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    PloughCast 39: On Secular and Religious Disciplines, and the Theology of the Vow

    The Vows That Bind, Part 3

    By King-Ho Leung, Kelsey Osgood, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    October 11, 2022

    About This Episode

    Susannah and Peter speak with Kelsey Osgood about her piece “The Dance of Devotion.” What’s the difference between a figure skater whose sport requires a strict regimen of training and eating, and an observant Jew whose life is also constrained by specific rules? Why is our society more friendly to the one than to the other? Why are we uncomfortable with the concept of a discipline that’s a matter of obedience to God rather than to a trainer or to one’s own choice of lifestyle fad?

    Then, they talk with King-Ho Leung about his piece “The One Who Promises.” What’s the difference between a vow and an oath? How have vows been seen in Jewish and Christian thought?

    He examines the teachings of Philo of Alexandria, of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and of Martin Luther in his attempt to understand how our ability to make vows is rooted in God’s own faithfulness, in the nature of language, and in His identification with the Logos, the Word.

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

    Recommended Reading


    Section 1: Kelsey Osgood: The Tyranny of Authenticity

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. This is the third episode in our new series, linked to our vows issue. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. In this episode, we’ll be speaking with Kelsey Osgood about our visceral fears of high demand religions, and with King-Ho Leung about vows in scripture, in Christian history, and in our own lives and how we can dare to make them.

    Peter Mommsen: Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, and she has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, Longreads and the Washington Post, as well as two articles for Plough. She is working on a new book about millennial religious conversion for Viking Penguin.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, you have this piece, “The Dance of Devotion” in the current Vows issue. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re getting at with that piece?

    Kelsey Osgood: Yeah, so I think really what I was trying to do was not, I don’t think I really land on a grand unified theory of sacrifice or of devotion, but I do think, I was trying to tease out some of the ways that these themes are approached by religious communities or individuals, and then compare and contrast that a little bit with the way that these ideas are approached by contemporary secular people and to see in what ways have they diverge.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, an example that you give is someone who’s given up … a figure skater who’s been eating very healthily and giving up a lot of cake for his or her whole life, essentially while training, versus someone who’s giving up shellfish and pork for the sake of a religious commitment. Those are both ascetic practices in certain ways, but they’re described to the person who’s doing them very differently and they’re regarded differently by people who are watching them.

    Kelsey Osgood: I wrote a piece for Wire that came out in April about digital Shabbats, which were very popular. Sometimes people don’t call them that, but this idea of, “Oh, I’m going to take time off of technology for a day.” And that is often framed as very, very differently than the way that an Orthodox Jew who does that, like myself, who does that as a regular part of my week. I was basically feeling very skeptical about the idea that you could do it on your own terms, quote unquote.

    There are many examples of this, giving up alcohol for a Muslim versus somebody who’s, let’s say “sober curious,” being the new kind of fashionable term for it, or even giving up sex, which is actually a trendy topic now. There are a number of books by secular people who decide to go through periods of celibacy and the way that they talk about it … and it’s almost, I don’t want to make assumptions, but it’s hard not to assume that that person would find the idea of somebody being celibate for religious reasons forever, potentially, as deeply problematic. But for some reason, when it’s done in the context of the contemporary, self-oriented culture, then it’s OK.

    Peter Mommsen: So what is the difference? I suppose one is understood as a commandment and the other is a form of self-expression. And if it’s packaged that way as an expression of my personal flare, my autonomy, then it’s OK. But if a religion is telling me to give up sex, or alcohol, or pork, that seems to get people’s hackles up.

    Kelsey Osgood: If I make a rule for myself, then it’s OK, but nobody else can make a rule for me. A lot of times it has to be framed as if it’s a wellness initiative. It has to be done in service of my mental health, or my creative self, or any other number of things that amount to self-betterment.

    And then, for example, in the Shabbat example, taking … for me anyway, one of the reasons that taking twenty-five hours to step away from my everyday life and be with my family and prioritize worship, and be with my community members, part of the reason why that’s so restful, is because it is a respite from that very idea of self-actualization, that it’s like that I should be every waking moment thinking about how to make myself and my life into a more optimized version. So, if the thing itself becomes a tool for self-optimization, then you’re never going to get what it is that you’re looking for in the first place, which is a respite from it. Does that make sense?

    Susannah Black Roberts: If you’re thinking about doing Sabbath as a life hack, it’s missing the point on that level. Contrast this with a Talmudic discussion of whether it is better to perform an action because you’re commanded to or because you want to, which rules firmly on the side of commandment. “Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it, than one who is not commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it.” The primary Kantian commandment in our society is you must self-actualize and you must do that on your own terms. And doing something out of obedience is …

    Peter Mommsen: Deeply suspect.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … deeply suspect and deeply scary in some ways.

    Kelsey Osgood: I don’t remember actually if I quoted this, there is another Talmudic quote that’s very fitting to this topic, I believe it’s Ben Azariah who basically says, “There all these things that I want to do.” I mean, his examples I think are, eat the forbidden fat part of cow or an animal that is considered not kosher, and maybe something sexual also. And he says, “There are all these things I want to do, and I really want to do them, but what am I supposed to do? God says I can’t do it. So, tough luck for me.”

