Over Christmas my wife and I, along with our two young children, spent a couple of weeks in the United Kingdom. We did a fair bit of travelling to visit family and friends, and it wasn’t always easy to get around. The London Underground posed a particular challenge for my eldest. At nearly five years of age, he was simultaneously thrilled and terrified by a feature of many Tube stations: long, long escalators, which carry travelers from the bright light of day into the unfathomable depths of the earth.
During the time I spent talking with him about escalators, explaining that they were neither a toy to be played with nor an occasion for abject fear, I caught sight of an intriguing safety poster. The poster is fairly British, and fairly weird. A harried businessman seems to be falling down the stairs, while his tie flaps around like a warning flag. The poster’s tagline provides wry commentary: “A little patience won’t hurt you.”
Sensible advice, surely, for those inclined to rush down escalators. But the poster also makes an inadvertent theological statement—or, more precisely, a theological understatement—that connects with my research for The Enhancing Life Project.
The basic hunch that animates my research is this: Patience is a starting point for Christians to think more deeply about God, the world, and the enhancement of life. If we can learn to think about God’s activity as an exercise of patience—and if we can understand our own lives as a patient reception of God’s gracious and transformative activity—then new frontiers open up before us. Some early theologians were particularly interested in patience: Tertullian of Carthage, Cyprian of Carthage, and Augustine of Hippo each wrote treatises about it. And it’s a theme that later writers have skillfully explored: Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Simone Weil are particularly important voices from the past. But more can and should be said. It’s not just that patience won’t hurt us; it’s also that patience is exactly the help we need in the present.
But isn’t the word patience unusually burdened with problematic meanings? Think of an abusive relationship, when someone is told to “put up with it,” to accept patiently the emotional and/or physical violence wrought upon her. Or consider a charged political context, when a long-marginalized community is told to wait for incremental change to take hold. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously exposed this ruse to maintain the status quo in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s fine to talk about the need for commuters to exercise patience, but is “patience” tainted goods when it comes to the business of theological reflection?
The critique is an important one, and it bears an important lesson. Religious language is never innocent, and certain terms have a particularly worrisome past. But, on the whole, it’s a mistake to allow misuses of words to set the terms for thought. That would mean letting problematic religious ideas and practices curtail constructive reflection in the present. What Christian theology—and, doubtless, other kinds of theology, too—brings to The Enhancing Life Project is the claim that terms which have been used and abused can be re-cast, put to work within a different frame of meaning, and ultimately contribute to a new kind of religious imaginary.
Think of it like this. Patience is a quality of God’s activity in the world, and it relates to the ways in which God’s purposes work themselves out—slowly and surely, unspectacularly but conclusively. It is exercised by God as God gives us time and space to respond to God’s gracious ways and works, and is vividly disclosed in God’s relationship with ancient Israel, in the person of Christ, and in the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit.
Human patience, complementarily, is a matter of responding to God by moving into the times and spaces that God provides with actions that honor God’s loving advance. When we are patient, we begin to make good on God’s patience: we turn away from wrongdoing, and we live in ways that honor God’s gracious and loving purposes.
Crucially, then, human patience has nothing to do with a meek forbearance of injustice. It’s not a willingness to put up and shut up. It is about rendering oneself susceptible to God’s transformative prompts—“waiting for God,” as the Christian philosopher Simone Weil put it—and embracing the fact that one’s identity is, by grace, progressively made and remade.
When human beings learn to exercise patience, we are no longer stuck in place. We need not suppose that what we have been is determinative of what we are, or what we will become. We are set in motion, launched towards a future that we cannot anticipate in advance. Indeed, our exercise of patience becomes a matter of “endurance”—but in the best sense imaginable. What we endure is the activity of the Spirit that propels us towards a life that is more rich, more vital, and—as Kristine A. Culp, one of my colleagues in The Enhancing Life Project, might say—better able to bear the weight of God’s glory.
And then a further possibility comes into view: learning how to exercise impatience. This would mean that we refuse calls to “wait” or “slow down” in the face of egregious instances of wrongdoing, opting instead to hurry towards a future marked by peace, justice, and care. The unwitting theologians at the London Underground publicity office mightn’t agree, but impatience is a necessary complement to patience. Our susceptibility to grace—our patience with God, as God transforms us into new creatures—must go hand-in-hand with a fierce commitment to the common good, a willingness to protest diverse forms of injustice, and a resolve to make the enhancement of life an ethical, social, and political project.
Read a Q&A with Paul Dafydd Jones about his research here.