Contracts and Covenants
All you need to know about me is that I am on page 400 of a 600 page biography of Martin Van Buren. Probably not the kind of person you want to meet at Starbucks. I should hasten to mention that I am not enjoying the book. It is an overwritten, over researched biography of a particularly vain and silly man who, in a time when Congress was the dominant branch of government, managed to slip into the White House for four fairly uninteresting years. Tedious (or should I say tedium)does not begin to define this reading experience, As near as I can tell, the only thing that Van Buren has to say for himself, or his biographer has to say for him, is that our term “O.K.” came from one of his campaigns (he was referred to by the name of his town, “Old Kinderhook”). Now I will say that most of us use that expression every day. But biographies should be made of sterner stuff.
Why am I reading this water board torture of a book ? Many years ago, as I began collecting presidential biography, I promised myself that I would read one biography of every American President, if only to justify the money I was spending on the books. As you might imagine from my current subject, I am getting pretty near the end. No one starts with Van Buren (or Tyler or Rutherford B. Hayes). The question is, based on my current nightly agony. Can I keep the promise to myself ?
Can a person contract with himself ? Not in the real world. A contract presupposes an enforcement mechanism, a court. By the way, that enforcement mechanism has to be one actually here on earth, fear of everlasting damnation does not count. I can’t sue myself to force myself to read this book. If I refuse to finish it, as any rational human being would, I have hurt no one, least of all myself. I may be disappointed in myself that I don’t know what happened to Van Buren the last two hundred pages of his life (actually, I bet he dies) but that is the extent of the harm.
The harder question is the age old question, can a man make a contract with God ? Ancient Hebrew Prophets thought so, they believed that God had an immediate enforcement mechanism for contract breach, usually military defeat. The father of the Reformation (and despicable anti-Semite, but that’s for another blog) Luther, disagreed. In this case I would have to side with Luther. Most contracts made with God are contracts made “in extremis”. ‘Oh God, if you will just get me even a C on this exam I will never stay out all night drinking before a final again”. You lack the free will to be able to bargain with God, all contracts with divine beings are contracts of adhesion. Exactly like the ones you sign with your long distance carrier.
Second, as Job pointed out to God, God is not only the prosecutor, but also the Judge. This argument got him nowhere. When God was confronted with this due process problem he answered Job “out of a whirlwind”. You don’t think that is intimidating ? You try to have a logical discussion with someone and you are answered by a disembodied voice speaking out of a whirlwind ? Worse than God’s method of communication was the message itself. God refused to answer the question as to why life was being so damned unfair to Job. He answered the question with a series of questions, and pretty arrogant ones at that. Things like “Where were you when I set the boundaries of the ocean, when I created the morning star,etc., etc., etc. ?” “Well” as Job should have answered, “what in the world does that have to do with these boils on my butt which I am forced to scratch with pieces of broke pottery, and by the way, where’s my lawyer ?” But Job did not answer that way, because he knew that it was pointless.
If I can’t make a contract with God, I certainly don’t see how my contract with myself should be worth worrying about. I am leaning heavily toward ditching Van Buren. Let him sue me.