    And there’s this idea that actually, you should feel like you’re giving something up and that probably should hurt a little bit, actually. People write personal essays about giving up alcohol, or giving up sex, or whatever, people seem to be very reluctant to frame it as a hardship. You have to really focus on, again, the way that it’s serving me, the way that I found out that giving up this thing wasn’t actually giving anything up. It really wasn’t a sacrifice.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that doing something out of obedience to the commandments does, is that it focuses the action on the relationship that you have with God, on the covenant with God, so again, taking it away from you and it’s making it into an act of love or an act of responsive obedience, rather than it being something that you feel is deeply and authentically expressive of yourself. The idea that something can be a real act of love and it’s maybe even easier for something to be an act of love and responsive fidelity, when you’re not worrying about whether it’s deeply true to your authentic self, that’s amazing to me, and I think really can be incredibly liberating because there is this kind of slavery to the authentic self that you can run into in contemporary life. It seems to me that a lot of your work is about getting away from that kind of enslavement to the authentic self.

    Kelsey Osgood: I really had a deep concern about authenticity from a young age. I was always curious, like when am I being myself and when am I performing? And what if the self in my head is different than the self that I present to other people? And is that lying? Is that duplicitous?

    And now I’m the obnoxious person who, I just am not really sure there is an authentic self. Or rather, I’ll put it this way. I’m not sure that it’s something that people should spend a lot of time really digging for because it’s just so elusive, this idea that you’ll get this thing, this core thing that really is you. I just think that maybe the human soul is more complex than that and a little bit less knowable than that.

    Peter Mommsen: What it does is it not only keeps you trapped in yourself, but as you point out, it pretty much blocks out any communal dimension because you can never really be part of a community that way. You’re always in the middle of the stage with the spotlight on you. You’re never just part of a we. And of course, I think our culture is very aware of all the potential negatives of wes that take over the I.

    I’m thinking of this piece that appeared in the New Yorker year ago on the cult NXIVM, which gets into this idea of what is really a high demand religion? And it repeats the line that any religion is just a cult plus time. And this NXIVM cult was really bad, was really manipulative, left people hurt and damaged and exploited. So, that thing is a real thing.

    But it just struck me reading your piece, Kelsey, that a complete refusal to ever allow yourself to be vulnerable to that, to that giving up of this self for the sake of a we, is also actually denying a really basic part of what it means to be a human being. We are social animals. We want to be part of a we, and most religions, that’s a big part of what’s at the core of them. It’s not just about this transcendent authentic self. It’s – you’re standing with brothers and sisters. And that’s what struck me as so interesting in your piece. I guess I was just wondering, what do you see as the legitimate sides of liberal modernity’s worry about giving up that autonomy? How do we draw lines around the good ways of giving up one’s autonomy versus the bad ways?

    Kelsey Osgood: There are the obvious bright line cases where, like in the case of NXIVM, fully submitting yourself to the whims of one individual can lead to people leaving themselves vulnerable to abuse. In religions, you have traditions that are passed down through a lineage. I mean, certainly is the case in Judaism, where there are lots of leaders, there isn’t just one person that we all turn to.

    I’m a Flaubertian in this idea that you make your life very ordered and boring, so that your work and your thought can be as ridiculous and provocative as you want it to be. In that case, I feel like the less group think or the less submission to the group, the better.

    I mean, I recognize there’s fundamental tension in that because I am orthodox, so I am buying into these certain non-negotiables, but there’s often a lot more wiggle room than people think. I think at its core the idea that the self should be important is not actually a bad thing. Where we go wrong is this enormous overcorrection, so that then it becomes the only thing.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I definitely agree with what you just said. The problem is not individuality. The individual, the self, the freedom to make one’s own decisions, these are all super important things in a different time in history. And even now in certain situations, can be undercut in ways that are a big problem. And speaking of somebody who’s part of a religious community myself, those things do need to be guarded and respected and preserved and not violated. And yet, if they are the only things that you dance around, they actually drive you a little nuts and they leave people disoriented. And we’re actually unhappy if we’re only thinking about ourselves and our own authenticity and our own freedom to make decisions all the time. There’s something actually a little unnatural about it. That’s not a theological statement, it’s more just an observation.

    Kelsey Osgood: You see across in almost all faiths, anyway the faiths that I have a decent understanding of, there are tools to help you tap into self-exaltation and also self-abnegation. This idea that I’m important, I’m a child of God, I have inherent worth – and also I’m not actually that important and I’m going to die. And coming into the high holy days for Jews, I mean it’s all over the siddurim and the prayer book already, but particularly there are really beautiful prayers on Rosh Hashanah about the human being being like dust, being like a dream that drifts away, being this fleeting, unimportant thing. And I think that you could make the argument that maybe in the past, not only religion, but just the cultural mainstream maybe played up the unimportance of the individual. And so then to over-correct, we play up the importance of the individual, but contemporary culture also hasn’t really figured out how to tap into the self-abnegation elements. How do you teach people that part? Which is really, I think, very important ironically, for the health of the self to understand that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I was reading a book which is an examination of objectivism, like the Ayn Rand thing, as a cult. And it is the most fascinating thing because this is obviously Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy, is the maximum exaltation of the individual. It’s libertarianism on absolute steroids. And what she surrounded herself with, and the way that this kind of movement functioned until 1968 when it collapsed, was this basically bullying, essentially cult around her. If she decided that you were being a “second-hander” or that you were being insufficiently rational. You would do anything to avoid her coming to that judgment of you. You would say whatever she said. It’s the most amazing contrast.

    Peter Mommsen: So 99 percent of humanity is actually not fully human after all.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. And the ones who are, you have to prove that you’re an individual by totally submitting to the judgment of this lady on the Upper West Side.

    Kelsey Osgood: One area in which people still do seem to be comfortable with the idea that a person would give up a lot in order to reach the highest echelons of their discipline is athletics. That’s one that endures. “OK. Fine. If somebody wants to be a nun, they give away all these things. But what’s the point of that if there’s no God, if there’s higher meaning?” But really, what’s the point of tennis? What’s the point of any of this? There’s this idea that certain things, well, it’s just a good. We know it’s a good. Now we’ve decided, or a lot of people have decided, that religion is just not a good, so the discipline doesn’t lead to anything.

