The founding charter of modern liberal democracy, the American Declaration of Independence, famously names “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as rights that all people possess by divine ordinance. These rights, it says, are “unalienable” – none can abolish or waive them. This trio of rights shapes not only American civic life but the political systems of countries that the Declaration’s signatories 246 years ago could never have imagined embracing them.
Yet in recent years, doubts have been growing across the political spectrum about how well the last two on the list fit together, if they fit at all. It’s not obvious that unfettered liberty is even compatible with happiness, especially if one understands happiness in the robust classical sense familiar to the American Founders: happiness as complete human flourishing, the eudaimonia of Aristotle. Modern people are freer – legally, socially, romantically, and as consumers – than ever before in human history. But increasing numbers of people on both the left and right question whether unprecedented freedom might be leading to less flourishing, not more. They are dissatisfied with an atomized way of life that offers endless choices of goods, services, and experiences (at least to those with enough money) but undermines the ties of solidarity and mutuality that humankind requires for happiness. They yearn for more heroic virtues, more sacrificial commitments, more comprehensive visions of the individual and common good.
Political philosophers sometimes call this set of concerns “post-liberalism,” a label that sounds abstract. Yet these yearnings aren’t just theoretical. For example, they are bundled together with the movements for national conservatism that have gained influence in countries from India to Brazil to Poland. Many exponents, including the Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, explicitly reject the liberty-focused ideals of the American founding. Here in the United States, such ideas often go hand in hand with what is called “Christian nationalism” – originally a term of opprobrium, but one that some adherents now embrace.
Movements on the left respond to similar impulses, though in a far different register. Take for example the passionate moralities of social justice – “wokeism” to their critics – that have reshaped many Western norms and institutions over the past decade. While in colloquial speech these moralities are “liberal” as opposed to conservative, they mark a turn from the live-and-let-live permissiveness of classical liberalism to a more demanding ethic – one manifested by speech rules on university campuses, implicit bias trainings at work, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mandates from government.
Both expressions of post-liberalism are born of a sense that too much liberty is harmful to social well-being, while differing in their focus on which members of society are most at risk. But the sense has also emerged that excess freedom is harmful to oneself. This helps account for why Jordan B. Peterson, the Canadian Jungian psychologist, has found millions of readers and YouTube viewers by recommending self-discipline as an “antidote to chaos.” This chaos, he clarifies in his bestselling 2018 book Twelve Rules for Life, is the direct result of modernity’s “untrammeled freedom.” (Politically, Peterson remains a classical liberal.)
Left-wing activists, conservative nationalists, and Jungian self-helpers obviously disagree about many things. Yet they share at least one intuition in common: humans need binding commitments and hard boundaries, for others’ good and for their own. Private and public happiness, if it’s to mean more than mere license for pleasure-seeking, requires giving up the untrammeled freedom to do whatever one wants.
Despite these countercurrents, the unfixed conditions of modernity are still the water that most of us swim in. In his 2000 book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman observed:
Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To “be modern” means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just “to be,” let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever “becoming,” avoiding completion, staying underdefined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and “until further notice.”
In Bauman’s account, “liquid modernity” is more a matter of large-scale social patterns than individual behavior. But these patterns have created a script for life in which change is the only constant. The unexamined article of faith is the categorical imperative to keep your options open. This imperative underlies the habits of consumerism and instant gratification that fuel modern capitalism. And it feeds a general reluctance to make commitments, a refusal to be pinned down for the long term.
Consider the decline of three forms of commitment that involve giving up options, each with deep roots in Western culture: marriage, military service, and monastic life. Marriage rates, to start with, have been dropping around the world for decades; in the United States, they have halved over the past fifty years. In tandem, cohabitation outside marriage has increased dramatically, but not enough to make up for the dearth of weddings, and with a corresponding increased risk that a subsequent marriage will break up: US couples who cohabit before marrying are more likely to divorce. In many countries, divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s, and despite declining somewhat in places since then, globally they remain historically high, with the United Nations reporting a general upward trend. As marriage gets rarer, for a couple to make lifelong vows of faithfulness is no longer a given. In Western countries, a vocal minority champions open marriage and polyamory, with some criticizing even voluntary monogamy as oppressive in itself.
Military enlistment, too, is in trouble; fewer than one in ten young Americans say they would consider joining up. Just since the start of the pandemic, the share of young adults the US military classes as potentially willing to enlist has fallen by nearly a third, from 13 to 9 percent. Those committed to Christian nonviolence (as this magazine is) might be expected to celebrate the drop – and to the extent that it reflects a rejection of killing, we do. Yet opposition to war doesn’t seem to be the main reason why the US Army, for example, has only managed to recruit a fraction of the new soldiers it needs this year. Nor does the fact that only a quarter of young Americans are both physically fit enough and lack a disqualifying criminal record. The root cause seems to be that fewer are open to even entertaining the idea of committing to serve.
