Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
Paul Dafydd Jones: God's active patience, God's exercise of patience, empowers creatures to do what creatures do, to become what creatures become. Human beings are called to respond to God's patience. Human beings are called to make good on God's patience. The covenant of grace, which is fulfilled in Christ, which is animated by the Spirit, makes that a possibility. It's not an easy possibility of real life not just because of sin and finitude, but because of the complexities of the world that we live in. But learning how to respond to God's patience through forms of waiting, through forms of activity, and sometimes through moments of intemperate resistance, is I think at the heart of Christian life.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I'm Ryan McAnnally-Linz with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. We hear that God is patient. God's love waits. This can be difficult to square with the God of justice, the God who will act for those who suffer, the God who shows incarnate solidarity and delivers. 2 Peter 3 reminds us that "the Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you."
It's interesting that this comes from the guy who can't seem to think before he speaks, constantly puts his foot in his mouth, cuts off a soldier's ear and rushes to deny his Lord to save himself from the accusation of a small child. But actually it's strikingly fitting when you think about it. The Lord was patient with Peter and it was only through the Lord's patience that the impetuous disciple, the cowardly deserter, was able to become Peter, the Rock. Who could know how to, as the epistle puts it, regard the patience of our Lord as salvation?
This is the third episode of a six part series on patience. Why it's so hard? What's good about it? And how we might cultivate it to start? Andy Root of Luther Seminary helped frame our current predicament with patience by noting the rapid acceleration of life, our preoccupation with business, and the struggle to see the sacred weight of time. Then we came at patience from an economic perspective with Yale theologian, Kathryn Tanner. Time is not money. The seeming omnipotence and omnipresence of finance tempt us into the frantic service of mammon.
Having named and rejected the dual temptations toward worshiping empty, accelerating, busy time on the one hand, and reducing time to money on the other, our guest up to now have encouraged us to recapture the sacred weight of time by seeking a patient resonance with the world and each other, as well as living in the reality of the abundance of grace, an abundance that comes from God's stability and steadfast love. But we need to develop this point, perhaps it's God's patience that gives time a sacred weight. It's God's patience that enables any stability or steadfast love you may have. Maybe it's God's patience that enables us to act at all.
Paul Dafydd Jones is a theologian at the University of Virginia specializing in Karl Barth, Christology, political theology, and religion in public life. He's author of the forthcoming research project, Patience: A Theological Exploration. He joins me in this conversation to discuss God's patience, the way divine forbearance empowers and enables human agency, the difficulty of squaring God's patience with our broken world, and God's solidarity with us in the deep calling in humanity to respond to God's patience and make good on divine long suffering. Thanks for listening, friends.
Paul, thanks so much for joining us today.
Paul Dafydd Jones: Oh, you're welcome. Glad to be here.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Now, I gather you think that the Christian theological tradition hasn't invested quite enough energy in thinking through God's patience. It's spent most of the attention on what about being a patient human. Can you explain to me why you think that's a lost opportunity or a mistake?
Paul Dafydd Jones: the starting point here is early Christian writing. There were three treaties on patience by a trio of North African theologians: Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine of Hippo. They really wanted to present patience as a meta-concept for thinking about God's relationship with history, God's relationship to humankind through Christ, and use that as a frame within which to position and think about human exercises of patience. I think that's just good theological sense. You need to think about who God is and what God is doing before you think about who human beings are and what we are called to do and what we are called to become.
Quite quickly though, there was a slide away from good theological procedure. Augustine--I don't like to speak ill of Augustine; we never should in some sense--Augustine begins his treaties by saying, "We need to understand that God is patient without any passion." And then he just drops it. He starts battling the Donatists and talking about grace and merit and free will. And all of the rich suggestions of Tertullian and Cyprian are drained away. So no longer do we have claims about Christ being patient with the limitations of human life. We don't have the idea that God patiently disburses blessings to human beings. We don't have a sense that God is waiting on the end, in some sense. And that kind of sets the terms for this gradual decrease of interest in patience. It crops up in interesting places. Calvin has some really cool things to say about patience. Luther is less good. It only really rolls back into view when it comes to appear in Church Dogmatics 2:1 in Barth's account of God's perfection.
Now why is this unfortunate? It's unfortunate because it's a cool way of thinking about who God is or walk God does. Cool in the sense--that's not really a particularly technical term--but cool in a sense that there's plenty of biblical precedent for thinking about God as patient, both in the Hebrew Bible, under the New Testament. But cool also in a sense that it is a really powerful way to think about God giving creatures time and space to be who we are and to become who we want to become, and thinking about how human beings and other creatures, in fact, might reward God's patience, living into the opportunities that we're provided providentially, salvifically, graciously. While it's not a term that we're familiar with when it comes to thinking about God's characteristics, God's attributes, God's relationship to the world, I think there are myriad possibilities that come into view.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Which of those possibilities do you find most theologically invigorating, energizing? Which ones do you want to take and run down to the end and see what they do?
