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    PloughCast 42: Zohar Atkins on Vows in Scripture and the Existentialists

    The Vows That Bind, Part 6

    By Zohar Atkins, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    November 1, 2022

    About This Episode

    Susannah talks with Zohar Atkins, a rabbi and philosopher, about vows in Nietzsche, in other philosophers, and in the Jewish theological tradition.

    Are vows the origin of private conscience and thus the origin of secularism? Can human vows provide the kind of transcendence and eternity that even existentialists seek? Is it presumptuous to take a vow?

    Then, Susannah and Peter discuss what they’ve learned from editing the Vows issue of the magazine and doing the Vows season of the podcast.

    After that, they take listener questions – is it wrong to vow at all? How can we ensure that vows are made in love? And what are the hosts’ favorite cooking spices?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Zohar Atkins: The Eternity of the Existentialists

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast. This is the sixth episode in our new series linked to our Vows issue. I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough. In this episode, Susannah will be speaking with rabbi and philosopher Zohar Atkins. And then we’ll both be taking your questions.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Zohar Atkins is the founder of Etz Hasadeh: A Center for Existential Torah. He is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a DPhil in theology from Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and a semikha from the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. He’s a published poet and is the author of An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger’s Critique of Modernity, 2018, and Nineveh, 2019. Welcome, Zohar.

    So we are going to be talking today about … you’re both a rabbi and also a kind of, I would say, great books generalist. And I’d love to hear from you just about essentially vows and oaths and covenant in both the biblical context and in our various philosophical traditions. So lead me through some of what you’ve been thinking about.

    Zohar Atkins: Obviously, vowing is important in the context of covenant because God promises Noah after the flood that God will not destroy the world again by water and gives us a sign in the form of a rainbow, which, I guess, if you’re anthropomorphizing God, you might say that that rainbow exists not just to assure Noah, to calm him down after his PTSD, but also in a sense to assure God that God is really committed to preserving the world from apocalypse.

    So why would God need to take a vow? Again, this is all just with the caveat that we’re projecting onto God here. God wants a sign for Godself to say, “You know what? Don’t succumb to your instinct here or your emotional temperament. Conquer it, have bigger eyes and take the bigger picture, like, you want the world to exist, like, you’re an optimist, even though obviously humanity does press your buttons at times.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is like … classical theists everywhere just got a little nauseous and freaked out.

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah. I’m giving this within the framework of reading the Bible as a story.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Why don’t we head from there into the way that the various people in the classical philosophical traditions have dealt with vows and oaths?

    Zohar Atkins: I think of two traditions within philosophy on oaths. One is Nietzsche, who says that, in a sense, the ability to keep a promise is the sign of mastery. It’s the sign of being mature, and so promising is a source of dignity. Maybe that’s a weird thing to get from Nietzsche – promising as a source of dignity. It’s not just that you make the promise; it’s that you keep the promise. So the distinction between the human and the animal or the master and the slave, to use the retro language of Nietzsche, is that those who have real power and real agency in life not only make promises but sort of keep to their promises no matter what. And that suggests, obviously, that there are constraints and limits placed upon human will and human control, but that sort of ignoring those limits or finding a way to defy them is the task.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It seems to me that part of Nietzsche is related to the line from Zarathustra –“All joy wants eternity, wants deep, deep eternity.” The scriptural counterpart is God has put eternity in the hearts of men, and the idea that your joy grasps after the eternal and that vowing or swearing oaths is one way to fix our hearts in the eternal.

    Zohar Atkins: Absolutely. So there’s maybe two ways to think about the eternal here. There’s the genuinely philosophically rigorous understanding, and then there’s the maybe colloquial. I think the colloquial view is that it’s going to last a really long time beyond the range of what we normally take to be the scale of measurement. But as long as it lasts beyond your lifetime or for most of your lifetime, you chalk it up to eternity. It’s a rounding error in favor of eternity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think that when people, at least subjectively, when I have that joy-wants-eternity thing, I’m really thinking about philosophical eternity. I think that there’s … I don’t subjectively see a difference. I certainly think that “beyond your lifetime” or “close to the end of your lifetime,” those are two radically different things. Think about marriage vows. Keeping a marriage vow until the year before you die is crap. And keeping a marriage vow until you die is keeping the marriage vow.

    Zohar Atkins: Fair. Let me clarify a little bit on this point. So when Plato, and I suppose the ancient Greeks talk about perfection, they talk about things which don’t change and also don’t come to an end. So the heavenly bodies or God are perfect in contradistinction to terrestrial things because they don’t change, whereas we do. And that turns into the concept of eternity at some later point where eternity becomes used synonymously with sort of above the fray.

    But in a modern period, the existentialists hold on to the concept of eternity. And similarly in Leo Strauss, the great ideas and the great questions are trans-historical rather than just a product of their time, but they’re still a function of humanity which is rooted in history. That’s different than the Platonic view which is like that there’s just no drama up there.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think, again, there’s a third way that neither of those at all encompasses, which is the idea that … obviously, this is getting into the idea of what does divine aseity mean? What does it mean that God is unmoved when we also see him having emotions and passions or apparent passions? And obviously, this is massively complicated by Christian theology.

    Eternity in the sense that Strauss would mean it is like the eternal questions, or like the trans-historical human questions as being eternal by seeing them as rooted in human nature, and so they don’t pass away from one era to another. They always pop back up again because they’re rooted in human nature. That’s actually a quite limited vision for what eternity would mean because human nature is … It seems to me that what at least Nietzsche was talking about is that human nature has a desire to go beyond itself in a way, that if you’re just saying that my desire for eternity is rooted in human nature but nothing beyond that, that’s actually not answering my desire for eternity. What are those actual questions? A lot of them at least seem to point toward humans looking for a good that’s not just human and looking for something solid that’s not just human.