    Peter Mommsen: It doesn’t make sense anymore.

    Kelsey Osgood: Yeah. But no one queries whether gymnastics is a good.

    Peter Mommsen: This goes back to your Rosh Hashanah prayer: that flesh is grass.

    Kelsey Osgood: We do see the majestic in a human body doing something that most human bodies couldn’t do.

    Susannah Black: When you do watch someone who is incredibly good at something, it does seem like they’re pointing towards some kind of transcendence. They’re pointing towards some kind of human perfection that points to the divine and reveals something more than just the every day. But if there’s not an actual transcendence for that to point to, why is gymnastics good? There’s no there there. It’s just fancy movements of your body. It’s not expressing anything true.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. I mean, the fact that Federer is absolutely incredible hitting this ball around on a court is completely meaningless unless you’re like, “Wow. Human beings can do this. This is the measure of man. This is incredible.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: “Yet what is man that you are mindful of him?” It’s this weird perpetual tension which you see in the Psalms a lot. What is it? The psalm that’s the last one, that’s the last Psalm of David. That’s the coronation psalm for Solomon. I was reading it because of the death of Queen Elizabeth. Within the Psalms in particular, there’s this constant astonishment at human beings, and yet total abnegation, and focus on the greatness of God. It goes back and forth. You see this throughout the Scriptures. I just don’t think that one makes sense without the other. It’s almost a motion. It’s not a set of principles or a final thing that you can settle on. It’s a set of experiences of being human and what that points to, and letting it point you to God, and then letting God point you back to your fellow human beings. I don’t know. All right. Now I’m getting really mystical. Sorry.

    Kelsey Osgood: Yeah. No, no. That makes a lot of sense.

    Section 2: Kelsey Osgood: The Freedom of Obedience

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that’s interesting to me is just the level of fear that people have, and fear in particular of obedience, fear of taking on a set of commitments that really do bind you. I wonder whether you could talk about what your experience has been taking on those commitments. Have you felt oppressed?

    Kelsey Osgood: Do I feel oppressed? I would say, no, I don’t feel oppressed. I chose this, so it would be a little weird to choose something and then feel oppressed by it. I’m also a commitment-phile. People are always talking about being a commitment-phobe. I really like committing to things. I like long projects. I like endurance. The experience of being a human with no commitments was just so depressing and unmooring that it’s just so starkly better to me to be a part of something where I feel like I have all these active ways of expressing my faith and my commitment to transcendent metaphysical principles, because not having that was, for me, so much worse.

    I will say that it is objectively true that my life is more limited now than it would be were I to not be religious. I mean, there are lots of things that I quote-unquote, “can’t do.” I mean, technically, I could do them. Nobody’s watching me. I could go eat a ham sandwich right now. Nobody would know. But I would know. I believe that God would know, too. That limiting, the fact that my life is a little bit more limited than it would’ve been had I never become religious, had I never converted, there are logistical challenges to that. It’s not always nice.

    For example, this is going to sound very superficial, but I’m just going to say it. Traveling is a nightmare if you’re an orthodox Jew. You can’t eat anything. I have to go to a wedding this weekend. I’m flying across the country to go grocery shopping, is basically how I feel. I mean, the wedding will be nice, too. But there are lots of things that are more difficult logistically to do. That’s real. I do feel that. I’m not a beacon of light. My personality is not very mystical. I get irritated by that. Sure.

    I think that another thing that I see coming up a lot now is that because of this fixation on never having to sacrifice things and never having to limit yourself and always be self-actualizing, I think that a lot of the times when people don’t have a model for that in other areas of their lives, it’s very difficult for them when it’s forced upon them.

    Even if I had never converted, I have two toddlers. My life was always going to be logistically more complicated with two toddlers. It’s not that my choice was between a more limited life and a life of endless possibility. I just don’t think anybody’s life has endless possibility. But even if I did … I think that having a framework has both helped me feel … no, it hasn’t helped me feel more authentic. I still think about that all the time. Am I just play acting in my life? I still feel like sometimes I’m pretending to be these things. I’m pretending to be a mother. I’m pretending to be a Jew. Do I really feel these things? How do I really feel? But I feel like having a religion, having a religious faith as my foundation, it gives me an off-ramp for that.

    Judaism, in particular as a theology, is very forgiving to stuff like that because there’s this famous idea that your actions are really more important. Stop worrying about your feelings. Stop worrying about how you feel, how you perceive yourself, and just do the right thing. That’s really what God cares about. That’s what other people care about at the end of the day. If you’re giving charity, the person who gets the charity, they don’t care whether or not you really felt that you were doing it for the right reasons. They are grateful for that. So there’s just a place where I feel in my faith tradition where it goes, “All right. Enough of this. Let’s move on. Let’s get on with our lives. Let’s do the things we know we need to do.” That part is actually enormously liberating for me.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. I mean, I can completely respond to that. As a member of the Bruderhof, I know I’m never going to own the car I dreamed of as a nineteen-year-old. There’s certain kinds of vacations I’m never going to take. I’m never going to do a lot of skiing. There’s all kinds of things that are just off the list. But you only have one life to live anyway. The joy of it is knowing that you’ve found the thing that you are meant to be doing and that you’re doing it. There’s only so much stuff you can fit into seventy, eighty, ninety years if you’re lucky anyway.

    You came to Orthodox Judaism as an adult. As you said, you chose it. Now you’re bringing up kids within that tradition who will, at least in their formative years, not have chosen it. How do you think about the next generation? Have you had conversations about the ways that your kids are going to grow up and maybe ask you questions about things they couldn’t do?

