The Human Act of a Promise
Ghosting and the Hypothetical Spirit
Today is my 10th anniversary as a Priest. So I’ve decided to write a short reflection on the anthropology around making a promise. This has been something I’ve reflected on as I approach this moment in my vocation. I think of those who have inspired me in their commitment, beginning with Christ (the God of Covenant) my parents, and faithful friends. Praise God!
Freedom in the sense that in each moment I can do whatever happens to suit me.
But any animal does that. That is the animal form of freedom: independence from external compulsion. But what is specifically human is something different…
Robert Spaemann, ‘AN ANIMAL THAT CAN PROMISE AND FORGIVE’
Freedom in Humans and Animals
Aquinas, when looking at the internal-senses, suggests that animals have something called an "estimative sense." In contemporary terms we'd call that "instinct." This instinct judges a series of things that are sensed (stimuli) in conjunction with one's sensible appetites (what is sensed as good). In this way animals are not moved by something extrinsic to themselves, but have a type of interior movement toward the good. They are free to resist extrinsic causes, like the force of wind, or the pursuit of a predator. They move in a type of freedom from outside compulsion.
Humans have this same power, however it is affected by our intellectual power which adds to it a type of self-awareness and agency. So he calls the estimative sense in man the cognitive sense instead. Its in this sense that man can become aware of his instincts, and while being driven to act on them, also hold himself back from such impulsive acts.
So what is being stated here is profound - part of what makes us humans is our ability to say "no" to our instincts. To what end? It would be the end that reason is rooted in - seeking what is supremely good over what is a lesser good. In this way, man is capable of meditating on the universal notion of what is good, beyond the mere circumstances of the moment. From this capacity, man has the ability to do something animals do not - make a promise. A promise therefore is an interesting phenomenon to explore when considering human freedom.
Commitments to Truth and Persons
The reason this is important for us to meditate upon today is due to a tendency to down-play the gravity of our commitments. A commitment is a good example of something that has the strength to not be ruled by instinct, but to rule it. If you are married, just because you experience some impulse of sexual attraction to someone else doesn't mean you should act on it. Likewise, if you are committed to meet up with a friend, you do not cancel simply because something better seemed to come along.
When we avoid making commitments to supposedly liberate us to act in any given circumstance as we please, what we are actually doing is surrendering our humanity, and exchanging it for the impulsivity of beasts; we suppress our interior freedom, and are now ruled by the heat of the moment. This also wounds others, and often gravely. We tend to call it ghosting.
Post modern philosophy has in certain cases emphasized the importance of the will-to-power and the maximization of options. But in the end, this leads us to non-commitment, and living a life that is purely hypothetical until we are to act in any given circumstances. Such is that of the animals and beasts. It weakens our resolve to make decisions that are rooted in what is the highest good, and makes our actions mere products of the instinct associated with how I feel right now. The irony - in a quest for liberty, man loses freedom. He becomes a slave to impulsivity, because he prefers beast to the spiritual soul.
God, who is a God of covenant makes a commitment to us in His very blood shed upon the cross, and the Resurrection of His Body. This eternal priesthood of Jesus ought to inspire a type of reciprocity of commitment to him, and in Him to one another. But in order to inspire this, we need to spend time meditating on it, and being consoled by his commitment to each of us. If we deeply appreciate His efforts and faithfulness, we will be inspired and coxed to do the same for Him and others. When we know what love looks like, we will better imitate it internally.
One of the reasons, amongst others that we fail at this is due to nominalism. Nominalism refuses to admit that there is a nature to things that is concrete. As we find in Hume, so we find in Kant a type of skepticism around what things are, and how they ought to be directed to an end. Think of it this way - if I do not need to determine what my vocation is, then I can do whatever I want and please. If I do not need to define the identity of this or that organization, church, committee, then we are free to do as we please in any given circumstance. This is what it means to have a hypothetical relationship with truth. We only define, for instance, if a child within the womb is real or not, based upon whether that child is wanted, willed, and cherished. If we do this with reality, with the Logos, then we will do it with one another as persons. What is a person? Are they to be used, do they exist to me when they are not present to me? What is their vocation, calling, and purpose? If everything is left undefined, ambiguous, and unknowable, it gives us the reduction of freedom that mere animals experience. It inhibits love, and makes commitment to the Church, to Christ, to one another, and reality itself impossible.
In a nutshell, its been 10 years, and I’m still wearing my collar. But this is something to do in good times and in bad - because it involves keeping my promise, and truly being a sacrament of Christ’s own covenantal priesthood to His people.