Oaths. This blog’s previous entry, “#6 So help me God“, described how, for a truly-honest person, oaths “give rise to no new duties.” For such persons, oaths “merely serve to awaken” the conscience. In some other world, truly-honest persons may exist. But let’s face it, that world is not our world. No perfectly, completely, 100%, all of the time, 24/7, honest person has ever travelled this world’s byways (some would argue that Jesus, the Buddha, and President Obama are exceptions). No matter how hard we work at it (if we even work at it that hard), we swear to do such-and-such, we promise to do something-or-other, and then—shall we admit it?—we renege.
And so, given that we don’t qualify for 100%-truly-honest-person status, oaths are for us after all. Oaths are intended for what Moses Mendelssohn called the “ordinary, middling sort” of person, or for everyone, since we must all “be numbered among this class.” Okay, we may take exception to being called ordinary, middling sorts of persons, but in our most clear-eyed moments, we know that, more often than we like to admit, we are “weak, irresolute, and vacillating.” Sure, we have principles, and sure, we have the best of intentions to keep our word but we sometimes (often?) lack the will to follow through, especially when the going gets tough.
When Mendelssohn says we need oaths to God because we all qualify as ordinary, middling sorts of persons, he is making a claim about what we, human beings, are like. In technical language, he’s making an anthropological claim. His (philosophical) anthropology shaped his theology; it shaped the way he understood God and the God-human relationship.
For Mendelssohn, God is a witness not only of our “every word and assertion,” but of all our thoughts and most secret sentiments. And since God is privy to our every word, assertion, thought and secret sentiment, God is privy to our every “transgression of his most holy will.” Armed with this knowledge, God allows no transgression to go unpunished.
Such a view of God remains a common one. After all, we want the world to be fair; we want good guys to finish first and bad guys to get their just deserts. But since we’re familiar with plenty of bad guys who never get their just deserts, we assume or conjecture that God administers justice in the afterlife.
Universalists (by affiliation or sympathy) take a different approach to the fairness/justice conumdrum. They believe that God is simply too good to punish anyone. But like most of us, the Universalists want the world to be fair. And so they also believe that although God doesn’t punish us after we die, our consciences torment us whenever we do something like break a promise. Thanks to our consciences, we’re punished during our lifetimes. The Universalists have what’s called a high anthropology. They assume that human beings have fully-active, sensitive consciences. They assume that we feel remorseful about the wrongs we commit.
Most religionists reject the Universalist approach. They might even suspect Universalists of being immoral people. That’s because they wonder why anyone who doesn’t believe in God’s punishment would ever be motivated enough to make the kinds of sacrifices required to do the ‘right’ thing.
When Mendelssohn explains that we need the assistance of an oath to God, it’s because he thinks we need a moral boost to keep our word. He’s got a lower anthropology than the Universalists. He thinks we need to transform a moment when our will is being tested into a decisive moment. He thinks we need to transform a moment when we’d rather procrastinate into a moment when we resist every excuse under the sun (and there are no new excuses). He thinks we need the assistance of a pledge to God, a “so help me God,” to shore up our resolve, to “gather up all the force and emphasis, with which the recollection of God, the all-righteous” can move us to do what we must.
So what is your anthropology?
Does fear of being busted by God motivate you to make good (more often) on your promises? Or is giving your word to God (without fear of punishment) enough? Hmm. Really?
What does your God demand of you? Of human beings in general? How does your anthropology influence your views about our ability to honor those demands?
References: Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem or on Religious Power and Judaism, trans. Allan Arkush (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1983), 64-5.