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On Faith: Promise can hold us together

The Danish physicist Nils Bohr famously observed that “it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” Never has that statement been truer than today. The COVID-19 pandemic has created deep uncertainties and anxieties, not only about our public health, but also about the future of our economic and political systems. So many variables are at work that even our best scientific minds cannot forecast the outcome of this contagion with certainty. We simply can’t predict how it will end, or when.

With all due respect to the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, however, a prediction is not the same thing as a promise. The language of prediction and control is appropriate and necessary in the scientific laboratory, but the language of faith involves a different grammar, one of promise and commitment. Computers — if given the necessary information and the appropriate algorithms — can flawlessly calculate precise outcomes and make complex predictions with great accuracy and incredible speed. The simplest promise, on the other hand, is something that only a human being can make. The ability to bind ourselves to future actions through promises that we offer in the present is, I believe, what makes us distinctly human. As the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber put it, human beings are essentially “promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing” creatures. Even in the face of radical uncertainty and doubt, we are able to sustain our intentions and commitments through the spiritual practice of “creative fidelity.”

It is really quite remarkable when you think about it: we say to a friend that we’ll meet them (online, of course!) for a cup of coffee next Friday at 3 o’clock, and then, despite everything that may happen during the intervening week — all the complex, unpredictable and changing circumstances of our lives — we actually show up at the appointed time. And there they are, too! How cool is that? We may take this behavior for granted, but what other animal is able to pull off such a feat? This capacity to commit oneself to a shared future in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity is a uniquely human gift.

In many religious communities — including my own — this “promissory” quality of human life is understood as something sacred, something grounded in divinity. In the biblical tradition, for example, the language of “covenant” is used to describe the framework of promises between God and humanity within which all life is meant to be lived. This is the context in which we learn what it means to be human. We learn how to make promises to each other because we discover ourselves always already immersed in a social world — a community — that is built entirely out of promises.

Promises and covenants can indeed be broken — as Buber recognized — and often they are, but they can also be honored, fulfilled, renewed and restored, which provides an ever-present basis for continuing hope. Hope is not a matter of optimistic predictions calculated and extrapolated from current trends; it is grounded and built upon trust in promises that have been made in the context of an ongoing covenant. Even in the darkest, most pessimistic and frightening times — even in “the valley of the shadow of death” — we are still able to make, keep, and trust promises.

The COVID-19 crisis has only focused and intensified a religious and human reality that has always been the case. We always hold our faith and make our commitments in the face of uncertainty and doubt. In this time of great anxiety, dis-ease and unpredictability, we would do well to remember those things that remain within our power to control, those things that make and keep us human. Making and keeping promises, with ourselves and one another, and with the creative spirit that sustains us all, becomes more important than ever when so many things are disturbed and disoriented. Although we may not be able to predict when this unsettled time will come to an end, we can help one another through it by remembering and realizing that we are all people of promise.

Reverend Bruce Johnson leads the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth, the only UU church in the region.