In this paper, David Lauber proposes that a Christocentric conception of God’s patience with the world provides needed guidance in a Christian navigation of the darkness of the current secular age. Lauber uses the recent work of philosopher Charles Taylor, who characterizes the dark homelessness of this secular age. He also looks to the poetry and essays of Czeslaw Milosz, who articulates the anguish and anxiety that results from this homelessness, while pointing toward the hope of a Christological response. The paper concludes with Karl Barth’s explicitly theological account of God’s patience, which provides a conceptual articulation of hope in the face of dark homelessness and anguish. Mr. Lauber is Assistant Professor of Theology at Wheaton College.
In a 1990 article, “Humility, Hope and the Divine Slowness,” Richard J. Mouw relates an anecdote of a conversation among Evangelical and Roman Catholic scholars during an ecumenical consultation. During this conversation, the topic of “creation science” came up, and as Mouw tells the story, the Roman Catholics had great difficulty grasping the attraction of the “creation science” position of a literal six-day creation. Mouw writes,
Finally one Catholic scholar threw her hands up in despair, exclaiming in an agitated voice,“Don’t these people realize that God likes to do things slowly?” Her rhetorical question brought the issues into sharp focus for me. What she took for granted is precisely what many of my evangelical kinfolk do not realize; they insist that God likes to work fast.1
As Mouw reflects on the clarity he gained from this exchange, he proposes that attention to the slowness or patience of God by evangelical theologians will contribute to faithful and fruitful reflection on modern developments in cosmology and the seemingly unfathomable age of the universe.
Following Mouw’s suggestion, the main argument of this essay is that theological reflection on divine patience as related to creation, providence, and redemption is a significant way to address specific developments that call into question our place, meaning, and purpose in the universe. We will utilize Christian figures from distinct disciplines—philosophy (Charles Taylor), literature (Czeslaw Milosz and W. H. Auden) and theology (Karl Barth)—in order to describe changes in cosmology and their effects on belief in our contemporary age, to portray the effects of these changes on the self–understanding of people and their understanding of the world, and to offer a distinct theological account of addressing the challenges of these changes. Attention paid to divine patience will, in the words of W. H. Auden, contribute to believing again in this present age. Auden writes,
Every Christian has to make the transition from the child’s “We believe still” to the adult’s “I believe again.” This cannot have been easy to make at any time, and in our age it is rarely made, it would seem, without a hiatus of unbelief.2
Auden’s insistence on believing again as an adult as opposed to believing still like a child induces us to face squarely these far-reaching changes in cosmology. It simply will not do to ignore the questions raised by these changes. In order to reflect faithfully on God, creation, and God’s relating to his creatures, we must incorporate these cosmological changes. I will argue that the affirmation of God’s patience enables Christian faith to confront existence in a universe that is amazingly old—12 to 14 billion years—and perplexingly vast. Divine patience enables us to have a real sense of place and home in this vast and unfathomable universe, even given the brevity of our existence.
The Dark and Remarkable Achievement of Exclusive Humanism
Charles Taylor concludes his wide-ranging and complex narrative of the rise of unbelief in our present age with a concise statement of the way things are and a pithy evaluation of this development:
A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world as entirely immanent. In some respects, we may judge this achievement as a victory for darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.3
In experiencing this world as entirely immanent, the present race of humans inhabits a world marked by the absence and silence of God. This Godlessness results from the extension of both spatial and temporal limits. The outer limits of the universe appear to be boundless and take the form of pure darkness, while the increasing inconceivability of time is marked by the darkness of innumerable eons that precede the curious emergence of the human race. The extension of time confronts humanity with the disquieting judgment that human existence is accidental, transitory, and surpassable.
