Promising Forward

A few weeks ago Andy Crouch and the folks at Praxis wrote about the importance of promises moving forward from Our Current Moment.  I wrote about it here.  Alan Jacobs recently picked up on the same thread for a piece over at The Hedgehog Review.  The title says a lot: “Against Projects; For Promise.”  Jacobs has been concerned for some time about our obsession with projection when so much of the future is uncertain.  He reflects on the thoughts of Wendell Berry and writes:

Our moment is dominated by such Projectors. In my own field of higher education, I find every morning in my RSS reader essays, articles, and blog posts appearing prophesying the dismantling of universities—this is sometimes called “unbundling,” as though a university is a cable TV service—or at the very least the elimination of academic departments, indeed whole fields of inquiry, that don’t rake in sufficient cash . . .

Such projection is easy and cost-free: No one will remember if you’re wrong, and whenever you turn out to be right you can crow about it on Twitter. This is why Berry says of the language of Projection, “It is not language that the user will very likely be required to stand by or to act on, for it does not define any personal ground for standing or acting. Its only practical utility is to support with ‘expert opinion’ a vast, impersonal technological action already begun.”

To the cheap talk of the Projectors Berry contrasts the more solemn and more responsible language of Promise: “The ‘projecting’ of ‘futurologists’ uses the future as the safest possible context for whatever is desired; it binds one only to selfish interest. But making a promise binds one to someone else’s future.” To make a promise is to utter words that you pledge to stand by.

There is much to be said for promise-making and promise-keeping, something that we have largely left unarticulated in our “terms of agreement” culture where we sign off on things in a moment so we can get on with things.  Beyond that, the language of promise is mostly regulated to marriage, where a whole ceremony solemnizes deep promises.  The language of promise is present in other religious contexts, but I’d argue that often they get washed out by all of the technicalities and practicalities of “running a church.”  Jacobs concludes:

Here’s my suggestion for, my plea to, our habitual Projectors: For every projection you make—I know it would be fruitless to ask you to forswear the projective temptation altogether—make a promise. Tell us not just what will happen but what you plan to do to bring about a better world, or a better university, or just a better neighborhood. Utter some words you will need to stand by . . .

Definitely something to think about moving forward.  It’s something smaller and denser, more personal and more powerful, I think.  And it’s not part of our language, which means it can be something both ancient and fresh for us.

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