    Kelsey Osgood: I worry about it a lot. This past weekend, they went to a birthday party for a friend of my husband’s from college’s son who’s around the same age as my older son. He was turning five. My older son’s five. My younger one’s three. He’s going to be four in November.

    My older son, he’s in the sweet spot where he’s old enough to understand what it is that he’s supposed to do, but young enough that he hasn’t really grappled with, “Oh, my gosh. Is there a God?” He doesn’t have existential concerns yet. They go to this birthday party, and I had told my older son, “The food there is not going to be kosher, so don’t eat it. I know it’s disappointing to see kids eating cake, but we’ll have our own treat at a different time.” He’s very aware. But my younger son at this birthday party, who also is very into sweets, so this tracks with his current fixations, was very upset. I wasn’t there. My husband was there, had taken them to the birthday party, but he was really sad. He said, “I just want to be like the other kids.”

    Of course, that makes me feel sad for him. You want your kids to have whatever they want, really, even if you recognize that them not getting whatever they want all the time is good for them. It was the way that he phrased it: “I just want to be like the other kids.” That really hurt a little bit. You can’t tell your three year old the value of separatism. It’s just not going to compute. To what degree do I feel that it’s necessary for them to not partake of certain activities that are, quote-unquote, “not religious”? Where does their Judaism have to extend in their life? Are they Jewish? Is it the focus of everything? Can they just go to a birthday party? Apparently not. Apparently, they can’t “just go to a birthday party,” quote-unquote. I think this is something about my own anxieties about my own life, in the moments when I feel like I’m not actually doing something that’s Jewish, or I’m not spending time – I’m watching something on TV instead of studying or whatever. It taps into this old anxiety of self-fashioning, self-sculpting. Should I always be pointed in a certain direction, or can I ever just let loose or let my guard down or whatever?

    I don’t know. I mean, I just hope that, as they get older, their school and their community, and we will be able to explain for them why we feel it’s valuable, maybe seeing models of it. I think you just do the basic things and hope that it sticks, and that if they have a period of rebellion, which I suspect they will do, especially it’s my older child, I really feel like, will have his moment. I do. I mean, again, even though the things he’s pretty good about now, he is. But I just feel like someday, he’s a questioner. So it’ll come up.

    I don’t know. I have the dream of one day they’ll say, “You did this to me. You put me here.” But I also wonder if that isn’t part of parenting for everybody, even secular parents. You give your kid the life that you think that you would’ve wanted as a child, and then you just hope that they don’t hate it. I don’t know.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, the other thing that I was just thinking about as you were talking is that, in as much as I think that God actually did give Moses the law, that actually happened, there’s a question of reality here. Obviously, we have some differences about what happened later. But you are responding to something that the actual God of the universe actually did. It’s not taking on an arbitrary commitment to a faith tradition. How do you think about that?

    Kelsey Osgood: I think, like all modern Orthodox Jews, I’m able to hold a lot of beliefs in me at the same time. Yes, I believe that God gave Moses the law at Sinai, and I believe, like all Orthodox Jews, I guess, that the oral law was also handed down at Sinai. But I also am able to believe that the Talmudic Sages were not philosophizing in a vacuum. They were responding to the cultures and the circumstances of their times. How can these two things be true? How can the oral law have been handed down, but also, when we approach it, we’re approaching it with history in mind. We’re thinking about what the realities on the ground must have been like. That doesn’t seem like it could be possible.

    There are a lot of ways into this, one of them being that I don’t believe that God created any humans in a vacuum. Even today, while he is here and present and controlling everything in our lives, he’s also allowing us to make decisions and to deal with the consequences of those decisions, and not interfering and forcing us to behave one way or another. It’s challenging to feel all of these things and to feel, when you approach sacred texts, that you’re doing so with the correct amount of reverence and that you believe that the things that happened in there are literally true, but you’re also able to look at them, in some senses, allegorically. Not as straight allegory, but as imparting a lesson to you here on Earth thousands of years later, and existing as a work of art, and that all of these things are happening, exist within this book, in this tradition at the same time. Yeah, I don’t know. Does that make sense?

    Susannah Black Roberts: It definitely makes sense. It’s not that different than I think a Christian approach.

    Peter Mommsen: I think that does also get back to what we were talking about in terms of parenting. I think about it in terms of my own kids. One reason that I’m not that worried about my kids asking me those questions about “what I missed” – and actually my teenagers already do on some things – is that … it’s not that every aspect of our lives, I feel, is divinely commanded, but it’s a sort of expression of a calling that, I believe, partakes in a reality. So it’s not some arbitrary lifestyle rules that we came up with, as your parents and have forced you, our children, to endure. But rather, you’re part of a story that is real, and that ultimately expresses what we understand to be God’s will. And so what I want is for you to learn to recognize that even through the things that may feel like deprivations, or stuff you wish you could have done.

    Kelsey Osgood: Yeah, again, sometimes I think the questioning and the doubting is a little bit overblown, when people like to say, “Oh, it’s totally fine to have doubts and questions in Judaism.” Or people like to focus on that because, especially if you’re on the more liberal end to the religious spectrum, it gives you a lot of …

    Peter Mommsen: Right, you’re in perpetual Job mode.