One way in which Taylor accounts for the increasing prevalence and acceptability of unbelief in the nineteenth century is the progression of the shift from cosmos to universe, a shift that began in the seventeenth century. By the mid to late nineteenth century, we no longer viewed ourselves as living in a cosmos, in which we have a meaningful and relatively permanent and prominent place. We came to view ourselves as merely being included, by chance, in a universe that is ordered by observable, exception less natural laws and not by an order that is patently meaningful for humanity. Unlike a cosmos, which manifests contours of intelligible limits and boundaries, both in terms of a defined history with a beginning and an anticipated end and in terms of space with real demarcations, the universe that we now happen to inhabit appears to be limitless in its vastness. Taylor writes:
Our sense of the universe now is precisely defined by the vast and the unfathomable: vastness in space, and above all in time; unfathomability in the long chain of changes out of which present forms evolve. But what is unprecedented in human history, there is no long era clear and obvious sense that this vastness is shaped and limited by an antecedent plan….Our present sense of things fails to touch bottom anywhere.4
We no longer have a definite place in this new boundless universe, as our “planet, our solar system is set in a galaxy, which is one of an as yet uncounted number of galaxies.”5 More significant for the rise and solidification of unbelief, in Taylor’s estimation, is the inscrutability of time and the disappearance of a confident sense of the commencement of human history.6 We no longer have an ascertainable beginning, as “our origins go back into the mists of evolutionary time, so that we become unclear as to what could count as the beginning of our human story.”7 No longer able to report on the successive events of the past, we are confronted by the darkness of time and by the realization that we live in a mere moment of very recent time. We are faced with the prospect that we are transitory and impermanent, a mere fleeting stage in the development of animal life.
The shift from cosmos to universe is also accompanied by a shift from sacred time, which is governed and guided by God’s purpose from creation to consummation, to the duration of purely secular time and directionless evolutionary change. In a world of mere successive moments, eras, and eons, the notion of a human or universal history guided by God understood as a personal agent is lost. We are left with a menacing impersonal universe in its place. “The vast universe,” Taylor writes, “in which one could easily feel no sense of a personal God or a benign purpose, seemed to be impersonal in the most forbidding sense, blind and indifferent to our fate.”8
The widespread sense of impersonality and pure secular time also strips the world of meaning that was gleaned from the biblical story of God as the world’s creator and the world as God’s creation. In the context of this story, “what God created had… a meaning, even as the words do which we produce.”9 In the move from cosmos to universe, sacred time to pure secular time, signs and correspondences are abandoned by the new science in its disenchanting fight against idolatry. The new science, according to Taylor, propounded “a literal account of physical reality, seen as a domain of as emeiotic things.”10
Exclusive humanism is a remarkable achievement, because it involves the disenchantment of the world and the overcoming of superstition. It presents humanity with a real alternative to belief, and creates a world in which belief is no longer the default position. It is a dark achievement or a victory for darkness, because it leads to the displacement of humanity and produces great anxiety that all we have is our own construction of truth, meaning, place, and purpose.
Poetry, Belief and Our Place in the World
In his 2000 article “Where Are We Now?: Some Elemental Cosmological Considerations,” Walter Ong offers insightful reflections on the relationship between Christian revelation and contemporary cosmology. According to Ong, reflection of this sort has been woefully lacking by Christian believers of all stripes. Inattention to the pressing theological questions that are raised by the knowledge of a 12 to 14 billon-year-old universe is not simply unfortunate, it is inexcusable. Ong insists, “The globe on which we live is part of God’s creation. Christian faith must include what we now know of the size and age of God’s creation. It is suicidal not to take account of this knowledge, to talk and act as though it were not there.”11 Poetry clearly makes a significant contribution to this reflection and discussion. Poets such as Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden and Czeslaw Milosz give eloquent, challenging and hopeful voice to the various ways in which drastic scientific and cosmological changes register in the hearts and minds of people, and the questions of belief these changes raise. In this essay we will focus our attention on the poems and essays of Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz is an astute observer of the potentially devastating effect of scientific changes on Christian belief. He struggles with these effects and emerges as a person of faith who is not immune to genuine doubt. In the end, however, Milosz advocates a Christological response to these developments.