    Zohar Atkins: I totally agree that that’s what we desire. In terms of the hermeneutics of Nietzsche, I’m not sure where I would come down on that because I think of Nietzsche as somebody who espoused a doctrine of do what makes you feel vital, and joy is important to feeling vital. It’s a sign, it’s a symptom, and a cause of good health as opposed to, let’s say, I don’t know, depression or something.

    But at the same time, Nietzsche was not a transcendentalist, as I understand him. And so I don’t think he would make joy conditional upon achieving eternity. I think it’s an as-if posture where you just live your life as if you can make an eternal difference, as if in any given moment you feel that what you’re doing has cosmic significance but it doesn’t. And I’m not sure that you should bank too much on it because then you’d just be a metaphysical person. And that’s a sign of a weak mind to escape from what’s in front of you, the situation, and try to posit some Archimedean point from which you can get abstract truth on it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: See, this is why I think that Nietzsche is just not good enough. This is why I think that all those kinds of existential solutions aren’t good enough because the existential questions seek something beyond an existential solution, right. All of the kind of internal, “I want eternity. I want to be bound to something that’s beyond human.” It’s by definition, if you’re taking that question and that desire seriously, it’s not going to be solved by an existential move. It’s not going to be solved by saying, “I’m going to decide. I’m going to will, to act as though that’s the case.” Because if you know that it’s not, then it’s not good enough.

    Zohar Atkins: I generally agree with that point. But if I had to steelman the modernists, I think they would say that their prayer is answered.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Where …

    Zohar Atkins: It’s just not answered in the way that a classical person would recognize as legitimate.

    Susannah Black Roberts: In what way do you think that, so for example, the desire for eternity is answered?

    Zohar Atkins: I think that Kant would say that that desire is answered in the experience of freedom that’s revealed by my obedience to the categorical imperative, for example.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right, but that’s doing a dodge, like that’s still not getting outside you, and the whole point is to get outside you.

    Zohar Atkins: It depends how you define outside. So I think that if you’re a realist, it’s insufficient. But this is the whole debate of modern philosophy. So yes, you’re in good company with many who criticize Kant and come after him. And that, by the way, explains some of the conservative romantics who actually say, “You know what? Kant is wrong. You can get outside of yourself. You just can’t get outside of yourself through reason. You can get outside of yourself through intuition.” Or you have Kierkegaard, for example, who’s read Hegel and was sitting in Schelling’s lectures and says to himself, “You know what? I think I’m going to take this absurdity for faith because that’s the only way I can get out.”

    Let me back up like three steps and just say a few more words on vowing in the religious tradition.

    So the rabbis often imagine heaven to be a courtroom which is just amazing. I guess it explains why many Jews become lawyers, if you want to be a cultural determinist. But actually, they got that metaphor from the Sophists, from Hellenistic thought. And so basically, you go to heaven and it’s an argument between, I don’t know, the forces that want to preserve the world and the forces that want to destroy the world. And God is sitting there as the Judge adjudicating between the two.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It may be a sophist vision, but it’s also the vision of Job which is, as far as I know, the oldest book in the Bible. That’s exactly what the heavenly court looks like in Job.

    Zohar Atkins: Let’s pivot to human vows for a second. What does the Torah and rabbinic tradition think about making a vow? So on the one hand, you might say, “Well, it’s a very great thing to make a vow?” It’s a sign, as Nietzsche said that you have the desire to be committed over a long run. You’re also committing to having a kind of … We call it internal coherence or integrity in terms of your identity.

    So there’s a lot to be said in favor of vowing, and some people were inclined in the ancient world to make vows as a form of self-motivation. I know myself well enough to know that if I just rely on habit to brush my teeth every morning, that’s not going to cut it. But if I vow to God that I’m going to brush my teeth every morning, then it’s becomes a serious offense if I don’t. I’m violating one of the ten Commandments. I’m taking God’s name in vain. And so that’s good. It’s good to vow. But there’s another aspect to vowing that’s terrible which is, one, how do you actually know that you’re going to keep your vow? Things come up. And then you’ve elevated a deed that was just neutral to something that if you don’t do it is terrible. Why would you want to want to create such a world? And you see that …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, the 614th commandment, I think.

    Zohar Atkins: It becomes a 614th commandment which is I think it’s bad for a few reasons. So one is you see the story of Jephthah or Yiftach who vows to offer a sacrifice not knowing what it’s going to be, and it ends up that he has to choose between sacrificing his daughter or not doing so and violating a vow. That’s bad.

    And there’s the aspect of vowing where it’s basically solipsism because imagine a person who makes such an intricate system of vows. I don’t know, I vow not to step on the sidewalk cracks. I vow to only take my coffee after I eat my eggs – like, it’s so idiosyncratic. And then you’re living in this non-translatable world that you can’t share with other people because you’re trapped in the system of vows. It’s like the beauty of the law that’s given is that it’s a common language that you can work within. But once you start making tons of vows, now all of a sudden, it’s like a private language in a way that takes you out of the world.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is actually fascinating because it reminds me of … so one of the weird things about my experience as a religious person or as a Christian is that I also have OCD which is obsessive compulsive disorder. And when I converted that did the thing which it sometimes does, which is it becomes scrupulosity, which really stinks. And so scrupulosity basically is – imagine like you make your own Torah, and you have all these things that feel like they’re your conscience and feel like they’re things that you better do or you’re going to be in trouble with God. But they’re not conscience in the sense that they’re not … the etymology of conscience is knowing with. So this is not something you’re not knowing with other people or with the faith community or with the tradition or with God’s Word. It’s just a solipsistic conscience.