    Kelsey Osgood: Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally. And it also, people are like, “Well, it’s totally optional to believe in God.” I’m like, “Is it, though? It’s the First Commandment.” But that being said, there is a lot of space in Judaism to ask questions. That’s what the entire Talmud is. It’s just these people asking questions, and trying to refine their answers over and over again, and disagreeing. So there is a framework for this. It’s a very common thing. So I think that just as with authenticity, and I think Judaism is nice because, I suppose as a theology, it’s not afraid of that line of inquiry. So when my kids are teenagers and they have these questions, if they come to me or they come to their teachers at school or to their rabbi, I don’t think anyone will be absolutely horrified and shocked and appalled to hear that they’re actually struggling with God, or with some elements of the mitzvoth or whatever it may be. I think that this will all be very par for the course, for the figures in their lives.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. Well, that’s how it was for me also. And I think that’s part of actually getting back to, what does a healthy sort of self-abnegation look like? And as one where it’s OK to ask really tough questions, and struggle through stuff. And come to your own true convictions. And where there’s a kind of self-confidence on the part of the community that we’re confident enough that it’s OK. And in fact, we encourage you to come to your own convictions. In closing, I would wonder, Kelsey, if you’d be able to share. What is one practice of devotion, of self-abnegation, that you don’t like, but really appreciate?

    Kelsey Osgood: Yeah, I would say for me, the one that I struggle with in Judaism the most is keeping kosher. It is about self-abnegation in the same way that a lot of commitments are, which is just that you say to the self, “OK, you’re not in charge anymore. This other, God, is in charge, and you’re not. And you just have to do what you’re told to do.” The reason that I struggle with it is because I find it, well, there’s a few reasons. Again, I find it the most challenging, the most logistically challenging. And it’s just, I feel rude. It feels rude all the time to refuse food, to have to explain to people, “Actually, it has to do with the heat and your oven.” And how does that not come across as your oven is not good …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Unclean or something? Yeah.

    Kelsey Osgood: In my head I’m like, I mean, I am a reasonably articulate person, but it just never works.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, this has been totally fascinating, and I’m so again looking forward to the book. And thanks for coming on.

    Kelsey Osgood: Yeah, it’s always a pleasure. I’m happy to come back. It’s like chatting with friends at this point.

    Peter Mommsen: It’s so good to talk, Kelsey.

    Section 3: King-Ho Leung: Vows According to Philo of Alexandria, Aquinas, Luther, and Taylor Swift

    Susannah Black Roberts: And now welcome to King-Ho Leung. King-Ho Leung is a senior research fellow at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, where he co-directs the research initiative Widening Horizons in Philosophical Theology. Welcome, King-Ho.

    Peter Mommsen: You’ve written this really fascinating piece that I learned so much from, about how different people have thought about making and keeping and breaking promises, oaths and vows. And in the background of all those things is the idea of someone who is bearing witness to you, making promises, vows and oaths and enforcing them. But you start off the article by quoting Taylor Swift, which was really great. Because that wasn’t something I was expecting before I read your draft.

    King-Ho Leung: Sure, yeah. I have an ongoing complex relationship with Taylor Swift in my so-called research, Beginning with Taylor Swift was a way to somewhat illustrate a sense in which when one thinks about promise-making, especially when it’s at its most serious cases, such as oaths and vows, there’s some kind of sense of an appeal to the transcendent or even the divine. So as I wrote in the piece, so Taylor Swift went, she mentioned vows in her song “Speak Now,” which refers to the marriage vows.

    And so when we picture that is always in a sacred space. And indeed, in “All Too Well,” which I also quoted in the piece, she explicitly refers to the making a promise in terms of an oath, which she calls a sacred prayer. So the kind of sacral or even transcendent element is always there when people want to make promises, almost intuitively. That if I’m being serious about make the making and keeping of my promise, I have to appeal to something that is beyond me or that is even beyond everything else, which is the greatest. That which we sometimes call God.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Actually, that is a line from Taylor that really rings with me. “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.” And it’s perfect, because the secret is kind of flippant, and it’s private. And it’s enclosed – he’s keeping her a secret in the sense that he’s not taking it seriously. He’s not going public, and he’s maintaining plausible deniability. And she’s keeping him an oath that’s externally directed, asking God to witness her fidelity.

    King-Ho Leung: Yeah. And there’s all kinds of very interesting parallelisms going on there. Even if we think about the sacred as that which is set apart from all else there. So there is in it another element of hiddenness or separateness, or distinctness that is going on thematically there.

    Peter Mommsen: So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that given that the idea of vows and oath implies calling on a higher power, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. That when we turn to Scripture, the language of vows and promises is all over. But you focus on three figures through history who looked at the way Scripture talks about vows and oaths, and developed it over time. Do you mind just giving a quick overview of who those people are? We could start with Philo of Alexandria. I think he’s the first one you treated. Could you tell us a little about him, and why was he concerned about this?

    King-Ho Leung: So Philo of Alexandria was born around twenty BC and lived until AD fifty. So by that, we can see that he was a contemporary with Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And at that time in history, and for the centuries back, Alexandria was the kind of hub of Greek philosophy, and particular Platonism. So Philo is quite an interesting figure, because he was a Jewish philosopher, but also had a lot of Platonic elements in his way of thinking about things. And so what we find in Philo is an engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures from a, let’s say a very Platonic point of view, which has certain overlaps with Christianity later on. But what is interesting, I think, the reason why I chose Philo and compared him to later Christian thinkers, namely Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, is that in these three thinkers, we find an account and a way of thinking about God that are quite different from each other.

    So Philo obviously was not a Christian. So one reason for juxtaposing a Philo with the Christian guys, if you will, is to see what difference does a Christian conception of God or their conception of God, or different conceptions of God made to how we understand the phenomena of making promises? The guiding principle and how they interpret Scripture is also different because there are ultimately different conceptions of God at work in their ways of thinking. So I guess one thing I was trying to highlight in the bit on Philo that I talked about in my piece was the fact that there was a very, very strong emphasis on God as the one who is most high and the highest of all things.