Milosz, in his essays and poems, wrestles with the drastic changes brought on in the last three centuries in cosmology, the place of humanity in the world, and the meaning of history from the vantage point of Christian faith. In “Why Religion?,” his apology for addressing theological themes in his essays and poetry, Milosz makes a sweeping assessment of the dramatic changes which took place in the twentieth century:
In my lifetime Heaven and Hell disappeared, the belief in life after death was considerably weakened, the borderline between man and animals, once so clear, ceased to be obvious under the impact of the theory of evolution, the notion of absolute truth lost its supreme position, history directed by Providence started to look like a field of battle between blind forces. After two thousand years in which a huge edifice of creeds and dogmas has been erected, from Origen and Saint Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman, when every work of the human mind and of human hands was created within a system of reference, the age of homelessness has dawned.12
Here Milosz recounts a tale similar to that told by Taylor. The limits of the cosmos as depicted in the biblical narrative have been dismantled, and the coherence of a world guided toward a specific end by God as a personal agent in history has been replaced by a dark and enigmatic world of impersonal forces moving toward an indefinite and indifferent end. We have been evicted from various familiar structures constructed by great theological minds after the widely accepted pattern of the biblical story. We are now homeless and wander as tourists who look with fleeting interest on these quaint systems of reference that mark our childhood, an age long past.13
Science is thought to strip us of our delusions and to expose as fiction the long-held story of Christian proclamation and teaching. Milosz, however, will not allow this assertion of scientific explanation to stand uncontested. In his poem “Scientists,”14 Milosz questions both the motives and the benefits of science. “Science is concerned to deprive us of illusions. Though why it is eager to do so is unclear.” Though advances in science are regularly touted as progress, Milosz wonders whether the destructive consequences of the vision of “The battles among genes, traits that secure success, gains and losses” are underestimated and softened in the name of objective observation. Human atrocities are not restricted to the wanton and irrational actions of deluded religious fanatics, and the displacement of God is no guarantee in the maintaining of civilization. Speaking of the champions of modern science, Milosz continues, “It was, after all, their idea:/ To segregate rats in separate cages./ To segregate humans, write off as a genetic loss/Some of their own species and poison them.”
From science we learn that “the evolution of life on earth does not allow us to draw a boundary between man and other mammalian species.” And, “History is not a gradual fulfillment of the Divinity’s intentions, and good and evil possess no metaphysical foundation.”15 This inability to differentiate between humans and other animals, be they other mammals or flies and cockroaches,16 and the elimination of the personal intervention of God to uphold and to punish, leaves us with no guard against what was once unthinkable brutality, but now is an all too common occurrence. In tracing the horrors of the twentieth century, Milosz writes:
An important difference between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries probably derives from the crossing of a certain threshold: things too atrocious to think of did not seem possible. But, beginning in 1914, they proved to be more and more possible. A discovery has been made that “civilizations are mortal.” Thus there is nothing to protect Western civilization from plunging into chaos and barbarity. The state of savagery, which seemed to belong to the remote past, returned as the tribal rituals of totalitarian states…. Like a child who finds out that fire burns fingers and that the sharp edge of a table if struck causes pain, mankind encountered naked data that were connected according to the law of cause and effect, and without any divine protection now to guarantee a favorable outcome.17
Although there is persistent protest against the numerous instances of torture, these shouts, for Milosz, are not heard by anyone other than the protestors. And in a world of “naked data” in which necessity and chance rule the blind law of cause and effect, we are wandering without a permanent place or home, seeking in vain for comfort. For Milosz, “the twentieth century is a purgatory in which the imagination must manage without the relief that satisfies one of the essential needs of the human heart, the need for protection.”18
Milosz recognizes the “remarkable achievement” of the rise of a human race which experiences the world as entirely immanent, and realizes that we cannot attempt to retreat to a prior age unconstrained by the threats of vast and limitless time and space and the seemingly arbitrary movement of evolutionary change. At the same time, however, we must not allow scientific advances to exclude the exploration of the effect of faith on our understanding of human existence. “Let scientists describe the origin of life,” Milosz writes in his poem “Either–Or,” which he follows with the less than fully convinced response, “Perhaps it’s true, but is all that for human beings?”19
It is, however, the second aspect of Taylor’s assessment that garners the most attention by Milosz, namely, that this achievement designates a victory for darkness. In his poem “Temptation,” Milosz deems the achievement, which is recounted by Taylor as dark yet remarkable, as a temptation by the adversary.