    And so one of the things that you have to do if this is something you struggle with is just be like, “No, that’s just made up. It’s not a vow. That’s not an obligation. It’s just my brain being weird.” It’s interesting to think of vows impulsively made, of flippant vows that you shouldn’t have made, because they’re actually locking you into this conscientious private world where you’re not actually encountering God or other people, and you’re just so worried about obeying all these things that you’ve imposed on yourself that you can’t actually live properly. That’s actually an interesting way of thinking about it. I hadn’t really thought about that before.

    Zohar Atkins: It really keys us in, by the way, to this debate, this ongoing debate we have about individualism and how we should weigh it against, let’s say, communitarianism or what have you. Now, I don’t take a view that those two have to be opposed at all. I think a good community is with healthy individuals.

    But just to dispel the dialectic, if you’re too into vowing, you become super idiosyncratic. You become so individual that you have nothing in common. But if you’re anti-vowing altogether, so then where’s the room for a choice for self-expression? So in the Bible, let’s say that you’re the kind of person drawn to holiness as a vibe, but you’re not born into the priestly class. And so you don’t get to officiate in the temple. That could be a doozy.

    Well, thankfully, you could be a Nazarite. A Nazarite is basically the form of I’m choosing to become priest-like. And it gives you an avenue for doing that, a validated, legally recognized one for doing it. But maybe it’s a concession to the fact that people are going to do this anyways. They were going to become scrupulous, overly scrupulous. So instead of just allowing people to go and become scrupulous, you’re like, “You know what? This is the playbook for those people who can.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Let’s channel this.

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: If you’re going to get really neurotic, at least get neurotic in the traditional way. And then there’s a way that you can … then you eventually cut your hair and then you drink wine again. Unless you’re a Nazarite for life, then you’re set.

    Section II: Zohar Atkins: Vow and Gift

    So why don’t we talk a little bit again about the tension between an existentialist subjectivism and its alternative and the role of vows in that in a more contemporary philosophy?

    Zohar Atkins: I think of existentialism as a very broad tent. So there are religious existentialists and there are secular existentialists, right? Secular existentialists like Sartre think that there’s no transcendence whatsoever and that human beings must create the reality that they want to live in. And so the most holy act, if you want to still use the language of holiness, is the act of decision or the act of choice. But it’s a choice to make the world in your own image in a way. Hell is other people. Intersubjectivity is a thing you have to deal with. But ultimately, you want to transcend your socialized obligations to other people and decide on who you want to be in relationship to your almost sense of freedom which your own sense of possibility. Where does that come from? I don’t know. I’m not a Sartre scholar. It’s an interesting question whether that is even a secular position or if it’s just a kind of religious position that’s taking the figure of God and just putting it in the interiority. So it’s basically just Luther on steroids if you will.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Again, it’s so wrong if you think of Luther as like …

    Zohar Atkins: If you want to be you to be Catholic about it, you might say that Sartre is simply the logical conclusion of listening to your conscience.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Conscience means thinking with, knowing with.

    Zohar Atkins: OK, but similarly in Sartre, you’re listening to your in itself rather than for itself, if you will. Again, I’m probably butchering it. But there’s a way of … the self has multiple voices that comprise it. And so I think you can get the conscience without posting that the thing you’re thinking which is God. You could just take the word God if you want to still be holy about it and rebrand, I don’t know, the voice of your mother telling you, “Hey, why don’t you call me?” I don’t know. Where …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Isn’t that literally taking God’s name in vain? How can you just be like … this is literal idolatry. How can you not see that this is the wrong thing? You can’t just …

    Zohar Atkins: I …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Something that you want to call God God.

    Zohar Atkins: I’m not recommending this. I’m just describing modern philosophy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I know.

    Zohar Atkins: But just to be a little bit … I’d like to be contrarian just to defend it. Would you say, “Isn’t it idolatry?” Yes, it’s idolatry if you think that the self is not God. But it’s not idolatry if you think that God has somehow put a spark of God’s self within every self, and that your access to God is exclusively or primarily through that spark, in which case, you actually have a religious obligation to be yourself however you want to think about that. And if being yourself means that you’re going to go be a hobo who plays violin on the corner because that’s your truth or whatever it is, that’s just as monastic as going to a monastery. Being a struggling artist and having a bohemian life is a service if you feel that that is your divine truth.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, so two things, vows, you seem to have a very … vow is, in a way, belong to the secular in a weird way. Because vows belong to, or at least to the non-religious, if by religious you mean communal and unchosen, because vows are like an ultimate expression of voluntarism in a certain way. Do I understand that correctly?

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah. No. There was some slippage in the terms you used that I might quibble with but broadly, yes. I think that expressing yourself leads to vowing, and that we have examples of people who seek self-expression in the Bible. And the Bible has a mixed view of those people. So in that sense, there’s something rebellious, if you want to say, about vowing relative to the pre-existent norms. But I wouldn’t say that that’s purely secular because I think that it’s a religious value as well to self-expression and that God creates us to be individuals. So I don’t think that being an individual necessarily means egotism or solipsism.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But then the totality of the human experience in the world includes both the gift aspects of reality where it’s unchosen and you have unchosen obligations that you’re born into. You don’t get to decide which parents, which mother and father you need to honor in order to obey that commandment. You don’t get to decide to kill yourself because your life is both a gift and an obligation that’s laid on you without your choice. You don’t get to decide that you actually would like to disobey the commandments and worship another god other than the real God, because there are many things that you just don’t get to choose.