Monastic professions have been declining for far longer. Catholic monks and nuns account for the vast majority of people in religious life, and since the 1960s their numbers have fallen precipitously around the world, most dramatically in North America and Europe. To be sure, in a few Latin American and African countries, monasticism continues to thrive, and even in the United States, a handful of orders, most of them traditionalist, still attract postulants. But they are outliers. Since 1965, the number of men in US Catholic orders has fallen by over half, while the number of Catholic sisters has dropped by more than three-quarters. As with military service and marriage, the causes of these trends are complex, and often seem linked with specific crises within Catholicism. Even so, the global dimensions of the decline are striking.
These three examples represent symptoms of a culture bent on avoiding commitment. Yet they also point to a way out of liquid modernity, as life scripts that remain available to any who wish to adopt them. At an even more basic level, they hint at a way in which liberty and happiness might be reconciled.
Significantly, each of these paths begins with the same step: freewillingly making a vow. Thus a monk or nun, after passing through postulancy, novitiate, and temporary profession, takes lifelong vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to his or her community. Military recruits take an oath of enlistment, promising allegiance to their nation, a vow that isn’t necessarily lifelong but comes with the understanding that they may die in the course of fulfilling it. At a wedding, in the archetypal vow, couples pledge faithfulness in health and in sickness, “till death do us part” (or they did until the vogue for writing DIY vows, which have been known to leave the crucial part out).
A vow is a declaration not of independence but of a bond. When we vow, we are giving up our future freedom. But this loss comes with a gain. As G. K. Chesterton writes:
Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favored grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.
The higher excellence of the freedom of the vow is difficult for us moderns to accept on the basis of arguments, as Chesterton knew. But we can tell stories that illustrate it. First among these is the great narrative told by the writers of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation about the preeminent vow – the covenant between God and Israel, and by extension, between God and humankind. God calls Abraham, a man of no special importance, to leave behind everything he knows in his native Mesopotamian city, and gives him a promise in return:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1–3)
Abraham obeys, and the promise continues through Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, to the present day. In the Christian understanding, God’s promise finds fulfillment in Christ, the descendant of Abraham. Through him, all humankind is blessed – we are offered adoption into Abraham’s family and the promise God made to him. The final book of the Christian Bible, drawing on the Hebrew prophets, even pictures this covenant as a marriage vow, fulfilled in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
For individual believers, the story of God’s covenant with Abraham can be recapitulated in the stories of our own lives. To tell one such story, unremarkable except for the fact that I can tell it firsthand: As a twenty-one-year-old in my last year at college, I was a well-catechized believer in the liquid-modern creed. Though I had grown up in the Bruderhof, the Anabaptist community that publishes this magazine, to me commitment-phobia came as easily as to any of my Gen X peers. I’d eagerly absorbed the meritocratic drive to chase socially desirable credentials and tokens of success. With that as my attitude, the communal life in which I’d grown up often felt confining. Studying at an Ivy League school seemed my ticket out into a world of boundless possibilities.
Yet on one particular day that sticks in my memory, the conviction forced itself on me that I was called to go back home and commit myself to this particular way of Christian discipleship. Membership in the Bruderhof is a lifetime commitment. It wasn’t a flash of illumination, but rather a moment in a gradual process, like the slow clearing of water in a pool made muddy by disturbance. I went back to the Bruderhof after several years away and requested membership. Through the period of testing that followed, that conviction held. As Mother Teresa once said of women who had discerned a vocation: “They know. They know.”
When the time for actually taking my vows finally came, it felt anticlimactic after all that had preceded it. The pastor presiding at the service was a genial Englishman in his eighties who had a marked tremor. (“The more John shakes, the more spiritual authority he gives off,” is how my uncle used to describe it.) He asked me a series of questions based on centuries-old Anabaptist vows; at one point I remember him beaming as he paused for dramatic effect at each comma: “Do you surrender yourself completely, and do you bind yourself unreservedly, to God and to your brothers and sisters?” I said yes at the right places, and he shook my hand and sat down. That was it. I made my way back to my seat, and started the rest of my life.
Yet despite the lack of exalted emotions, that moment gave me a certainty that’s stayed with me ever since: at least one decision has been made forever; one core question of life will no longer keep coming up for revision or review. I’d given my word. After spending years frantically fending off any commitment that might limit my options, I was now bound.
And I soon discovered that being bound didn’t feel like a loss of liberty. On the contrary, once the step had been taken, paralyzing daydreams about other possible life paths disappeared – not because of any sudden growth in spiritual maturity, but simply because the vow had itself changed who the vower was. It’s a feeling that will be familiar to many newly married couples. To forsake all others, to make one’s single irrevocable choice, creates a new freedom far better than the sterile freedom of endless options. It’s a liberation that promises real happiness, a passage from just potentially living to becoming fully ourselves.