Under a starry sky I was taking a walk, On a ridge overlooking neon cities, With my companion, the spirit of desolation, Who was running around and sermonizing, Saying that I was not necessary, for if not I, then someone else Would be walking here, trying to understand his age. Had I died long ago nothing would have changed. The same stars, cities, and countries Would have been seen with other eyes. The world and its labors would go on as they do.20
God has been displaced, and the world is no longer considered to be the site of God’s action. A world with limits, a beginning and an end as determined by God and his purpose for his creation has been replaced by a limitless and unstable world of indifferent and indefinite evolutionary development. This new world poses a destructive threat to the significance of humanity in general, as the distinction between humanity and other animals is blurred. Moreover, it is an even greater threat to the particularity of the individual. Individuals are contingent not only in the truthful sense that we need not exist and owe our coming into existence and our remaining in existence to the activity and good pleasure of God. In our contemporary world, individuals are also contingent to the point of being pure accidents and utterly insignificant. This is dark indeed, and Milosz rightly sees it as a diabolical temptation, which enslaves humanity in desolation. As Colin Gunton astutely observes in his treatment of the threat to individuality and particularity in modernity, “the displacement of God does not and has not given freedom and dignity to the many, but has subjected us to new and often unrecognized forms of slavery,” so that “when God is no longer the one who holds things together, demons rush in to fill his place. An impersonal one replaces the despised one of traditional theism, and the slavery is greater than before.”21
Closely related to the displacement of God then, for Milosz, is the displacement of humanity in modernity. The modern evolutionary vision of human existence as accidental and arbitrary means that history has a random beginning and no determined end; humanity’s history “goes from nowhere to nowhere.”22 Furthermore, humanity has no permanent place to inhabit, nor ground upon which to stand. As Milosz writes in his essay “Religion and Space,” “the Earth, instead of being a stable, solid foundation, slips out from beneath my feet.”23 As we have seen already, in modernity “our present sense of things fails to touch bottom anywhere,”24 and the age of homelessness has dawned.
Milosz responds to the dark temptation of the adversary, the “spirit of desolation,” in the only viable way, with a rebuke. “For Christ’s sake, get away from me./You’ve tormented me enough.”25 Milosz appeals to the particular reality of the incarnation, the name of Jesus Christ, to rebuff the advances of the tempter. It is God’s presence and action in Jesus Christ, in particular his death and resurrection, that ensure the value of humanity in general, but even more considerably the significance of individual human persons in their irreplaceable contingency and history. If evolutionary science tells us that history “goes from nowhere to nowhere,” the reality of Jesus Christ tells us that all things and all persons have value and meaning. The meaning that is found in relation to Jesus Christ extends also to the movement and development of history itself. Milosz begins the poem “Either–Or”with the following confession:
If God incarnated himself in man, died and rose from the dead,
All human endeavors deserve attention
Only to the degree that they depend on this,
I.e., acquire meaning thanks to this event.
We should think of this by day and by night.
Every day, for years, ever stronger and deeper.
And most of all about how human history is holy
And how every deed of ours becomes a part of it,
Is written down for ever, and nothing is ever lost.26
The person and event of Jesus Christ provide, in Václav Havel’s term, the coordinates to which all human and worldly endeavors and events make reference and acquire meaning. Milosz’s insistence upon perpetual reflection on this event, “by day and by night”/ Every day, for years…” counters the forgetfulness and short memory of modernity.
In drawing our attention back to the reality of the incarnation, Milosz narrows his focus to the reality of the death of Jesus. An anti–Gnostic affirmation of the physical reality of Jesus, including his real, public and horrific death, supports an affirmation of physical existence, of life. Not only does the reality of Jesus’ death enable us to find meaning in human death, which is not possible in the thoroughly evolutionary account of the place of the individual, but also Jesus’ death provides comfort in a world of severe suffering and unimaginable atrocities. In turning its gaze away from Jesus as the crucified one, the modern world speaks its judgment to the inconvenience of death and refuses to remember that Jesus not only taught his followers; he died a scandalous death as well. Milosz points out this forgetfulness, and in so doing exposes what is lost by this deliberate failure of memory. “Yet the man from the town of Nazareth/ …was not a spirit./ His body, stretched on the tree of shame,/ Suffered real torture, about which we try every day to forget.”27
In “A Poem for the End of the Century,” Milosz professes the identity of the man from Nazareth, and it is this identity of divine/human unity that makes the event of Jesus’ life, and especially his death, decisive for all humanity and all history.