Paul Dafydd Jones: I think it depends what locus, what topic you're talking about. The ones that matter to me most, I think, are with respect to creation, providence, the incarnation, and ultimately, Trinity, which is a big menu of items, but I think it has the potential to be this hub around which a number of theological topics can be addressed. It's really interesting to think about God's exercise of patience being such that creatures are given time and space to exercise agency and to fill up the world with various identities and trajectories and therefore reward God's patience.
Now I hurry to add this is not a matter of God getting out of the way in order for creatures to be able to act. It's what Kathy Tanner would describe as a non-competitive model of God and world. God's active patience, God's exercise of patience, empowers creatures to do what creatures do, to become what creatures become. I think you even see this in the first creation saga in Genesis in which God sovereignly says, "Let there be X, Y, or Z." But rather than just this imperious bang, "Here you are," it's capacitive. The earth starts to bring forth plants; animals start to emerge from the sea; creepy crawly things and flying things turn up left, right, and center. I think one can read that as God's exercise of patience, and by grace, the capacitation of creaturely response.
So that sense of letting be and letting happen, I think, is a variable way of thinking about how God relates to the world and how God's relationship to the world is a matter of empowerment such the creatures can do what creatures do.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: It strikes me that there's a potential downside to that as well. I'm thinking of the Psalms: "How long, O Lord!" God letting be, God letting happen seems often to be experienced as abandonment or a worry about whether God will be faithful because there's some bad stuff happening.
Paul Dafydd Jones: Absolutely. Yeah. Under the conditions of sin, God's patience can be experienced by creatures, by human beings particularly in deeply ambiguous ways. Colin Gunton gave some lectures on Barth that were pulled together and turned into a book. And in those lectures, at one point, he says something along the lines of "I'm not sure about how to deal with the problem of evil, but I think that God's patience would be a good starting point."
I want to resist that a little bit. I don't like the idea of a problem of evil. I think of evil as something that shouldn't happen. Frame it as a problem makes it philosophical, whereas the real issue is how do you stop it happening. What can you do to help? But I think Gunton is onto something there. God's providential governance of history is happening at a pace that is rarely congenial to us. And, it may be that the advent of sin means that the way we receive God's patience becomes far more difficult than we could ever imagine.
But Psalms are interesting though, of course, because it's the "how long, Lord, must we wait." So on the one hand, there is an appeal to God. By definition, there is an imploring concern that God acts. But on the other hand, there's this sense that the world's history is not unfolding at the pace or in the shape that we would like. So again, our experience of divine patience becomes far more ambiguous.
And I would add something to that. One way of thinking about this would be especially the Psalms of lament and complaint, which can get, as we know, incredibly dark, incredibly bleak. One operation of divine patience could be the God that gives ancient Israel the time and space to accuse. God is patient with expressions of trauma, expressions of guilt, expressions of deep anguish. And God is so patient with them that they get included in the canon. Like some of the most powerful, skeptical, doubtful, angry moments are found in the Psalms. So God's letting be at this moment and letting happen includes within it God's honoring of grief and trauma, such that those moments become part of the Scriptures.
On the other side, I think we all struggle with what to do about divine suffering. I struggled a lot with it. I do think there's a way in which we could say that God patiently beholds the suffering of God's creatures, particularly with respect to ancient Israel that somehow the traumas of creaturely alive are present to God and God in some sense has to bear or endure them to a great degree because God is always on the hook for them. There isn't a sense in which there's an independent region of the universe in which all the terrible stuff happens. It always is God's universe and God's history. So God beholds these and must endure and must in some ways take responsibility for them as the one who governs history. That's an exercise of patience too.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: There's something a little unnerving to me about the way you phrased it on patience beholding suffering because I find that that seems like the wrong kind of response to the whole thing of suffering. Perhaps patient endurance of suffering, we can think of as virtuous, noble, whatever you want to say about it. But when you're in the beholding position, it really does seem like action is what's called for. And I suppose that's what the Psalms are doing. That's what that lament is. Just looking on isn't enough here. Do something.
Paul Dafydd Jones: Yeah, the fact that God beholds suffering isn't a validation or an affirmation of the event that causes suffering, that causes trauma. And I think it's really important to advocate for some account of divine impatience in which God is saying, "No, this is unequivocally wrong." And the directive that God gives creatures is make it stop. At the same time, I think I take God's responsibility for the entirety of the cosmos seriously. There is no way of getting God off the hook for things that happen in God's universe.
