this, but I do not believe that would be theologically accurate. Adam's sin was not the result of a desire that found its origin within Adam's nature. It was wholly artificial, contrary to his nature. Our desire to live in virtue in accordance with the Good is not only a natural desire it is a desire that concurs with what would have flown from ideal nature. Therefore, since God is the Good, this desire to live in accordance with God's will is one we ought to satisfy. The desire to commit ourselves, vow unconditional allegiance to God, is wholly natural and right. But importantly, no desire that is ideal in the way I explained could ever be contrary or against our happiness.

 

Dating many women might be something some find desirable, but it is inconsistent with vowing fidelity to a single one ( something some today actually view as genuinely undesirable). The vow we are demanded to make is a perfectly reasonable one. The marriage between Heaven and Earth, the union between Man and God is quite literally a match made in heaven. We either don't fully understand the vow we are asked to make or we are insane. I suspect a little bit of both. Christ says “take your cross and follow me,” perhaps one reason we think we can't have both God and happiness is because of our fear of suffering. We reason that since happiness is incompatible with suffering and “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master,” then if we follow Christ we will partake in some suffering ourselves and be thus unhappy. Perhaps we would have to deny ourselves of some pleasures we cannot yet imagine living without. But what convinced us that suffering is truly incompatible with happiness rather than a road to it? Learning to read might be tedious, reading a great book afterward might be exceedingly worth the price. A little workout might be strenuous, but a healthy body is worth the price. If we do not deny ourselves some things for the sake of Christ, if we do not take even a little cross and crucify some of our desires, then neither will we be glorified as He was glorified in his resurrection. “Grace perfects nature,” hence whatever we keep to ourselves will eventually wither and rot, but whatever we give to Him He refines and makes new. [2]

 

Chesterton wrote a defense of rash vows, I am defending the most reasonable vow we can make. Our initial dilemma of pleasure or virtue is false because it's stated without qualification. C.S Lewis summed it up eloquently when he said “ It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” We are creatures devoted wholeheartedly to the short-term, unable to see what stands for our true benefit. There is little hope of finding an antidote to our condition within ourselves, could it be that we are unable to make the vow? Perhaps we are too damaged to make a Great Commitment? No, but this again requires qualification. We can do it, but not just by ourselves either. We are helped by God all along the way. Grace makes able what is by nature impossible, what grace cannot do is make the decision for us.[3] There is a call for allegiance, the question for the Christian who has discovered the identity of the one making the call is whether he will answer it. If we are neither cowards, nor ignorant, nor crazy, then the only thing left to do is to become saints. In the words of G.K Chesterton “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

 

[1] Augustine, The Confessions. (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5)

[2] Many of the ideas in this paragraph, especially the connection between some discomfort and eventual happiness can be found in The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis.

[3] This view of freedom and grace is taken from st. Augustine, Sermon 156.

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