Don’t think, don’t remember
The death on the cross,
Though every day He dies,
the only one, all–loving,
Who without any need
Consented and allowed
To exist all that is,Including nails of torture.28
The one who was executed on the cross is the one God who freely and lovingly creates all things, and in creating all things, consents and allows all things to exist, even the instruments used in the diabolical horrors that humans inflict upon each other. If Jesus is a mere righteous, even innocent, human person, then his death is in vain and human pain and suffering are meaningless and irredeemable. Further-more, in his poetic reflection on the importance of the debate and declaration of the council of Nicaea, Milosz commends meditating again and again on the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity, for without this mystery of the Trinity:
The blood of man would have been alien to the blood of the universe
And the spilling of His own blood by a suffering God, who offered
As a sacrifice even as He was creating the world, would have been
Here Milosz rightly sees that the Trinitarian being of God points to an incarnational Christology, which, in turn, enables us to affirm that embodied human beings belong to the universe. We are not aliens wandering aimlessly in a hostile world. Moreover, in these brief lines Milosz astutely links together creation and redemption. It is by seeing the inseparability of God’s act of creation and his self-sacrificial act of redemption that we can recognize and affirm humanity’s place in the history of this world. Without this, we can only answer “no” to Milosz’s concluding question, “And us, do we know what we are destined for?”30
We see in the poetry and essays of Milosz that a proper response to the developments in modernity need not include a frontal attack against the expanding vastness of time and space. By recalling the reality of the death and resurrection ofJesus to our memory today, Milosz sets meditation on the particularity of the incarnation as the only basis for the possibility of believing again in the present age. Moreover, by focusing on the incarnation and recalling Paul’s affirmation that all things were created in Christ, through Christ and for Christ, and that all things hold together in Christ (Colossians 1:15-17), we see that a robust account of the doctrine of creation also contributes vitally to belief and a sense of place and meaning in the world.
Although Milosz acknowledges the “remarkable achievement” of modernity and does not evade making the unpopular religious or theological judgment that this is a victory of darkness, he is not without hope. In other words, Milosz does not see this achievement of sheer immanence as an affront against God and outside of his providential plan. God has not been muzzled; rather, the developments in modernity, for Milosz, are an indication of the silence of God. He begins the poem “Oeconomia Divina” with the following assessment of his age:
I did not expect to live in such an unusual moment.
When the God of thunders and of rocky heights,
the Lord of hosts, Kyrios Sabaoth,
would humble people to the quick,
allowing them to act whatever way they wished,
leaving to them conclusions, saying nothing.31
By viewing the developments in modernity, including the silence and seeming absence of God, in terms of God’s allowing humanity to act in the ways of their own choosing and to draw conclusions from their own reasoning, we can consider the apparent victory for darkness in modernity as only a temporary victory, an episode in God’s providential relating to creation. This apparent victory for darkness is an aspect of the “risk” of God’s act of creation, but it is firmly within God’s control. Finally, it is in Milosz’s call for renewed attention to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that we see the true victory of God, the victory of light over darkness.
God’s Patient Relation with his Creatures
Following from Taylor ’s compelling description of vast cosmological changes in modernity and Milosz’s eloquent depiction of the profound effect of these changes on human self-understanding and view of the world, as well as his Trinitarian and Christological response, we now turn to an explicitly theological account of God’s patience as a way of meeting the challenges to belief brought about by these changes.