That doesn't mean they should be folded into a tidy providential plan. I'm very resistant to the idea that all things happen for a reason. All things happen for a divine reason. That's a very dangerous idea, which can legitimize patterns of injustice and the events of acute injury and damage. But, I'm not willing to suggest that God is ever not the governor of everything that happens. So there's a difficult space here, one in which I want to say that God is on the hook. And that of course is what legitimizes Israel's accusations and complaints against God. But at the same time, understanding that God being on the hook for everything doesn't mean that God approves of everything. That's not a particularly comfortable reality to think about. But again, I think the very fact that we have the category of patience actually enables us to get at issues like these maybe more productively than would otherwise be the case.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: The dilemma or the predicament of Christian life is in that space of you're a monotheist. You can't excuse God in any sort of straightforward way. And yet, it's clear that things are not as they ought to be. Maybe that's a hinge point between thinking about divine patience and thinking about human patience, because it points everything towards the eschaton. It gives us tensive structure to our temporal existence where things are not as they should be. A faithful one who is good is the creator and governor of all of this. There has to be something which we await, something that's out ahead.
Paul Dafydd Jones: right. And a confident expectancy is I think an imperative in Christian life. We do of course have to be careful. I think I want to insist that the typical creaturely response to divine patience is disanalogous to God. And by that I mean that God is patient in terms of letting be and letting happen, but that is a provocation. So it's God's patience which empowers us to act. I think the trick is to imagine that God's capacitating patience and our being stirred to act is also a matter of moving to meet the kingdom that is coming towards us.
That's a fairly Augustinian view, probably a bit more cheery than Augustine. For Augustine, it can really feel like you're enduring the end and life is deeply crappy and, hold on. I can get into that at moments, but I think I'm more Barth-like in the sense that I imagined that God's primordial, providential and saving act of patience empowers human beings. While at the same time, human beings are primed and ready and activated both to wait on the kingdom that is coming and to move sometimes intemperately, sometimes impatiently towards the kingdom as it approaches us. So that's right. You use the word "tensive" and I think that's exactly it. I think there has to be a sense of moving, living, inhabiting the space between the now and the "to come."
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Now you made reference to God's primeval, saving act. I know you named yourself as pretty Barthian. I hear echoes of the election of Jesus Christ in the incarnation in the way that you phrased that. And I know you've spoken of Christ as the patience of God incarnate. Could you tell me a little bit about how you see this reflection on divine patience taking shape in Christology in how we think about Jesus?
Paul Dafydd Jones: So let me try and frame the question in a way that helps me and maybe some listeners come to grips with it. I think one big framing issue is that ancient Israel is waiting for its messiah. We see this in Galatians that the time is fulfilled. And I think that if we view Christ as patience incarnate, then that patience, that incarnation of patience is backgrounded by Israel's steadfastness and Israel's long history with God. So Christ as patience incarnate always has to be understood as Christ as the Messiah of Israel. Christian tradition has failed on this front too many times, right? We should be under no illusion that Christ is the Messiah of Israel and that identity has priority over Christ as the savior of the world. They're not mutually exclusive. It's just that we can't understand the world stuff without ancient Israel in view.
The second type of framing, I would say, is that in the incarnation, God's second way of being the Word, commits to bearing finitude and concentrates Godself in the straits of a human life. Now there are some terrifically complicated metaphysical questions here, and I don't want to dodge them, but I'm going to say that Christ the Word or the Son concentrates Godself in the straits of a human life. It's really a statement about the depth of God's solidarity with us. God doesn't cheat. God doesn't stand aloof or apart from the life of Jesus of Nazareth. God lives out God's life within the context of human existence, creaturely existence under the judgment sin.
So patience takes on this quality I've talked before about letting be and letting happen and empowering. Here's where patience as enduring or bearing human existence comes in to play. And it's important to add to this that it really isn't cheating. As much as I liked John's Gospel, I think the center of Christological gravity for me is the Gospel of Mark. There are lots of reasons for that. One is that it reads like a thriller and who doesn't want to read a thriller in Scripture. But I think for me, the theological significance is that Jesus has to negotiate the quotidian. While he certainly shapes events, as opposed to having events just devolve upon him, he has to work it through. He has to--to use Hebrews--learn obedience. He has to enact sinfulness. And I think that attests to this bearing or enduring of finitue.
I think a third thing I would say is that Christ launches the kingdom as a dynamic within history and lets it go. Not let it go in the sense of leaves us too, but installs this counter-world within sinful time and space in which human beings are justified, given the opportunity for sanctification and freed up to reward God's patience in a way that is analogous to the way that creatures rewarded God's patience in the beginning, in the first chapters of Genesis.