    But at the same time, part of creation is this sense of humans as sub-creators, as made in the image of God. And in that sense, I think that both reason and will are parts of that. And so vowing is a kind of sub-creation which is also … and it’s contrasting but not opposing part of reality to the unchosen given aspects of the world. Does that make sense?

    Zohar Atkins: It does make sense. Here’s how I would reframe it slightly. So in the classical paradigm, you have pre-given gifts and obligations as you described. And then vowing is like an add-on. You have what in Judaism is called reshut. You have permission to do certain kinds of vows.

    But vowing is like Pandora’s Box. So once you open the door to a permissible vow and you flex that vowing muscle, I personally think that it leads to a culture of vowing, which then sees the pre-given, pre-established world as also up for renegotiation. So although you could be a classical person who, for example, thinks that you have no choice as to whether you should honor your mother and father, I think that once you say, “You can also vow to honor your teacher who is not your parents,” it might be the case that in 2,000 years, that leads to the cultural revolution. And you say, “I can vow to honor my teacher and also vow not to honor my parents,” and my vow can override the given.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sure. But an abuse of a thing doesn’t mitigate its use. Isn’t that just the bad version? Everything has a bad version.

    Zohar Atkins: I suppose if you think that vowing is some kind of virtue or attribute, characteristic, but I think of it as a technology. I don’t really trust that society is going to be able to regulate technology. I think that the most extreme versions are going to become the ones that are culturally dominant. Even if, yes, you can have a religious microculture that opposes that, that says we need to be moderate here, that’s bad. But in terms of where we’re going, I think once you elevate choice and decision, and I can make reality in my own image, which is a religious value, it seems like secularism does inevitably come from that. And so I guess if I’m being super deterministic, I would say that being created in a divine image thing kind of inevitably leads to secularism.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my gosh, with you on one side of me and the Catholics on the other side of me, you’re just driving me up the wall here. Anyway, so here’s the thing though, first of all, taking determinism in that way, doesn’t that kind of mitigate the whole concept of the vow? Because the point of vows, as you had been describing them as the kind of existentialist to understand them no such thing as determinism, you can will reality to be whatever you want it to be. So why not just will reality to be such that even with the technology of vows, it doesn’t eventually lead to secularization?

    Zohar Atkins: That’s a fantastic point and I have a lot of cheeky things to say in response to it. So let me give you a kind of joke, and I don’t know if I stand by this philosophically, but there’s a story about a rabbi and a very pious person who was robbed. And as the thief is running away with his wallet, he says to the person, I want you to take the wallet, I give it to you, right. And I think there’s a couple ways to read that anecdote. One is he’s so pious, he doesn’t want the person to have a sin on his tab, he wants to take that away from the person, that you know, he shouldn’t feel bad about this. I guess another is just the psychological reading, which is like, it’s a cope, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Zohar Atkins: Still bad to be robbed, but if you’re going to be robbed, you want to rebrand it as a choice, because it feels worse if you say, I was coerced into this. So I think actually both are true. And so to relate the parable to God, did we rob God? Did we take God’s wallet? And that’s what secularism is. Or did God say as we’re running away with the wallet, “You know what? Fine, you can have it.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think we’re going to have to wrap up there because it’s really fascinating that you brought up that particular anecdote because it is obviously exactly the scenario or very close to the scenario of Jean Valjean and the priest in Les Misérables, which is actually something that anecdote was the subject of our first podcast that we did with Caitrin Keiper who wrote a wonderful piece about the vows of Les Misérables in the issue. And obviously the way that works in the novel is that Jean Valjean steals the priest’s candlesticks and the cops bring him back to the priest and say that we found this guy with your candlesticks. And the priest, it’s not the scenario that you described because the guy, because Jean Valjean is now in custody of the gendarmes, but he says, “No, actually I gave them to him, let him go.”

    And the priest is taking on that loss, he’s choosing, he’s choosing to take on that loss in order to free Jean Valjean. But by doing that, he imposes a vow on Jean Valjean. He said, “Remember that you have sworn your soul to God.” And Jean Valjean, there’s this line in the novel where it says, “Jean Valjean can’t remember having sworn, what did the priest mean by this?” And the priest basically in this act of grace, in this sort of self-sacrificial act of grace and taking on in reframing this theft as a gift, he’s kind of bought a vow. He’s vowed on Jean Valjean’s behalf that from now on his life belongs to God. Which is a fascinating in light of the way that you use that idea.

    Zohar Atkins: Yeah, that’s a very deep story. I’ll just give another sort of side angle on it, which is we talk about the theft that’s transmuted into a gift. You can also think about it in reverse where how many times do people give gifts, not because they freely want to give those gifts, but rather because they feel that they ought to do that thing. Marcel Mauss, the anthropologist who wrote about gift giving culture and the sort of various ancient islands and how these gifts would travel from place to place and eventually come back to the place where they started suggest that the gift giving is actually transactional. There’s an expectation of reciprocity.

    So if that’s the case and you’re giving a gift because you hope for some kind of return on that investment where you want a closer relationship as a result, is that really giving a gift or is that a kind of theft? What do you do when your person sends you a gift and you don’t want that gift or you don’t want it from that person, but now it’s a bit uncomfortable to say, “You know what, I don’t really need that, or thanks for that gesture of wanting to be close to me. But you know what?”

    Susannah Black Roberts: I didn’t want it.