    Philo says that if one wants to swear, one has to swear by that which is most high. But because God is so great and so transcendent in that case, there is this kind of problem. On one hand, Philo wants to say that yes, if one ever wants to swear, one needs to swear by that which is most high. Because you want that which is most high, that which is greatest, to guarantee your promise in some sense. But on the other hand, there is a conundrum there that, well, how can we know that which is most high? That surely something that’s so great that is beyond our comprehension. So is swearing even possible, or swearing by the most high even possible?

    So he finally comes up with this solution, that, “Well, God gave us God’s name, and we are to swear if we are to swear at all to swear by God’s name, instead of by God in God’s self.” And one reason why I mentioned this is in Philo’s emphasis on that we swear by God’s name rather than by God, there is an emphasis on God’s self-revelation to human beings in the first place. That’s why God gives us God’s name. And here, one might say, and many have made this argument, that there is a proto-Christian thing going on, because God gives us God’s name in a Word.

    What is distinctive about Philo’s Platonism as opposed to other Platonic figures in the non-Christian Platonic tradition, is that there is the figure or a concept, at least, of the Logos at work in Philo, which has certain similarities with the Christian account of the second person of the Trinity, which is also named Logos in the New Testament. But nonetheless, there is a sense that is still quite different from Christianity in the sense that Philo emphasizes that God is very, very unknowable. Which is quite different from the Christian God who becomes a human being and reveals himself, reveals God’s self to creatures who can’t otherwise know him.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I hadn’t really thought of the Tetragrammaton as a kind of incarnation before, but that’s at least what you’re implying is, he’s halfway – The idea of God promising himself to Abraham and his descendants, and God giving us his name is a kind of incarnation, it’s from the same direction. It’s coming into the human world and making him accessible to us in that way. Would that be overstating it?

    King-Ho Leung: Yeah, absolutely. If God makes, let’s say Moses or Abraham, whatever, so makes someone that is not God a promise, we can say that, well, God is “giving them His Word.” So this word-giving element, you can say, “Well yeah, that’s quite Trinitarian, isn’t it?” How do we understand the second person of the Trinity? It is the Word of God that is given or generated by God the Father. And when we want to say that God gives someone his Word, that already has a certain Trinitarian shape to it, if you will.

    We might also say that, yeah, when God created, after God created things that other than God, is that act of creation, as the Christian tradition would teach us, is based on the very fact that there is this eternal generation that’s going on.

    This word-giving act is eternal in God. And so it is this Trinitarian dynamic, that Trinitarian character of God, that lies behind God’s act of creation.

    Peter Mommsen: How is that different, then, from the Christian view of vows and oaths? You especially go into Aquinas and Luther, who are of course, quite different, but at least they’re both Christian.

    King-Ho Leung: Yeah, so part of the engagement with Aquinas and Luther is because they were both monks at some point, and they have obviously quite personal relationships with the form of making vows. But on the level of the conception of God that there was something quite unique, representative of two ways of approaching God within the Christian tradition. So the cliché picture, as it goes, is Aquinas begins with the one God before he thinks about the Trinity. He defines God in these divine perfection terms as God as all-loving, good, eternal and so on. Referring to the oneness of God before the three persons. And it is here where Aquinas draws on God’s self-revelation as I am who I am to Moses in Exodus 3, that he refers to God as being itself. I am who I am. What I am is that I am. I am am, if you will, God is is. God’s being itself and God’s eternally being in that way.

    So this is the way in which Aquinas starts his understanding of God. Whereas in Luther, Luther tries to begin all of this in some sense, in a stronger sense, in the incarnation. So he begins with the second person, and then it is through the second-person opportunity that we have access to the revelation of the three persons. So what I was trying to highlight here is two different ways of thinking about the transcendent or thinking about the divine, that in some sense impacts the way we understand whether we can speak of the divine nature in terms of a promise or not.

    Peter Mommsen: Now one thing I’d like to get into it a little bit is Luther on monastic vows. And you quote from his famous 1520 De Libertate Christiana. He also wrote a piece specifically on monastic vows where he basically, this is post-monastic Luther, tells us, “Don’t do that. Very bad.” By taking on monastic vows, you give up the liberty of the Christian. These are works righteousness, essentially.

    Vows, the kind of vows that we read of, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, where they’re quite common, were for him kind of the opposite of gospel freedom. And it strikes me as somewhat interesting that Luther, while he warned strongly against monastic vows, partly on the basis of his own spiritually unhealthy, as he judged them, experiences within the monastery, you point out he did sort of endorse marriage, at least in the way he lived. He did, after all, marry Katharina von Bora and had children. And yet, from another perspective, you might say that, by denying the sacramentality of marriage, which he certainly did, and making marriage a civil contract, he also wasn’t that keen on sacramental marriage vows. For him, even marriage vows, were something a little less than vows made in a Taylor Swiftian way. Is that a fair reading of Luther?

    King-Ho Leung: That is one fair way reading of Luther.

    Peter Mommsen: On this podcast, we love to get into Luther.

    Susannah Black Roberts: In various ways.

    King-Ho Leung: I’ll say it is one fair way, but I don’t think it’s the only way. One other reason Luther would be saying that what he doesn’t like about the monastic vows or in some sense the overly sacramentalized account of vows – And it’s not saying he wants to blow them up in a sense, because he wants to say … well, actually, everything belongs to God ultimately. So the very attempt to limit vows or sacramental stuff to particular practices is actually problematic, because it does not acknowledge God’s generosity and God’s way of self-giving, in all forms and all areas of life. So that would be one way in which a Lutheran might respond to this kind of critique. I can see the arguments and charms of the attraction of both sides of interpreting Luther, but I guess the way in which Luther can be read in so many different ways is part of the charm and frustration of Luther.

