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Do Not Swear by Heaven or Earth

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dedekind drawing

So we may be coming to an end of my Lenten series – not because Lent is over, though technically Lent ends on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, because I had been planning on writing through to Easter – but because I forgot that Lent rolled over April – and Camp Nanowrimo.

Nanowrimo, for those late to the party, is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. It has two sister challenges, “Camp Nanowrimo,” in April and July, and a few years ago I committed to doing all three every year, so I could finish my books before I die.

I live by The Law of Prior Commitment: if you have two conflicting obligations, the one you agreed to first wins, nor do you break a prior commitment to take on a new one. In this case, I thoughtlessly committed myself to writing two essay’s worth for five days, and I’m already overloaded. The Lent series must go.

Now, the Law of Prior Commitment is a great law. It simplifies and de-stresses many decisions in life, because it’s easy to apply, easy to understand, and impartial. When combined with a key exception – when a conflict affects my wife, I Prioritize My Marriage – it becomes easier to be fair with people.

That exception is important. Sometimes the commitments I make are to myself – to take on a Lenten series, to commit to Nanowrimo, to attend the Write to the End writer’s group every Tuesday. But once, back in the day, when I’d committed to a karate class, it conflicted with my new girlfriend’s art opening.

My future wife’s art opening – her very first art opening, in point of fact.

Following the Law of Prior Commitment got me in trouble – and I don’t mean that she was upset, though she was; I mean that I missed out on a special experience because I was mindlessly applying a rule. As I’ve discussed earlier, no set of rules can be perfect for dealing with the complexities of the real world.

Literally NO rules, because it’s mathematically impossible. As much as we may wish otherwise, for ANY problem you have to think about with, like, your brain, the mathematician Dedekind showed arithmetic is embedded in it somewhere, and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is lurking behind that with a club.

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us not to swear oaths: “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool.”

Jesus was no doubt aware that commitments made as oaths – rules short enough to be packaged into a brief verbal spell – cannot encompass within their rules the whole of the path following Him, which involves constant course-correction towards Jesus with discernment (discretion guided by grace).

In popular culture the way to Heaven is “straight and narrow” but that’s a misreading of Matthew 7:14, which the Interlinear reads as a narrow GATE and a constricted WAY – hard to get through, and easy to step off the path. A straight path is easy to follow. But straight lines exist in the human mind, not nature.

This is one reason I’ve always been a bit suspicious of religious orders – people who swear a vow – an oath – to God to live as part of a religious community. No matter how well intentioned those vows are, no matter how religiously inspired, they’re replacing the simple following of Jesus with human rules.

When we decide to follow a rule, or swear an oath, or even when we take on a vow to God, we are placing something finite and human – a short verbal spell, followed by our own finite judgment – over the infinite and divine example of Jesus, the Son of God, and the Person of God Himself.

Following Jesus is strange and difficult, sometimes challenging, requiring discernment – again that odd word, which in plain language means just “good judgment”, but to Christians, it stands for a process: “perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding.”

That lack of judgment is important. Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

This means more than just not judging people for their imagined offenses. It applies to all situations. If we cannot approach a situation without judgment – without being open to everyone and everything that are actually there – then we will only find ourselves regurgitating our own prejudices.

Oaths short-circuit this process of discernment. An oath says, “I’m going to make a decision now, so I won’t have to make a decision then.” Oaths, while they are restrictive, are comforting, in a way: if one makes that promise to do a good thing now, then you can be sure not to be swayed later.

Except, sometimes, we should be swayed later. You can make all the promises to yourself that you want, but you do so in a particular set of circumstances, and if your circumstances change, they could require you to re-visit the assumptions that led you to make the oath in the first place.

Artificial intelligence researchers call this “defeasible reasoning.” Logicians, skeptics and objectivists may want the firm certainty of deductive reasoning, which moves from true premises to true conclusions, but probability theorists, scientists and roboticists know that new information can invalidate the old.

There is no substitute for taking each scenario on its own merits. No substitute for discretion; no way to eliminate the need for discretion before judgment. You can swear all the oaths you want, make all the promises to yourself that you want, but one day, your rules will fail.

So, I promised to myself I’d take on a Lenten series, and that I’d do Camp Nanowrimo. But in practice, I’m going to roll into Maundy Thursday tomorrow, approach the situation without judgment, and, regardless of the rules I’ve set for myself, let myself decide what I ought to do to follow Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Dedekind, a mathematician who showed that our most basic thoughts – thinking about things, and putting them into groups, which might contain other groups – contain, deeply embedded in their implications, the full richness of the natural numbers, and beyond them, all of mathematics.

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