When contemporary theologians address the topic of God’s patience, Karl Barthis generally the first person mentioned.33
We define God’s patience as His will, deep-rooted in His essence and constituting His divine being and action, to allow to another—for the sake of His own grace and mercy and in the affirmation of His holiness and justice—space and time for the development of its own existence, thus conceding to this existence a reality side by side with His own, and fulfilling His will towards this other in such a way that He does not suspend and destroy it as this other but accompanies and sustains it and allows it to develop in freedom.34
Patience defines and describes the way in which God relates to his creatures, by granting existence to another, that which is not divine, and by allowing this other to develop in its own way and in its own time. God, however, does not leave his creatures alone, as if they exist and develop apart from God, in sheer freedom and independence. Nor does God relate to and interact with his creatures in a coercive and deterministic manner. Rather, driven by his essential patience, which characterizes his very being and action, God relates to his creatures by leading them to the telos that, in his perfect will, he has intended for them. And he does so, not by compromising creaturely freedom, but by, in his own freedom, accompanying and sustaining his creatures so that they can reach his intention for them in their own genuine, creaturely freedom.
By “conceding to this existence a reality side by side with his own,” God not only gives time and space to creation; more significantly, God “risks” the possibility that his creatures will misuse their freedom and, as a result of sin and evil, experience the world “chosen, created and decreed by God” as a “pathless, barren, monstrous and evil cosmos.”35 This is a possibility, because in creation God posits a creaturely freedom that is distinct from his own freedom. In acknowledging the reality of human, creaturely freedom, the misuse of which leads to chaos and evil, Barth is adamant that this is a “risk” well within God’s control. While the world that he created can and does turn against him, both forgetting and despising the declaration of his Word that the world is divinely chosen, created and directed,God can and does remain bound to the world by his Word.36
The patient action of God toward his creatures manifests the interweaving of God’s judgment and God’s grace, God’s wrath and God’s mercy. God is gracious in that in his freedom and love, God gives time and space for his creatures to develop in freedom. God’s judgment is seen in God’s giving his creatures up to the lusts of their hearts, to degrading passions and to a debased mind (Romans 1:24,26 and 28). God also gave humanity up to the conclusion of their own minds that their existence is utterly immanent. Here we see the dark, yet remarkable achievement described by Taylor. This is a remarkable achievement because it is indicative of the progression made by human reason and scientific exploration. It is a victory for darkness, because it includes the alienation and displacement of the human creature. It is the “coming of age” of humanity, yet in the quest for liberation from the tyranny of authority, tradition and the long–held conviction that God is an active agent guiding history toward a particular end, humanity finds itself enslaved to meaninglessness and homelessness. Given the mercy of God, however, we see that, according to Barth, this victory for darkness is real, but temporary, the result of the non–divine freedom of the creature, but not outside of God’s care and control. Barth in no way underestimates or minimizes the heinous character of human violence and atrocities, but he will not let the horrors of chaos and evil have the last word. In his exegesis of Genesis 1:5 in Church Dogmatics III/1, Barth, in characteristic form, holds together creation and new creation, as the story moves from the light of creation to the darkness of sin and then back to the light of eschatological new creation. There is day, and then there is night, but night is not unending as the world returns to the dawn of morning again. Or to put it another way, for Barth, night “is not eternal night;” rather, “it is only a fleeting triumph of darkness.” As such, this night is indeed a threat to humanity, though it is incapable of destroying humanity, for it is completely under God’s control.37
It is in God’s patient and non-coercive relating to the world that God allows the world to move toward a nameless lack of meaning and the nature less existence of humanity conceived as one chance inhabitant of an arbitrary world, indistinguishable from other inhabitants. For Barth, God’s power and glory are present just as much in his seeming withdrawal from the world, when he allows it to go its own way into the darkness of night, as they are present in the bright light of creation and eschatological consummation.38
God exhibits his patience in giving time and space to his creatures, and God is patient as he sustains the world, even, or especially, the sinful world in its darkness of rebellion. God is patient in these ways, because God creates the world with particular intentions, and God commits himself to these intentions and purposively and non-coercively moves the world to the fulfillment of these intentions. Here we see, then, that a full and proper understanding of God’s patience hinges upon the centrality and decisiveness of Jesus Christ, for it is in, through and for Jesus Christ that all things have been made, and it is in, through, and from Jesus Christ that all things are redeemed (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:15–20).
