Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

An Atheist Minister’s Wedding Vows

Posted by metaphorical on 13 March 2011

My nephew and his fiancé (now wife) asked me to officiate their wedding. I registered with the Universal Life Church for free, paid a few dollars for a package of documents it puts together to expedite certification with the City of New York, and gave the City another $15 in a process that took all of 15 minutes one afternoon at an office down near City Hall.

I married them yesterday, and it was as lovely a wedding as I’ve been to. A few people there asked for a copy of what I said, so here it is.

An Atheist Minister’s Wedding Vows

Some of you may find it odd that this ceremony is presided over by minister, even a mail-order minister. Others of you are puzzled that an atheist—a third-generation atheist at that—should be standing before you. But a day like today is about union. And if two people can choose to share a life, then atheists and believers can share a few simple words—words like holy, sacred, consecrated, faith, and love. And the greatest of these, as the Good Book says, is love. But today I want to talk about faith.

The poet John Donne said that Reason is our soul’s left hand, Faith her right. A beautiful thought—hey, it’s John Donne. But this is a dualism that I want to reject. Sherwood Eddy, a little-known missionary and pacifist of a hundred years ago, expressed the view I want to advance in its stead. He said: Faith is reason grown courageous.

One meaning for the word faith in that other good book, the dictionary, is: allegiance to duty or a person; loyalty. Here’s another: confidence or trust in a person or thing. If there is any moment in our lives in which one person exhibits loyalty, and confidence and trust in another, is it the one for which we’re assembled today.

Here’s another—it may sound a bit like the John Donne idea, but it is not. It is that faith is belief that is not based on proof. If there is one moment in our lives that is not based on proof, it is this one.

Without proof—not in the sense of belief in the unprovable, but without proof in the same way that a scientist launches an experiment, fully expecting the proof—or disproof—to come. The successful marriages we see all around us every day, especially the ones here today—literally surrounding this nervous, courageous couple—are ongoing proofs of leaps of faith, made years, even decades, ago.

The philosopher J.L. Austin coined a phrase “performative utterance” to describe things like promises and marriage. John Searle uses the phrase “speech acts” to talk about them as well. The idea is that some utterances, some tokens of speech, are more than mere statements, they are actions. To say “I promise you” is not separate from the act of promising—it is the act of promising.

To be sure, it’s not enough to say, “I promise you”—there has to be a context of promising, a custom of promising. That context, those customs, require a community. If faith is an allegiance to duty or a person, a promise is an allegiance to a duty and to a person.

This, then, is the other meaning of “faith” that needs to be shared between atheists and those of religious faith. A faith—this is from the dictionary again—is a community of believers. We are assembled here by our belief—our belief in each other; our belief in our community, our belief in community itself, a community that includes all who came before us. And let us remember all those who could not be with us today, because customs are inherited. Community itself is inherited.

Of course, it has to start somewhere. Our national community, our nation, assembled itself out of nothing by a performative utterance—We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….

Which brings us to today’s performative utterance.

We, the family and friends of Derek and Nicole, in order to form this more perfect union, are gathered here today, to join together this courageous couple in holy matrimony, which is an honorable estate.

Derek and Nicole. You love one another. You are already each other’s best friend. You have found your other half. Today, you pledge each other your troth, that is, your truth, a truth that wakes up each morning to the unknown future with courage and a determination to prove your faith in one another, and to one another, for yet another day, for each and every day that you both shall live.

Derek, please repeat after me.
I, Derek Ambrosino,
. pledge my truth to you, Nicole,
. a truth that will include good times and
bad times,
. sickness and health,
. joy as well as sorrow.
. This I give to you today,
. and all the days of our life.
Nicole, please repeat after me.
I, Nicole Burdett,
. pledge my truth to you, Derek,
. a truth that will include good times and
bad times,
. sickness and health,
. joy as well as sorrow.
. This I give to you today,
. and all the days of our life.

By the authority vested in me by the City of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife.

(corrected 3/13/11)

One Response to “An Atheist Minister’s Wedding Vows”

  1. Short and sweet. I like it. ‘A performative utterance’ — that’s a new one to me. I’m going to use it. :)

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