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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.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Job ended up with twice as much as he had before his affliction.

    The New Testament, as well as the prophets, describe the eschaton mainly in terms of a new Jerusalem, a new kingdom, but also as a new heaven and earth – one not really unlike Eden. These do not appear to have been metaphors for other hopes, but most theology treats them as metaphors. It is doubtful that Jesus or Paul did.

    In the Bible, looking back to Eden or to the land of Israel or even to the time in the wilderness is basically the same as looking forward to the coming kingdom.

    Kelsey does not appear to approve of either Job’s repayment or of the eschaton of the prophets. So, is the Bible full of bad theology?

    February 7, 2011
    • Do you think that the children Job ended up with were “replacement value” for the ones he lost? There are some losses that cannot be compensated for.

      There is certainly continuity in Scripture between Eden and the New Jerusalem, but I don’t agree that looking back is “basically the same” as looking forward. The promise of a genuinely new creation, where there will be no more tears, no more mourning, where the old order of things has passed away, is qualitatively different.

      February 7, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        “There are some losses that cannot be compensated for”….

        That can’t be true. If it is, there is no God.

        February 7, 2011
      • Ken #


        But the idea that redemption is connected with compensation is found in the Bible, even in the words of Christ.

        No more tears refers to words of prophets about the tears of the pious who mourned the exile and destruction of Jerusalem.

        February 7, 2011
      • With respect to this quote, I am thinking of the term “compensate” specifically in terms of “replacement value.” I am not denying that compensatory language is found throughout Scripture; I am simply saying that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between losses and gains. It seems to me that the hope of Christ is much bigger and broader than that.

        No more tears refers to words of prophets about the tears of the pious who mourned the exile and destruction of Jerusalem.

        I think “no more tears” certainly includes, but is not limited to this interpretation. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…” This a pretty comprehensive hope.

        February 8, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Do you think the death of the “ambivalent middle” implies the demise of mainstream protestantism? Ironically perhaps the end of influence for the likes of David H Kelsley?

    February 7, 2011
    • I suppose it could be interpreted that way. I try not to restrict people’s influence (or lack thereof) to the groups that they are a part of (or that people place them in). Based on what I’ve read of Kelsey, he seems some distance from anything like an “ambivalent middle.” He seems to care very deeply and intelligently and Christianly about the important questions in life.

      February 8, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        I don’t doubt either his commitment or his intelligence. I doubt in his ability to offer a compelling, sustainable vision of discipleship and community. Academic programs more concerned with stratifying faith along gender, ethnic and socio-economic fault lines are a structurally fatal misinterpretation of the Gospels. We are a universal people of the Holy Spirit called to transcendence. Gender, race and economic standing have always been “old wine skins”.

        Methodologies that subordinate praise, worship and prayer to the so called, “higher criticisms” of historical critical analysis have it assbackwards. Reducing documentation to a “best guess” historical context seems an absurd preoccupation while the world starves for justice.

        We need more monasteries not divinity schools.

        February 10, 2011
  3. Tyler Brown #

    It’d be interesting to see how this data relates to other movements… such as the rise of environmentalism or economic cycles. It might prove to be a fruitless endeavor but I would find it harder to believe that there isn’t a driver that pushed people out of the “ambivalent middle.”

    February 8, 2011
    • I doubt it would be a fruitless endeavour at all—I think it might fill in a lot of the picture. Our worldviews are always profoundly shaped by our experience of the world, after all.

      Any ideas about what you think the driver (or drivers) might be?

      February 8, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        Well, it is really hard to say . To be honest I’ve never really given it much thought. I’d suspect a lot of the polarization in Canada is because of immigration on one side and secular institutions on the other. Obviously there is a very large spectrum we are dealing with here and it is probably very hard to draw distinct lines around the two camps. But a lot of young people who come from longer established roots in Canada tend to be more secular where as a lot of recent immigrants or second gen’s tend to have more religious tendencies. This of course is completely unscientific and based on my interactions with younger Canadians.

        However, it is doubtful that this is the only factor (if it is even one). Another factor might be economic. People loose their jobs or have their spending power eroded and they turn to something else. No longer are they able to afford the distractions they once could purchase and begin to look for something else.

        Another one may be solely demographics. As the boomers come to the end of their working lives they return to the faith of their parents, thus inflating the numbers of those who believe. Book one of Plato’s Republic comes to mind here; the old seeking to make peace with the Gods, just in case… The young however, and the echoes, have been raised in a much more secular environment and might not make this return once they reach that age. That is of course speculation but it would be an interesting idea to flush out.

        Or, last but not least, it could be a backlash against what secularization has brought. Although, while tempted by this thought, I’d be cautious of over emphasizing it out of ‘hope,’ because while it is a nice thought I believe a backlash requires thought to as why something isn’t working. The evidence for such a backlash against the temporal or dumbed down innate consequentialism just doesn’t seem apparent in my opinion.

        What are your thoughts?

        February 8, 2011
      • I think that each of the things you mention is a plausible contributor to increasing polarity the article describes. I’m not entirely convinced that today’s young won’t migrate toward religion at some point in their futures… I think we all have the same existential concerns. It’s possible to ignore them for a while, but I don’t think anyone can do it for a lifetime.

        Another “culprit” might be the increasing psychological/social strain of pluralism and the destabilizing effect that increasing awareness of and contact with other worldviews can have. One of the ways of dealing with the cognitive disorientation of pluralism is to just rigidify your position and yell louder, which is what we see at both ends of the spectrum, unfortunately.

        Incidentally, what do you think secularization has “brought” that might contribute to a backlash?

        February 8, 2011
  4. Brian Miller #

    Speaking of hope, one of the more memorable articles I have read:

    February 12, 2011
    • Absolutely! Fantastic article.

      If I’m not mistaken, that article was expanded upon in a book called The Doors of the Sea after the tsunami in 2004.

      February 12, 2011
      • Brian Miller #

        Really? I did not know this. I am interested to find it when I get back in country.

        February 13, 2011

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