If we center our attention on God’s presence and action in Jesus Christ, we can acknowledge the absence and silence of God in modernity’s achievement of existing in a world of utter immanence, while upholding belief in God’s sustaining and guiding action. We can do so because we do not have to interpret God’s silence asGod’s callous and disinterested withdrawal from the world. By centering on Jesus Christ, we can interpret God’s silence and seeming absence as the interplay of God’s judgment and grace; God’s judgment of human alienation and redemption, and God’s grace in that he gives time and space for reconciliation, repentance, and redemption. Furthermore, it is only by centering our focus on Jesus Christ that we can see the hopeful effectiveness of God’s patient relating to the world. Without God’s saving presence in Jesus Christ, his waiting on the world would be in vain. In the light of his saving presence in Jesus Christ, God’s waiting on the world remains determined by his own action and will.
In the following passage, Barth clarifies the meaning of God’s patience, which is focused on the person and saving work of Jesus Christ:
God’s patience does not leave man to his own devices. His jealous zeal in and for the creature cannot be more powerfully manifested than in the incarnation of His Word. He has espoused the cause of the creature to the final depths. From this point of view the divine patience certainly cannot consist in an indifferent self–withdrawal of God in relation to its being, action and destiny. If He allows the many to go their own ways, if He leaves them to their freedom, if He gives continual time (and food for it), if through it all He constantly waits for them, He does so for the simple reason that He has already overtaken them in the One, His only Son, that in Him He has already walked with them in His own way and at His own time, and to the very end. He does so because, in the One in whom He has given Himself utterly to all, they have already fallen into His hand. He does so because this One stands in place of them all and for them all has accomplished the genuine penitence which was expected from all. For the sake of this One, God has patience with the many.39
This passage is saturated with insights into God’s character, the contemporary human situation of alienation from God, the saving life and work of Jesus Christ, which manifests God’s identity, and the reconciled and redeemed future of humanity. God’s patient allowance of time, space, and freedom to his creatures in no way indicates indifferent inaction; rather, properly understood, it demonstrates God’s constant commitment to his creatures. By speaking of God’s patience in terms of God’s providential relating to his creatures, we see that God guides in a way that is sovereign and sure, but does not coerce the creature or disregard the creature’s integrity, agency, and freedom. Barth considers the idea of divine patience as providing an “enrichment, a clarification and an intensification of the idea of [God’s]mercy, which is itself to be understood in an active and dynamic sense.”40 Whereas God’s mercy speaks to God’s “readiness to share in sympathy the distress of another,”41 God’s patience, as a qualification of God’s mercy, speaks to the way in which God “takes up the cause of the creature”42 without replacing the creature or overriding the creature’s freedom and integrity. We must also note Barth’s insistence that although humanity has turned from God, is alienated from God, and has let go of God’s hand, God has never nor will ever turn away from humanity or stand alienated from humanity. Even in humanity’s condition of sin and evil, humanity is firmly in the grasp of God’s hand, and we can trust this because God has given himself to humanity and, for the sake of humanity, in Christ he has taken upon himself the full consequences of sin. Finally, Barth makes it very clear that God’s patience with his sinful and rebellious creatures is not due to his positive and hopeful attitude toward human possibility. God does not give time to his creatures because he is betting on the fact that they will someday turn back to him, exhibit true penitence, and take up a life of obedience. God gives time to his creatures because of the reconciling and redeeming life and work of Jesus Christ, which includes genuine human obedience and penitence. It is because of Jesus’ obedience and penitence on behalf of all sinful human disobedience that God is patient and that there is real hope for humanity and the world.