    Zohar Atkins: “I actually liked our boundary.” So yeah, gift giving is not a neutral or only positive thing. Just as stealing or coercing is, I suppose not always contextually bad, it’s much more complicated. Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean that’s the story of Javert, right? Jean Valjean gave him the gift of his life and didn’t kill him even though he had him in his power. And Javert said, “Thanks for that gift, but I actually don’t want it. I won’t be bound to you. I don’t want to be the same kind of person as you. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to forgive you and see you as my brother. And in fact, I don’t want that so much that I also don’t want the gift of my own life that God gave me and so I’m going to kill myself.” And that is the end of that is the kind of ultimate refusal of a gift.

    Zohar Atkins: Hm.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Anyway, why don’t we wrap it up there. Thank you so much. This was awesome.

    Zohar Atkins: Absolutely. I think I’d like to redeem secularism a little bit, if that could be my parting message. There’s two sets of tablets. The original, I think represents the classical ideal. The second represents in a way, the modern one. And the commentators suggested both the whole tablets, the second tablets, which are written by humans, and the first, which are written by God, but are shattered, need to be kept together in the ark.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sounds like a plan. Zohar …

    Zohar Atkins: Thanks, Susannah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s been wonderful. Let’s do this again at some point.

    Zohar Atkins: Sounds good. Be well.

    Section III: What We’ve Learned

    Peter Mommsen: And now we’ll be taking your questions, dear listeners, and reflecting on what we’ve learned throughout this process.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So Pete, this is our final segment of the final episode of this Vows podcast. And traditionally what we do in this segment is talk about what we’ve learned. What do you feel like you’ve learned about vows through doing this issue of the magazine and through doing this issue, this series of the PloughCast?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I guess this is one of the ones, Susannah, where I kind of feel like just affirmed in feeling that vows and just generally big bet commitments are really important and that not enough people are doing them and that people are way more worried about them than they should be, even though we know that they can go wrong. Kind of like what do you want to spend your life doing, hedging against possible negative scenarios or doing that big thing that we talked about at the beginning based on G. K. Chesterton’s defense of vows, which was kind of one of the inspirations of this issue. Do you want a big life or a little life? And so I’ve kind of been feeling throughout this, “Wow!” I wasn’t sure that an issue on vows was a good idea and now I’m pretty sure, does that sound just really self-satisfied in comparison? I’m afraid it does.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: But I’m feeling affirmed.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think the thing that really hit me most, and it hit me kind of most actually at the UK launch of this issue, which was in London a couple of days ago when King-Ho Leung, who wrote this wonderful sort of probably the most extensive theological piece in the issue on vows and oaths talked about just the basis of all vowing and the most important aspect of all vowing being God’s faithfulness to himself. And the idea that God, when he gives us, even when he eternally generates the Son who is the Word, in a sense, he’s giving his Word to himself from even before creation. And that certainly in creation, all of our … everything that we are depends from moment to moment on God’s fidelity to himself.

    And this is really dorky, but I was for various reasons thinking about the name Elizabeth. This is not entirely because of the Queen, although it’s not unrelated to the Queen. And I was trying to parse it in my head and I was like, well El’s God. And then Beth is like, I think, house, because of Bethlehem, but it actually turns out that it means my God is an oath. That’s what the name means. And the idea of God himself being an oath or being a promise, being a vow I think is a kind of … I feel like that’s something that’s not going to leave me, that’s something that’s going to last that I’ve learned from doing this issue of the magazine and doing this issue of the podcast.

    Peter Mommsen: So I saw yesterday in our community here, we celebrated the baptism of a young man who simply asked for Christian baptism. He was not asking for membership in the Bruderhof community. And yet he came and has been a catechumen basically for the last six months intensively preparing for baptism. And we then went and he had studied the Didache, the early Christian writing, teaching from probably the first century and was very gripped by that early portrayal of the importance and significance of baptism. And even by the practical details of it, that if possible it should be in cold running water. But if you don’t have that then just cold water’s OK. And if you don’t have that, then warm water’s OK. The main thing is to be baptized. And yet for the early Christians, that symbol of full immersion, of one’s life being given over, being given up, dying in the watery grave of baptism and being raised to a new life as a completely new person was what inspired him.

    And he took his baptism vows not entirely knowing exactly what that meant in terms of his future life, but as a complete whole self-yielding, self-giving up in that sense of the great bet that any vow is, right. And so it reminded me, and I’ll just throw this out here before we turn to the questions from our readers of this short excerpt from Ignatius of Antioch. Again, one of the first Christian writers, the bishop of Antioch, who wrote these famous letters to the various early Christian churches on his way to his own martyrdom in Rome, around AD 110. And he says, in regard to baptism, “You are soldiers of Christ that toil together, fight, run, suffer, rest and rise up together as God’s stewards, companions of his table and his servants. Please him, who is your warlord, him from whom you will also receive your soldiers pay, let none of you desert the flag.” So that’s kind of … the sense of all in Christianity that I’ve kind of learned over the process of talking about it in this series of podcasts and in putting together this issue. But we should turn to our readers and listeners who had some great questions for us, some of them kind of pushing back against what we’ve just been saying, Susannah. So let’s dive in.

    Section IV: Peter & Susannah: Listener Questions

    Peter Mommsen: This is from John Gefel who basically he talked to … he brought out Jesus’ teachings on making oaths, which he says, I believe is a form of vow. He says, “Don’t do it. Let your yes be yes and your no be no adding that anything beyond this is of the devil.” So how do we understand this in light of everything good that we’ve been saying about vows? And in light of lots of kind of contradictory stuff in the New Testament, St. Paul makes a vow. We seem to be … marriage vows seem to still be a thing. What do we make of Jesus’ words there?

    First of all, he’s talking about an oath, not a vow. And a vow is precisely doing what Jesus said, which is saying, “Yes.” A vow is a solemn promise to God and it’s a solemn yes to God. So I don’t see there’s any problem there. Yes is yes, and it goes all the way through and it’s not just yes for today, but it’s maybe yes for always. Yes, that comes at a great cost later on, still a yes. How do you see that?

