Paul Dafydd Jones, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has been working with the concept of patience. From its theological significance to its policy implications to its role in enhancing life, it has proven fertile ground for reflection. Here, he discusses the balance between patience and impatience demanded by the realities of the world in which we live.
Tell us a little bit about your research for The Enhancing Life Project, and explain the public relevance of your research.
I'm writing a book on patience; the full title is "Patience: A Theological Experiment." The goal is to take a slightly marginal concept—not often an explicit motif in theological reflection, but not totally unheard of—and try to push it to the center of reflection in the context of Christian theology, and then to see what happens.
Now there's an interesting way in which the issue of patience seems to preoccupy many groups in society, through meditative or contemplative practices, through political organizing, and so on. And certainly Christians, more particularly, have often talked about patience—it’s a scriptural theme, obviously, but also, for better and sometimes for worse, an aspect of spiritual life, pastoral exhortation, ministerial counsel, and so on. Yet I’m inclined to think that we can’t really understand what human patience means, or should mean, without first understanding how God as such is patient, and how God exercises patience. Indeed, it’s only by thinking clearly about divine patience that one can make headway on what human patience means! So one aspect of the public relevance of my work is taking on a term which I think is out in the aether, and also part and parcel of various forms of Christian faith, and seeing if I can elucidate it in a rigorously theological way. The hope is that this will open up new possibilities for thought and action, which bear on the broad project of enhancing life.
Are there any specific policy implications that are tied to your research?
One thing that has caught my attention—and this forms a part of one of the chapters in my book—is connecting human patience with issues surrounding LGBTQI+ communities. One possible meaning of patience, I think, is individuals and communities showing themselves to be comfortable with change. Patience names that way that one suffers certain transformations, certain revisions and alterations to ourselves and others, under the pressure of grace. We “endure”—sometimes with gritted teeth, to be sure; sometimes with more mildness—in hopes that our identities might be made and remade, by God and by ourselves. How does this connect with LGBTQI+ issues? Well, if patience means being open to change, it may be that gender and sexuality are more open-ended, more fluid, than have sometimes been thought. And it may be that one way in which life is enhanced is through our undergoing various kinds of change, various kinds of transformation, such that we don’t really know what it will mean to be of a certain gender or a certain sex, or to have a certain sexuality (or sexualities), now or in the future. And if that's the case, legally and policy-wise we shouldn't be in the business of trying to police sexuality or gender or sex. There should be something of an open space so people can find out who they are and undergo the changes they undergo.
With that said, there are also times when it's crucial to be impatient—I’ve written about this in my blogpost. There are moments in history where people shouldn't say, "well, let's see how this all turns out, let's take it slow"; they should be restlessly opposing whatever's going on. So while it's important to be patient in some situations—say, when thinking about sexuality and gender—I also think it's very, very important to be impatient when there are conspicuous forms of injustice taking hold.
What was your Enhancing Life studies course about?
I taught a course for first-year undergraduates at the University of Virginia. The title of that course is "The Meaning of Love," which is kind of a grand title … but who doesn't want to take a course on love when you're 18 or 19? We don't do a massive amount of reading; it's just short excerpts for each class session. Still, it's hugely ambitious and broad. We begin with Plato, then read some passages from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, Augustine, some medieval mystics, some Shakespeare … all the way up through people like Sojourner Truth, Rilke, Martin Luther King, Jr., and bell hooks. In the fall of 2015, we ended with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me. The course is kind of similar to what I'm doing with the idea of patience in my academic work: using the central motif of love as a way to get at a huge number of philosophical, theological, ethical, literary issues.
It’s especially interesting that the class is an advising course as well as an academic course. It attempts to get the students to think: okay, so what do I want my life to look like, given that I've done all this work to get into a top-flight university—am I here just to get a well-paying job when I finish, or is the end goal something else? It's a useful way, in other words, for young people to begin to think about the shapes of their lives as they become adults: what, how, and why they love, and how that relates to the issue of enhancing life.
Were there any surprises during the course, either for you or for your students?
I think having the category of enhancing life always in my mind was surprisingly helpful for me. I didn't use it as a pedagogical tool explicitly, but it was a really helpful integrative perspective—a way of saying, in effect, how can we think about what these texts are doing? And, what kind of life are we being called to leave behind, or move towards? Some parts of the lexicon of The Enhancing Life Project—talking about an open future, or a counter-world—also gave the course more coherence than it would otherwise have had.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book was also really interesting, and really important, to teach. On one level, it’s a book which picks up a number of themes that the class had already considered throughout the semester—about religion, identity, desire, injustice, and discrimination in particular. On another level, it’s also very context-specific, which ensured that the good thinking that the students had been doing came down to earth. They were able to position the Ta-Nehisi Coates book in the context of enhancing life in the United States right now, and ask what this country should do about the tragedy of racism, past and present. I'm not sure I would have thought to teach that book were it not for The Enhancing Life Project; it pushed me to teach in a way that is relevant to the here-and-now. That was eye-opening for me, and I hope for the students, too.
Read Paul's blog post here.