Of course, vows don’t always work out that way. Even scripture tells stories of vows gone badly wrong. The grim tale of Jephtha in the Book of Judges stands out. As a military commander, Jephtha returns home from battle and has to sacrifice his daughter, his only child, to satisfy a rash vow he had made to help bring victory.
The problem of bad vows was long familiar to the Jewish sages: vows broken, vows unfulfilled, vows badly made. Given the important role that vow-making plays in the Hebrew scripture this isn’t surprising. At some point in the early rabbinic era, the problem of bad vows became so acute that it called into being a remarkable rite. The Kol Nidre prayer is the centerpiece of the evening liturgy before Yom Kippur. Sung by a cantor as the congregation whispers along in an undertone, this penitential act frees worshipers from guilt for unfulfilled vows in preparation for the holiest day of the year.
One key to the Kol Nidre’s power is aesthetic. According to Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, its “haunting music has the power like no other to unlock the gates of the Jewish heart.” The unmistakable sighing melody, according to one legend, was handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. More likely, the tune originated in the medieval Rhineland as a borrowing from the courtly minnesingers; it has since been made famous by composers from Beethoven to Bruch to Schoenberg.
Oddly, this prayer isn’t really a prayer, and in fact never mentions God at all. Instead, notes Sacks, it is a “formula for undoing vows,” lawyerly rather than devotional: “Never was there a deeper disconnect, a deeper dissonance, between the music and the words.” In the form used in most Ashkenazi synagogues, its text dates to the 1100s, though with roots centuries earlier. In the service, the Aramaic words are repeated three times over:
All vows, prohibitions, oaths, vows of dedication … that we have vowed, sworn, declared, and imposed upon ourselves from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement, may it come upon us for good. Regarding them all, we regret them. Let them all be released, forgiven, erased, null and void. They are not valid nor are they in force. Our vows are not our vows. Our prohibitions are not our prohibitions. Our oaths are not our oaths.
This rite was controversial from the first among leading rabbis. It seems to contradict the Torah’s stern insistence that a vow, once spoken, must be fulfilled without fail. Scripture’s exceptions – allowing a male householder to revoke vows made by a wife or daughter, and permitting the “redemption” of some vows through a monetary payment – prove the rule. Unsurprisingly then, the Kol Nidre was rejected by five out of the six Geonim, the highest authorities on Jewish law who shaped Talmudic interpretation in the seventh to eleventh centuries. Rabbinic qualms about the rite’s validity have persisted ever since.
In later centuries in Europe, the Kol Nidre proved not just theologically dicey but downright dangerous. Its wording was quoted as grounds for doubting the veracity of Jews when they swore oaths in court or made promises in business, and became a pretext for legal discrimination and anti-Semitic violence. As a defensive response, some Jewish communities struck it from their prayer books until well into the twentieth century.
Yet the Kol Nidre has outlived its various detractors. One reason may be that despite appearing to negate the sacredness of vows, in fact it testifies to a deeper kind of fidelity. Rabbi Sacks has pointed out that the centuries when the Kol Nidre’s popularity spread through Jewish communities were also the time of forced conversions of Jews under Christian (and sometimes Muslim) rulers. Here, in his view, the Kol Nidre played a needed role. Once a year, it gave conscience-stricken conversos the opportunity to enter the synagogue and, in the sight of God and their community, to undo their coerced oaths of apostasy. On the Day of Atonement, the unfaithful could at least declare their desire for faithfulness. For them, the Kol Nidre declared a trust that God stays true to his covenant even when humans prove false.
That is a penitential stance which, in the Christian understanding, should be the attitude of every baptized believer. In our fallen state, every vow we make is irreducibly rash, no matter how carefully considered; we never know how the story of any vow will end. This applies with special force to the baptismal vow. Through baptism, every Christian has promised unconditional faithfulness to Christ; through sin, each stands as an apostate, reliant only on Christ’s faithfulness.
Yet his faithfulness is enough, the New Testament assures us. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews:
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
The grounds on which we dare to make our vows are no longer our own willpower or capacity for staying true, but God’s. And so we are right to confidently make our pledge.
To this degree, then, it turns out that the American Founders were right: the Creator did endow us with an unalienable right of liberty. But he has endowed us with something else as well, a gift that is equally unalienable: desire for unreserved commitment of all we have and are. Our liberty is given us so that we in turn can freely dedicate ourselves to something greater. That’s in fact what the signers of the Declaration of Independence did themselves, concluding their document with a vow that invokes “Divine Providence” as witness to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Of course the upshot is not as simple as saying that any vow-making is better than none. That’s plainly false, as Jephtha’s example shows. Today it’s easy to find causes and movements that prey on people’s innate desire to give themselves to a higher allegiance in ways that are noxious and sinister.
But caution counsels discernment, not permanent indecision. Ultimately, to take a leap of commitment, even without knowing where one will land, is the only way to get to a happiness worth everything. It’s the happiness described in the psalm that has long been recited in monastic communities when someone makes a lifelong vow: “This is my resting place for ever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.”