That's a big framing. The first point is that to think about Christ as patience incarnate obliges us to think about Christ as Israel's Messiah. The second point is that there is a concentration of divinity, such that God pours Godself into the conditions of creaturely life, under judgment and endures and bears that life. And the third point is that patience incarnate is the natal moment of the kingdom. The moment in which the possibility of living otherwise, of contesting the reign of sin becomes alive for human beings, and I hope other creatures too.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I think I see an analogy between that third point and the point about capacitating patience in your reflection on creation. I wonder if you could draw out the existential import of the second point, of God's having born finite human existence under judgment.
I think I would go back to the word "solidarity." If we think about God's relationship to creation by using the word "creator," then it is easy to think of it as an effortless affair. God doesn't have to wrestle with any metaphysical parameters or go through any red tape to create. God just does it. It's an overflow of God's love and it's glorious. I think if we think though about God in terms of God's pursuit of salvation, then the pursuit of salvation runs through togetherness with creation in the deepest possible sense. God doesn't hold aloof. God is willing to throw Godself in God's second person into the narrow straits of an impoverished Jewish life in a backwater of the Roman Empire, and is willing to obey the one he calls father to the point of greatest extremity, precisely because there is no dimension of creaturely life that God does not want to be involved in.
Paul Dafydd Jones: And there's other stuff going on with the crucifixion. I actually like the idea of it being an occasion in which God, for once and only, exercises impatience with sin. But the solidarity, I think, has to lead the way that God wants to bear the costs of creaturely life under the conditions of sin and finitude. And God does so to the better end.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: What difference do you think it makes to worship and love a God who wants that, as opposed to say a counterfactual god who simply continues the kind of creative snap-the-fingers approach when it comes to salvation.
We want the latter. I think the God as a starburst of creativity that's just always doing new stuff in a way is probably an easier thing to get our head around. But I think the God of Israel is the God of Jesus of Nazareth. And we--this is, again, me being a Barthian as I so often am or Barth-inspired as I so often am--we need to learn who God is from Israel and Christ. And there is no Christ who is not Christ crucified. So for me, the theology of the cross is not an option, not a theological option. It's a theological imperative. But again, to use a word you used earlier, it's tensive, right? To think about God's solidarity with humankind, with creatures to the better end doesn't invalidate the God of creativity, the God of possibility, the God who opens the kingdom and launches the kingdom so that this dizzying array of imperatives and possibilities become lies. We just have to hold those together.
Paul Dafydd Jones: This is a bit hokey, but as a theologian, I think I want to learn to be patient with forms of complexity and with dynamics and dialectics within the context of faith. I don't want it to be slogans. I don't want theological claims to be simple propositions that I can feel consoled with, and then instrumentalize. I think there's something about faith and theology has a responsibility to engage this that can linger over complexity. It's willing to imagine various whirlpools and eddies and regions of faith. And while it can't quite hold them together--the theologian can't quite hold them together, the theologian does have a responsibility to try and show that they're all present.
Christians are often not comfortable with complexity. We want to think in terms of assurance and we want that assurance to be comforting in a fairly quick-fire way. I think theologians have the task of exposing that as an ersatz hope and insisting that faith includes complexity. It involves lingering over ambiguity. Trying to fit together multi-dimensional beliefs that are this lattice work--none of which can be reduced to a pithy marketing quip. So yeah, theologians, we have to try and be patient so that we can honor the complexity of Christian faith. And that's not academicism in the worst sense. That's called intellectual responsibility, which is what we're supposed to be as human beings, but definitely as Christian theologians.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: It strikes me that there's something there that's not exclusively peculiar to the vocation of the theologian, academic theologian in particular, but there are analogous features to just Christian life, that Christian life as a series of slogans and principles isn't going to get you very far. And part of living that life simply is the sort of patience of bearing the fact that it's not like an immediate solution to everything. Your life is messy and it stays messy. And as far as we can tell, it stays messy the whole time through.
Paul Dafydd Jones: I very much agree with that. Christianity is not going to seize being weaponized by snake-oil salespeople. At any given point in time, any number of individuals or groups who want to reduce Christianity to this and not that, and to make that "this" as attractive and commercially appealing as possible--Christians need to resist that. That's not what faith is about. If that were what faith is about, we wouldn't have multiple books in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament that are full of arguments and tensions and difficulties. We wouldn't have four Gospels, each of which casts a different angle of vision on Christ.
