Compensation and Promise
From the “interesting things I’ve come across over the last week or so but haven’t had time to post about” file, comes Vancouver Sun religion columnist Douglas Todd’s latest piece on the increasing polarization of religion in Canada. The sociological data is in, and apparently we Canadians (and West Coasters, in particular) are increasingly abandoning the “ambivalent middle” when it comes to questions of faith. Whether it’s the existence of God or the nature of religious observance, we’re either really for it or really against it.
In truth, it’s not terribly surprising news. The questions that we divide so sharply on are, after all, existentially significant. They are worldview questions that matter to all of us. Indeed, As Todd notes, anyone who is brave enough to spend even a bit of time perusing the comments of a blog post about the existence/non-existence of God, will get a good sense of just how much (and how obnoxiously!) they matter. But it would be much odder (and more depressing), I think, if there was a large swath of society embracing the “ambivalent middle” because it would signify that we had basically stopped caring about questions like truth, meaning, beauty, and goodness. So at the very least, polarization around the questions of religion means we still care about what we ought to care about.
What I did find intriguing about the article was the section on the “universal existential challenge” of death. Whatever we Canadians believe or don’t believe about God, we all wrestle with death and what (if anything) comes next. Not surprisingly, while reporting similar feelings of sorrow, mystery, and fear to atheists in the face of death, those who believed in God were seen to be significantly more hopeful.
And so, the polls have spoken and the most statistically significant difference between believers and non-believers is hope. But hope in what? Is it just some vague sense that God will one day make everything OK—that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well?” Is our hope like some kind of cosmic band-aid to cover the wound of the world at the end of time? Is it when we get our jewelled crowns for good deeds performed? Undoubtedly, the shape of our hope—even for committed Christians—can be pretty fuzzy.
But whatever else we can (or cannot) say about what we hope for, Christians have always thought of hope in terms of redemption. Admittedly, there is plenty of fuzziness around this word too, but David Kelsey helpfully isolates one common misconception in his book Imagining Redemption:
Understanding redemption as God’s “making up for” grievous loss is not the same thing as the fantasy that God will “compensate” for grievous loss. We must resist the temptation to imagine “making up for” as “compensation,” after the fashion of the insurance industry’s providing “replacement value.” “Redemption” in Christian discourse has to do with the future. “Compensation” in the sense of “replacement value” has to do with the past….
Jesus does not come promising that God will turn back history, restoring our innocence in the garden of Eden as though nothing bad had happened in the interim. Rather, as the Gospels present what Jesus proclaims by word and deed and what Jesus undergoes, he simply is the promise that something radically new is about to break in.
This is the Christian hope. Not mere replacement value for our losses, but something radically new that incorporates, transcends, and heals our personal pain and the wounds of our world.