    Peter Mommsen: He sees monastic vows, which are taken voluntarily only by certain people, as almost an undermining of the reality of the dedication of a person through baptism, which every Christian shares. Saying that’s not quite good enough. And so, we need extra vows on top of that.

    King-Ho Leung: The issue of vows is that it sounds too much like contractual or obligation language. And for Luther, he does not want to see the relationship between the divine and the creature or between God and the human in transactional terms. Everything we do is owed to God. So in that sense, Luther thinks that is a bad understanding of the, for lack of better term, economy between the divine and the human, according to this very strong emphasis on divine generosity.

    Section 4: King-Ho Leung: Vows as a Way of Life

    Peter Mommsen: Zooming way out to twenty-first-century culture at large, where we’re thinking about – there’s this Zygmunt Bauman term, liquid modernity, we talked a little about it on an earlier episode of this podcast. This water that we swim in, where everything is subject to change, where nothing is solid, where every commitment can be questioned and revisited. It seems to me that just possibly the kind of unbridled liberty, this overreaction to legalism, is kind of like what is inspiring Taylor Swift to wish for something more like an oath and less like a secret. Susannah, help me out. Am I making any sense or am I completely raving?

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, you’re not raving. But I’m also wondering about vow-making and vow-keeping, as a kind of aspect of something that I think you’re also interested in, King-Ho, that that’s been part of at least some of what you’re written about, which is philosophy as a way of life.

    Peter Mommsen: So what’s the vow-making philosophy of life?

    Susannah Black Roberts: It seems like it’s a sort of idea that is associated with Pierre Hadot and there’s this basic recovery of the idea of Socratic and Pre-Socratic Greek philosophies, as kind of full on cults you join, in a nice way, or versions of rules of life that you adopt. And it occurs to me that what Taylor Swift seems to be looking for and what I think we, in all our liquid modern kind of rootless cosmopolitanism or whatever, what we might be looking for is vows as a way of life. Does that make any sense to you? Is that too much of a mashup?

    King-Ho Leung: No, no, not at all. The two contemporary thinkers I referenced in the piece, one is Taylor Swift, and the other is Giorgio Agamben. And Giorgio Agamben’s quite big into this whole form of life phenomena and how the monastic gives us a model of, what he calls, a form of life, which is a way of orienting oneself and liturgy being a kind of law for him. But I don’t want to get too distracted by that, but I think one thing that’s interesting, and that goes back to the thing that we began to talk about, is in the act on the phenomena of vows and oaths, there is this appeal to the transcendent or to the divine. And one way in which if one wants to put on a Platonic hat, to call this, is also the Good.

    So all of this, in a sense, yeah, there is trying to have a sort of binding way of life that I think many are aspiring to have. But I think one thing that’s underlying this yearning or desire is actually ultimately a desire for the Good. And I don’t want to say that all types of vows or whatnot are good, because not all bindings are good. So what we want to do is actually bind ourselves to that which is good, to live the good life. So it’s not just any way of life, but is a way of life that is lived in light of and towards the Good, or even conforming to the Good. So again, you can say that, well, yes, when we make promises and so on, or we give our word, that is, in some sense, in light of the Good, who we might call God, who gives himself to us in a promise in the first place. And it is because of that we can actually align ourselves with the one who is good.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I guess I’d like to kind of ask both Peter and you, King-Ho, obviously, one of the main loci in scripture that we’ve got for talking about vows is Jesus saying, “Make no vow, neither by heaven for … ” What is exactly? “Neither by heaven, for that’s God’s abode, nor by earth, because that’s God’s footstool, nor by Jerusalem, because that’s God’s city.” And Anabaptists typically and historically have taken that very seriously and that kind of caused problems, because although Aquinas tries to make this distinction between a vow and an oath, vows being religious vows and oaths being things that you make with other people, Anabaptists kind of pulled back on that and kind of thought of both of them at the same time.

    And oath making was the main political way of organizing. You would make an oath to your feudal Lord. So it was kind of like they were opting out of political structures. I guess I’m just kind of interested to know how Peter and you, King-Ho, think of, why is it OK that we make vows? How do we understand Jesus’ words there? What other aspects of scripture can we bring in to help us think about why vows might be OK, or in what context that might be OK?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, King-Ho, you quote that passage from the Gospel of Matthew chapter five, “Do not swear at all.” So why don’t you go first?

    King-Ho Leung: Yeah, so basically, the interpretation given there also belongs to the bigger narrative of the piece, which is emphasizing the transcendent nature of the divine, to whom we appeal when one wants to make serious vows, if you will, or serious promises. And I referenced the Bible translator and Church Father Saint Jerome there, who actually is cited by Aquinas. And the interpretation there, which I take to be a relatively main line magisterial Catholic and Protestant way of reading that bit, is to say that what Jesus is teaching there is to say that, “Well, do not swear by heaven, for it is the throne of God – it is not God in God’s self. Or swear by earth, which is God’s footstool. Or by Jerusalem, because that is the city of the great king, the city of God.”

    So these things aren’t God in God’s self. And once, or if you want to identify that thing as the most high, that is essentially committing idolatry, because those things aren’t God in God’s self, but something lesser than God. So that is, I take it, as how the magisterial tradition’s interpretation of those verses that you just quoted.

    Peter Mommsen: So you’re actually asking me to fight with the magisterial traditions.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s what I’m here for, Pete.