So, yeah, it's a peculiar vocation of the theologian to get people thinking and to refuse closure and resolution on difficult intellectual and ethical and political questions. It is important at the same time that Christian theologians speak truthfully and clearly about a range of issues that are confronting the world, societies, and the church. When it comes to intellectual complexity, there isn't actually much intellectual complexity about the need to confront climate change. There shouldn't be Christian dithering when it comes to objecting to the persistence and the upswing of white supremacist politics or the continuing abuse of women and girls and queer women and men and others. So that sort of lingering with complexity needs to go hand-in-hand with an impatient resolve to speak truth.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: It's another instance of this tension that we've keep coming to. Correct me if I'm wrong here, I think I see that tension at some level in the different systematic loci that you talked about. "The decisiveness, the needs to be clarity and speech and action here" side of it seems to be the creaturely response to that first type of divine patience that you're talking about. This is where God is capacitating, letting be and giving you the moment within which you need to act. You need to create something. But then there's that staying with the complexity and staying with ambiguity, staying with the fact that there is a "yet-to-come," staying with the fact that what we see when we look around us. And what we do when we act decisively is itself ambiguous, right? Like when you act decisively, you never act justly. You can be more or less just, but no one is righteous, right? So you're always acting as a sinner within a sinful world. And that's where that kind of bearing, that Christological kind of patience might have it's existential import.
Paul Dafydd Jones: I think you've hit the nail on the hat. Clarity of purpose and the capacity simply to tell the truth about what's going on is in short supply and the world is gripped with various forms of right-wing populism, which is managing to reinvent itself every single day into something more menacing and mendacious and pernicious. The slowness with which governments and institutions are responding to the crisis of global heating and rates of mass extinction is staggering.
At the same time, clarity of purpose is not an excuse for crudeness of tactics or crudeness of discernment or shortcuts. How one actually negotiates an ambiguous quotidian is an ongoing task, which involves bearing various types of guilt and ambiguity. And it's an obligation on the part of Christians to try and handle that ambiguity.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So, Paul, we've covered a lot of territory in this conversation. I'd like to ask you maybe a difficult question at the end because it tries to on the one hand, a step back and get a synoptic view, at the same time, bring things close to life. And that question is this: what role do you think--and maybe what role have you experienced to the extent that you have--God's patience and knowledge thereof has in a flourishing human life.
Paul Dafydd Jones: Just a small question to end them.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Indeed, I warned you.
Paul Dafydd Jones: It's a great question. I don't think I'm a particularly patient person, which is probably why I'm interested in patience. I mentioned before we were recording. And I have a 10-year-old and a six-year-old and yeah, I'm not at my best sometimes when I become impatient and I become impatient too often. But I think a deep belief of mine is that human beings are called to respond to God's patience. Human beings are called to make good on God's patience. The covenant of grace, which is fulfilled in Christ, which is animated by the Spirit, makes that a possibility. It's not an easy possibility of real life not just because of sin and finitude, but because of the complexities of the world that we live in. But learning how to respond to God's patience, both through forms of waiting, through forms of activity, and sometimes through moments of intemperate resistance is I think at the heart of Christian life, for me at least.
And I think that the ways that we respond to God's patience are more extensive than we know. One of the great gifts to Christian communities has been, I think, the advent of feminist theology, black theology, and queer theology, which consistently tells the church and Christian communities that people should not get in the way of human flourishing, and people should not get in the way of flourishing that is brought about by the empowering patience of the Holy Spirit. That's a gospel moment. That's a Kairos moment, in which the possibilities of making good on God's patience are evermore expansive, evermore startling, and evermore rewarding if we take them up.
Thank you so much. I feel like I've learned a lot in this conversation.
Paul Dafydd Jones: Thank you.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: And may we take them up.
Paul Dafydd Jones: Thank you so much for this. This was a lot of fun for me.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: The fact is the human condition and exposure to sorrow, pain, to injustice. These things may get hard to be patient with God's patience. Nonetheless, each of us must consider the life-changing implications of God's steadfast forbearance with fallen creation and the long suffering of a God who patiently waits for a human response. With these reflections in hand, next week we'll shift our attention towards the human virtue of patience, examining how it moderates our passion responses to sorrow, finding surprising connections between patience, joy, and contemplation, and opening up toward an experiential theology that must comment on patience only from inside the struggle to receive it. Thanks for
Paul Dafydd Jones: listening.
Evan Rosa: For
Paul Dafydd Jones: the
Evan Rosa: Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologians, Paul Dafydd Jones, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz. Production assistants by Martin Chan and Nathan Jowers. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday with the occasional midweek. If you're new to the show, so glad that you found us. Remember to hit subscribe so you don't miss any episodes.
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