    Susannah Black Roberts: And there’s also the point. Yeah. Well, there’s also the point that, I mean, this is kind of the more reformed take on it. This is again my role in this podcast that Jesus talks about not swearing by something less than God, not swearing by Jerusalem, not swearing by the earth, not swearing by the heavens, because these are all things that are less than God. So I’m still kind of rattling all these things around in my head, but I do think it is a kind of good thing to revisit. So that’s one response anyway. This is another question kind of about the necessity of vows, I don’t think I have the name of the person who asked this, but basically, according to my understanding, scripture seems to indicate that commitment expressed in vows of no value unless it’s motivated by love. And so this kind of comes as a … should we even be vowing? Should we just love instead? So if loving is what we should be doing, what do vows add to that?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, you give your reformed take on that this time first.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK.

    Peter Mommsen: So I can pick holes in it if I disagree.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK. I mean, this isn’t so much a reform take. This is just my take as someone who just got married four and a half months ago. This is very Chesterton-y. When you love someone, you want to vow to them, that love wants to express itself in commitment. And our words are kind of our means of making those acts, those speech acts that are commitment. And we can’t do this, it is dangerous to make a vow and we can’t do it on our own. And we shouldn’t do it by anything other than God himself or looking to anyone other than God himself to help us keep them. But it seems to me that loving almost pushes you towards – certainly, romantic love kind of pushes you towards wanting to make a vow.

    I’m in favor of companionate marriage. I think if you don’t love someone, you probably shouldn’t make a vow to them. And if you don’t love God, if you’re not captivated by God’s love, and obviously don’t be super subjective about this, and obviously you’re going to learn more as you go through it. But baptism, if you’re doing it as an adult or confirmation, is something that you got to understand this as a response to God being lovable and as a response to God loving you first. So obviously all of these vows are rooted primarily in God’s love that comes first and in the beloved being lovable.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, so unfortunately, I’m going to have to agree with you largely, and I think just since the person asking this question brought up the word love, our culture today is awash in the language of love. Love wins, equal love. And I think we would do well, actually, just to delve into some good literature about love. Love has always kind of been understood as implying a desire for the eternity of that love. I mean, that’s a vow. It’s the old Nietzsche thing from Also sprach Zarathustra, right? “All longing wills eternity, deep, deep eternity,” right? You love, you want that to last forever. You’re …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: You’re giving yourself forever. There’s actually no turning back. And so yeah, a vow is the most natural thing to say when you love another person.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: And it’s a totally scriptural thing to apply that same analogy of marriage to one’s relationship to God.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, and if you’re freaked out, dear listener about Nietzsche, let’s just also remind ourselves that we have it in scripture that God has put eternity in our hearts. Nietzsche was wrong on some things, but he was not wrong on that.

    Peter Mommsen: See, when he was wrong, he was very, very wrong. But when he was right, he really had something going.

    Susannah Black Roberts: He really nailed it.

    So this is a question from Linda Wilson, and she asks, basically we’d had this discussion of post liberalism and she said, “The definition of classical liberalism is a political tradition and a branch of liberalism that advocates free market and laissez-faire economics, civil liberties under the rule of law with a special emphasis on individual autonomy, limited government, economic freedom, political freedom, and freedom of speech.” And she says, “By this definition, liberals and conservatives in America are both liberals.” And so she basically seems to be implying, you should just realize that actually we are all liberals, and that is good. And you should stop talking about post liberalism.

    Peter Mommsen: Susannah, are you a liberal?

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, no. I’m not a liberal by this definition. I’m not a classical liberal. I am not a contemporary liberal. Yeah, so I think she’s wrong. I mean, I don’t think she’s wrong about the definition of classical liberalism, I think that she’s wrong that everyone in America is actually liberal. I’m not a liberal and I don’t think that she should be either and I don’t think that she actually is.

    Peter Mommsen: So I bet you’re a liberal in some things Susannah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: I bet you like free speech because we’re having a podcast.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m a liberal in some things.

    Peter Mommsen: I bet you do like freedom of religion.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I do like free speech.

    Peter Mommsen: I bet you like freedom of association.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I do love freedom of religion, freedom of conscience.

    Peter Mommsen: Due process of law?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I do like freedom of association.

    Peter Mommsen: Right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Those are good things.

    Peter Mommsen: So …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Those are also all things that …

    Peter Mommsen: So how is she wrong?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Because there’s something … there’s sort of all those things that you mentioned have roots in a legal and political tradition that predates liberalism. What liberalism characteristically does is say that government in particular should be agnostic about the ends of life. And that government in particular is something that – we all disagree on what the good is, nobody really knows what the good is. So the government should actually sort of back off from having a vision of what human beings are, what the good is, and should just conduct itself to keep a level playing field to let people pursue their own chosen goals, being agnostic about whether those goals are good or bad. And just be either minimal or a little bit less minimal, but basically shouldn’t express an opinion about what human beings are or what the good is.

    And I don’t think that’s true. People talk about not wanting to legislate morality, but I kind of think that morality is one of the only things that you really should legislate. If you’re legislating whether or not people should eat strawberry ice cream versus coffee ice cream, that’s not a moral question, and so to legislate it is a little bit tyrannical.

    I think precisely not all moral questions should be legislated, but there’s a very strong case to be made that unless there’s a real moral question involved, at least at some level then a government regulation about it is actually pretty tyrannical because it’s infringing on what’s a matter of taste.