    Peter Mommsen: So I guess Anabaptists and Quakers, and I assume some other people, crazies like Tolstoy, said, “Well, Jesus said, do not swear at all, so do not swear at all.” And actually, in context, Jesus’ point is contrasting his teaching, “You have heard it said,” to the Old Testament’s teaching, “do not swear falsely.” And he says, “Do not swear at all.” An intensification. And then, he sums up, in verse 37, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” So this is where, and Luther would not agree with me at all, but I think this is where the Anabaptists and Quakers and other not-so-magisterial traditions come down on this is Jesus is warning us against instrumentalizing God’s name, to get our own way with somebody else. And that’s why we shouldn’t swear, because we’re supposed to be fully truthful. Yes means yes; No means no.

    And it’s an abuse of God’s majesty to draw him into our oaths, which in this understanding, actually following Aquinas, an oath is not something you make to God, but to another human being. So you’re kind of drawing him in as a third person to my private promise to you, which may be about anything. It might be about some completely secular or sordid practical matter.

    But by contrast, unlike Luther, the Anabaptists were fine with vows to God. And in fact, because of the emphasis on the voluntary decision of faith, which was symbolized by adult baptism, they were a pretty big part of, for instance, early Anabaptist baptism ceremonies, where there is a whole bunch of vows that you make, where you give and yield yourself completely to God, in a way that other Christian traditions would understand as well. But emphasizing that they’re done free-willingly by an adult kind of does give them a greater prominence and centrality in the understanding of baptism and in the understanding of what it means to become part of the people of God. So this is not that relevant to King-Ho’s piece.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But then, you’re like, “OK, well, but St. Paul made a vow and he cut off his hair and then, obviously people are getting married.” So it’s complicated.

    Peter Mommsen: But this isn’t about us. This is about swearing oaths.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is about swearing oaths.

    Peter Mommsen: To be clear, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, yeah. So would you swear an oath?

    Peter Mommsen: No.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK.

    Peter Mommsen: Nope, I affirm.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK.

    Peter Mommsen: And if it says swear or oath or anything like that on a form, I’ll cross it off and write “affirm.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Ah, you’re such an Anabaptist. That’s so great. That’s so great. You’re so hardcore.

    Peter Mommsen: Can’t do the Pledge of Allegiance, for that reason.

    King-Ho Leung: Can I ask, how would you interpret the Hebrews verse then, Hebrews 6:16, “People swear by something greater themselves and the oath confirms what is said and is an end to all argument?”

    Peter Mommsen: So this gets down to how you bring scripture together and which scripture rules, when scripture seems to be in conflict with each other. And I guess the Anabaptist rules pretty much that words of Jesus kind of trump them all.

    King-Ho Leung: Yes, the red letters are really red.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The red letters are really the red.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. And of course, you can abuse that. But in general, and even Luther would kind of do this, say that scripture is the cradle in which the Christ child is laid.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m still undecided. I’m officially a Magisterial Protestant, so I think I officially come down on King-Ho’s side here. But there’s …

    Peter Mommsen: Saint Jerome’s with you, so you’re in good company. It’s not just …

    King-Ho Leung: I’m just reporting. I don’t want to be taking too many sides here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, no, no, you got to take a stand. That’s what this is about. You can’t just be subject to liquid modernity, King-Ho.

    Peter Mommsen: It was kind of weird that we decided to do a whole issue on vows. Our subscribers have been getting the issue and I’ve been surprised at the level of enthusiasm for this topic. One big reason that people are so interested in forms of commitment, even at the risk of legalism, is that there’s so little that’s solid out there. And it’s that background that explains, for instance, the way that people over-enthusiastically give themselves to ideas of nationalism. Or to certain kinds of social justice ideology that things like this assume an identity and a thickness and a life shaping force, because of an absence of other really, really solid unquestionable commitments of the kind that in scripture would’ve just been part of your daily life. You were living within a covenant for starters, either as a Jew or a Christian.

    Certainly, as a Jew, you would have had the opportunity of making vows. I was reading a fascinating book, whose author I forget right now, about vows in the Old Testament. And according to him, vow making was just this daily part of life for Israel. It was like the private piety that sort of mirrored the temple’s public religion. And if you really needed something done – in a way that would set Luther’s teeth on edge – you, like Samuel’s mother, Hannah, would make a vow and promise God something. It’s very close to Roman religion, in that sense.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And it feels very unenlightened in a way. It feels very sort of magical almost. And I think that that desire for that kind of unenlightened solidity is what all the Taylor Swift lyrics are talking about. And partly, I think what it is that people are responding to in this issue. King-Ho, just before we get to the very end of this, I do want to tell you that I’d forgotten about this until you brought this mash up up at the beginning of this episode, but apparently, I’d forgotten that, two years ago, I actually, with a friend, started a Twitter handle called Charles Taylor Swift. It’s actually @TelosSwift; we were mashing up Charles Taylor and Taylor Swift. And the first tweet that we did was, “By definition, for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the mind. The night is sparkling. Don’t you let it go.”

    Well, on that note, King-Ho, thank you so much for this and you are going to be joining us in London for the launch of this Vows issue in a couple weeks. And we’re very excited about that. So I forget if this is going to go up before that or after that, but either way, either you missed it, which sucks for you, or you can come join us in London. And thank you again, and we would love to have you write for us again.

    King-Ho Leung: Thank you very much for having me, and I look forward to meeting you, Susannah, and maybe Peter, at the London launch.

    Susannah Black Roberts: 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 will 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: Join us next week when we’ll be talking with Justin Giboney about polarization and the politicization of everything, and with Lydia Dugdale about the Hippocratic Oath.

    Contributed By portrait of King-Ho Leung King-Ho Leung

    King-Ho Leung is Senior Research Fellow at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, where he currently co-directs the research initiative Widening Horizons in Philosophical Theology.

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    Contributed By KelseyOsgood Kelsey Osgood

    Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia and has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, Longreads, and the Washington Post.

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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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