Covenanted Hope
September 14, 2020

"Without a concept of the covenant," writes Douglas Knight (Covenant and Hope, 217-220), "we are left with man baffled by the world and by his neighbor, and unwilling to commit himself to the disciplines by which he could develop relationships with him."

Every society requires two intra-human covenants, one that "holds together the present generation" and the other between the present generation and the future. When we give up the idea of covenant, we no longer have reason to look beyond the present. Without covenant, our present selves don't have the will to "make concessions to our future selves, much less be willing to regard children as any form of a second self."

At the heart of the human covenant is marriage: "Man is a covenanted being because humanity is not unisex, but sexed and so dual." In marriage, a man and a woman "recognizes the lasting uniqueness of this single other person." As a public institution, marriage recognizes the husband and wife as a new little society, "each as fundamental as society itself."

Like God's covenant with Israel, marriage has both exclusive and inclusive dimensions. The relation of husband and wife is exclusive, and only as such can it expand to bless society at large. Only as an exclusive relationship can it serve others outside; because husband and wife are have an unchangeable covenant with one another, marriage "recreates and renews society."

Marriage opens out to welcome children, and in this marriage is as essential to the inter-generational covenant as it is to the intra-generational covenant. Societies continue because we recognize "the present is not self-sufficient, but oriented towards a future out of its sight. The present must give itself away so that something other than itself can come into existence."

There can be generational continuity only if we are able to give ourselves and "to invest without immediate reward." A generation honors its obligations to preceding generations by passing on life and culture to our children, but this occurs only if we affirm that this culture and life is good.

Our orientation toward future generations is for the sake of future generations, but it's also necessary to our own well-being: "If we live as though there is only this present, and deny existence to that new generation who could give us the affirmation that we seek, we are our own enemies." We live now "in such a way that the long-term can emerge, for if we live as thought nothing will come after us, our present life will have no value." In Robert Spaemann's words, "Only the affirmation of the future perfect makes the present tense fully real."

This "prospect of new generations to come" is the essence of hope. It directs hope beyond the immediate now toward a future reward. As we lose confidence in the future, we become reluctant to "receive our reward in the long-term and implicit currency of recognition by our contemporaries." We look for more immediate recognition in the currency of money. Mammon, Knight implies, is the reigning God of a future-less, and therefore hopeless people.

Money, in turn, cancels debts and concludes relationships. We don't feel or have any obligation of a long-term relationship with the Walmart checker (who is probably a machine anyway). Money is, to this degree, a solvent of covenanted relationships. As it dissolves covenanted relationships, "the market and state expand to fill the gap." More generally, when we don't sustain our covenants, "we become dependents of that other covenant that we have not entered freely, the state."

Knight's discussion of the intra- and inter-generational covenants highlights the depths of our cultural decay. The intragenerational covenant depends on the recognition of sexual difference and the durability of marriage; but we don't recognize sexual difference, more and more of us don't get married, and many marriages end. We have a future only if we have children, but we've stopped having children.

Hope sustains the human covenant; the human covenant sustains hope. We've lost both.

As Knight knows, the human covenants cannot be sustained outside the context of God's covenants with His people. Hope is sustained only by a "metaphysics of promise, or an eschatological ontology," the confidence that the world is the communion it was created to be, because it will be that communion, that Bride.

And in the midst of a hopeless world, the church is called to be the church, what Israel was called to be, the community of hope. We are called to live in the confidence that our assembly at the throne of God is the future of creation because it already embodies that future.

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