    So yeah, I think the government … that power exists in order to pursue the good of those over whom it is exercised and my personal power, my personal sort of self-control exists to pursue my telos, my end and the good of my friends and my family. The power that … any power that exists ought to be in pursuit of good. And I don’t think that power is legitimate if it’s exercised in any other pursuit. So for that reason, I’m not a liberal. Are you a liberal Pete?

    Peter Mommsen: Well see, just reading this, I have to think this is one of those great places where coming at it from Anabaptist point of view, we Anabaptists kind of twist ourselves around it, like patting ourselves in the back here because long before John Locke was a gleam in Papa Locke and Mama Locke’s eye, Anabaptists believed in certain things that are identified as liberal freedoms, right? Limited government, individual autonomy, certainly in matters of religion, non-coercion by the state in matters where the state had no business of being. And so I think a lot of that just boils down to Christian teaching about the dignity of each human being is made in the image of God and those things all follow from it while also believing that government should govern toward the good. So no, in that sense, in that carefully defined Anabaptist sense, I’m not a liberal, I’m an Anabaptist Christian.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And in honor of your Anabaptist convictions, I will also cop to the fact that I do believe in freedom of conscience. And I don’t think that government should coerce conversion or religious observance because I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that can be coerced. So maybe that makes me a liberal, which is …

    Peter Mommsen: Augustine was wrong is what you just said.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, I think he was wrong about the Donatists.

    Peter Mommsen: Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK.

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s do our next question.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. OK. Here’s another pair of responses. These aren’t really questions, they’re more comments. The first one was, “You people only want rich white men to be Americans.”

    Peter Mommsen: OK. Was this based on anything we did or said, Susannah? What …

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, no. I don’t know. This came to me via, I think this was just like I’m not sure what spurred this, but I was trying to parse “you people” because I’m half Jewish, so … I don’t think it was anti-Semitic. It could be like anti-Anabaptist, it could be just like anti-journalists. Anyway, I just thought that was kind of funny given that …

    Peter Mommsen: We’re actually kind of pro-immigrant and definitely not just for rich white men. Now if only rich white men were Americans …

    Susannah Black Roberts: There would be no …

    Peter Mommsen: Where would babies come from?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Where would babies come from? So that was the other sort of aspect that I was puzzled about. Anyway, so this was … the second one was by a reader whose name I won’t say because I don’t want to be mean, but I saw it right after I saw the, “You people only want rich white men to be Americans” email. Which was, “Dear sir, I ignore your left wing agenda. I am shocked the supposedly Christian site promotes such progressive and socialistic values. I read the prayers only, articles supporting socialism and communism are abundant, jabs against Trump, the Right, America First, and conservatives are plentiful. You are no different than regular news sites. And you should be ashamed.” So should we be ashamed because we’re socialists or should we be ashamed for other reasons?

    Peter Mommsen: We should no doubt be ashamed for something. This is just great. Now I’m supposed to combine these two comments. So socialism for rich white men who are Americans, can we put these all together? Communism for rich white men who are Americans only?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I am a 100 percent sure that I have some Twitter followers who would be in favor of communism for rich white men who are Americans. They’re not my favorite Twitter followers, but they exist.

    Peter Mommsen: I guess that is theoretically possible.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Do we, at the risk of being tangent, just want to say that no, we don’t believe that only rich white men should be Americans. And also that we are not socialists or communists in the sense that this reader seems to think, I think there is an Acts 2 and 4 form of communalism that is voluntary and springs out of love between brothers and sisters in the Christian community. That is great, and that should also have economic aspects. And I think those should be a lot more widely appreciated by self-styled Christian conservatives. Probably a few things that we all have to learn from the more demanding aspects of Christian discipleship. But I have friends who are Trump supporters and certainly who are right wing and possibly are America First, definitely are conservative. So I don’t know what that proves but …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: I’m not jabbing at them all the time. I don’t think.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I might jab at some of them some of the time. I do think it is sort of important to make the distinction between state communism, which I think is horrible and bad and led to gulags – and I’m against all of it. I don’t like it. I think it’s bad – and voluntary community of goods, which arguably is something that Christians should be thinking more carefully about. And then there’s something which you might call socialism, although a sort of expanded welfare state is kind of what I would be in favor of. Not massively and infinitely expanded, but sort of a more social democratic vision of what the role of the state might be while still being attentive to potential perverse incentives and some kinds of goods of the market. But yeah, that is … I don’t think, yeah, that’s kind of where we stand. I’m not sure it’s a particularly satisfying or clear cut stance.

    Peter Mommsen: Oh, I think it’s very clear cut. So political communism is bad.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Political communism is bad.

    Peter Mommsen: But we believe that Christians do have a duty to the poor, the marginalized, to anyone who is particularly struggling or oppressed in a society. And that should be addressed.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: And with respect to the principle of subsidiarity that we don’t need a massive worldwide government telling everyone what to do in every detail of their lives. But yet there are some places where the government should pursue the good of everyone within them. And so without solving all of political economy right now, I think we can move on from this comment. It is kind of nice to know that we can tick off both sides though.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yep. All right, why don’t you take question seven, Pete.

    Peter Mommsen: Well this is from Brother Lindsay Rust, Catholic religious brother who is essentially asking, “Do the Bruderhof communities think that being a Bruderhof member is a calling for everyone?” So being a lifelong vowed member in the Bruderhof community, vowed to a life of personal propertylessness, obedience, and chastity in a single or married state, is that a calling for everybody?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, Pete?

    Peter Mommsen: I know Susannah usually … you know, no, I don’t believe that. Do I believe however, that every human being is called to full discipleship of Christ and that involves all the things the Sermon on the Mount speaks about, including radical way of separation from mammon and from ties to personal property, to radical economic and social and emotional solidarity, to certainly the commands of chastity, to obedience to Christ’s church? Yeah, I actually do think every person that is called to that, whether they’re aware of that calling, whether the opening has come in their lives for them to take that step, only God knows. And that’s the kind of thing that takes us back to that liberalism-post liberalism argument. I don’t think you can force people into radical acts out of self-sacrifice for the sake of love because you can’t force people to love.

    But yes, the calling to full Christian discipleship that embraces every sphere of life is one that is open to everyone. And I don’t think there’s any sort of easy get out of jail free cards. “Oh, I’m just pursuing my vocation as a well remunerated casino operator. And so I’m fine.” I don’t think that cuts it. But to be clear, do you need to join the Bruderhof community? A specific movement that started in 1920 that has German roots and a few locations scattered around the globe? No, obviously not, that’s ridiculous.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s good to know. Although I have temptations that way on a daily basis. Anyway, all right. So we are now onto the final two questions. I forget who this is from, someone who just tweeted it at us. What is your recommended reading for the soon to be married?

    Peter Mommsen: Susannah, I think this is for you because you’re …

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK.

    Peter Mommsen: Actually quite recently in this state.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: No longer, thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m no longer soon to be married. I’m now married, I’m very, very married. It’s very weird. It’s like it’s an ontological change. I think it’s proper to say that I’m a wife. I wasn’t a wife six months ago, it’s wild. Got wifed up. Anyway, so I’m going to recommend, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar by Leon and Amy Kass, which is a book of readings and it’s a big giant book and you can sort of … it’s readings from, it’s not all by them, it’s just sort of edited by them and you could do reading aloud if you would like to do that. I’m going to recommend Jane Austen’s Emma because my husband and I were reading it aloud to each other as we were kind of falling in love, and whatever, it’s great. And then I’m going to recommend the Plough title Sex, God, and Marriage. There are many, many, many other very, very good books, but those are a couple. Pete, what do you have to recommend?

    Peter Mommsen: So I think that in today’s social environment where ideas of romance and love and the married life are pretty far from a real robust Christian understanding of those things, it’s often helpful to kind of jump outside of our present moment and take something that may feel a bit more dated. So this is one book that meant a lot to my present wife and me when we were preparing for marriage.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Your present wife?

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, my only wife, but we’ve been married for eighteen years. She wasn’t then. And it is by the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity: An Analysis of the Catholic Ideals of Purity and Virginity. It’s recently been republished. It’s just a beautiful book that I think helps us to kind of jump outside of this sort of post sexual revolution approach to this stuff and really reflect on what the married life is all about.

    And then I was going to also recommend the book by Johann Christoph Arnold, who happens to be my uncle and was a long time pastor. He died a few years ago, published by Plough, Sex, God, and Marriage. The title kind of says what it’s about and it’s just very, very solid. It has a foreword by both Mother Teresa and by Benedict XVI. And is just a very good solid book that points back to scripture and covers just a wide range of things from getting to know each other, finding a partner, to questions of having babies and how one approaches the different things that present themselves to a couple trying to make their way in a society where Christian ideas of marriage are not taken for granted.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Excellent. And we will drop links to all of those books in the show notes. And I will read that Dietrich von Hildebrand book because I’ve not yet done that. OK, so for our final question and wrapping up this huge epic vows related PloughCast series, it’s our final question from friend of the pod Henry Wallace, which is not his real name, but that’s what he is on Twitter. David Bentley Hart stan, Orthodox Christian, I believe he lives in the South of France, very good cook. I’ve actually talked to him on the phone because once we were having this incredibly heated Twitter argument and I was like, “I think we should just talk on the phone because otherwise we’re going to be stupid on Twitter.” He asks, “What is your favorite cooking spice?” Pete, what is your favorite cooking spice?

    Peter Mommsen: OK, so I’m going to go back to sort of my family roots here in Thuringia in Germany. And my favorite cooking spice is a combination of allspice and caraway and you can use that in virtually everything. It’s awesome in any meat marinade. It’s great with fried potatoes, it’s good on just about anything and it’s good in baking, it’s good in cookies and cakes and whatever. You throw that stuff in anything, it’s just really, really good. Of course, pork is anything to do with pork, whether raw pork or …

    Susannah Black Roberts: You eat raw pork?

    Peter Mommsen: Oh yeah, you eat raw pork, from fresh ground, raw pork with some of this stuff mixed in and egg yolks, some onions, some pickles, some capers. You put that on some fresh bread. It’s wonderful.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Are you …

    Peter Mommsen: But you can also do it with cooked pork if that scares you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my goodness. Yeah. All right. I’m …

    Peter Mommsen: Well, this has been fun.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This has been extremely fun, Pete. It’s been great as usual. Listeners, we will see you again. Hear you … you’ll hear us when we’d like to hear you. You guys got to tweet at us more. You guys got to ask us more questions because otherwise it’ll just be like Henry asking questions about spices. Not that that was bad. Anyway so right, ask us questions. Follow me on Twitter, follow Pete on Twitter. Ask him like relationship advice and all the best.

    Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met and share with your friends. For a lot more content like this check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe $36 a year, we’ll get you the print magazine. Or for $99 a year, you can become a Member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits. From free books to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s it for this series, but be sure to tune in next week and for the next five weeks after that for PloughReads. Those are audio versions of several of our top articles. And then we’ll see you back here in six weeks with our next series of the PloughCast covering our upcoming issue on generations. See you then.

    Contributed By ZoharAtkins Zohar Atkins

    Zohar Atkins is the founder of Etz Hasadeh: A Center for Existential Torah. He is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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