Conclusion: God’s Patience and Meaning in History, Hope in Suffering
Renewed attention to the patience of God, as manifested in the life and saving work of Jesus Christ, contributes to the possibility of belief today—belief in our place and our meaning in a vast universe. It contributes to believing again over and against believing still in that the theological judgment regarding the effect of the patience of God on our understanding of the world, human existence and the future for and of humanity is just that, a theological judgment. In a world in which unbelief is a real possibility and living in the absence of God is readily imaginable, a life of belief depends upon the reality of the incarnation and faith, which is a gift of divine grace. In a world marked by incomprehensible vastness in terms of time and space, and by seeming arbitrary and meaningless evolutionary change, the possibility of belief depends not upon a direct challenge to or rejection of changes in cosmology. Rather, believing again in the face of these sweeping changes is best supported by renewed attention to the revelation of God and the reality of the incarnation.
A related benefit of focusing on the patience of God is the possibility of upholding the significance of history, both universal and personal, by giving a thoroughly Christian account of the world and its history. By insisting on the reality of God’s activity in the world, as focused on the incarnation, we emphasize both the particular identity of God as triune and the importance of history. As Barth writes,
The aim of creation is history. This follows decisively from the fact that God the Creator is the triune God who acts and who reveals Himself in history. God wills and God creates the creature for the sake of His Son or Word and therefore in harmony with Himself; and for His own supreme glory and therefore in the Holy Spirit.43
The triune God relates to the world in such a way that historical movements and developments are given value, and the idea of divine patience gives precision to the understanding of the way in which God relates to the world and is active within the world. Barth describes the history of the covenant of grace as “the sequence of events for the sake of which God has patience with the creature and with its creation gives it time—time which acquires content through these events and which is finally to be ‘fulfilled’ and made ripe for its end by their conclusion.”44
Divine patience also enables us to affirm the goodness of the world and its meaning, value, and purpose, because of the judgment of God. Rather than depending upon the discovery of meaning that is purely immanent, or, more commonly in our age, relying upon the human construction of meaning, by concentrating on God’s patient relating to the world we receive the evaluative judgment of God. This judgment is heard in the refrain of God’s declaration in the creation account in Genesis 1 that God saw what he had made and that it was good. Furthermore, we see and hear this judgment regarding the worth of the world in the life and work of Jesus Christ. In contrast to the anxiety that results from basing one’s judgment solely upon human rationality, creativity, or will, the Christian affirmation of the goodness of the world stands upon the trustworthiness of the judgment and perception of God. This trustworthiness is manifest in God’s patient relating to the world.
Furthermore, we can affirm God’s providential relation to the world in terms of patient preservation, because God upholds the world by his Word (Hebrews 1:3). God sustains and preserves the world as a demonstration of his eternal faithfulness, and it is this preservation and faithfulness that manifests God’s value for the world, which, in turn, gives the world real value. Again, it is God’s relating to the world that grounds our affirmation of human, worldly existence, even in the face of the seeming insignificance of humans who inhabit a tiny planet in the vast expanse of innumerable galaxies for but a fleeting instant in the overwhelming duration of cosmological and evolutionary time. It is by God’s patient relating to the world as seen in the life and work of Jesus Christ that we are able to acknowledge the limitations and contingency of transitory human existence while affirming its goodness and meaning. In his patience, God gives time to his creatures to become and develop, and, furthermore, he preserves his creatures from destruction. God does this “by Himself becoming man in His Son, by constituting Himself in the Son its Foundation and Deliverer and Head.”45 Barth continues by bearing witness to the value of the world even in the face of its seeming insignificance:[God] took to Himself that transitory speck of dust in order that in that restricted and mean and insignificant setting He might give to the covenant of grace its history. And He gave to that transitory speck temporal duration as the setting of that history. Its limitations do not involve its destruction because God preserves it in those limitations.46
Finally, faced with the atrocities of war, torture, genocide and countless instances of oppression and suffering, which understandably lead many to the unsettling conclusion that God is powerless or indifferent, and others to a complete rejection of God, God’s patient relating to the world, which is grounded on the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, enables one to venture to believe again. In Jesus Christ, we see that God has walked with his creatures “to the very end” of death, and not simply biological death, but death experienced in the horror of God’s silence and his abandonment. God participates in our affliction, suffering, and pain, and as such enacts his saving and perfecting will for us. God’s patience speaks to his saving identification with us, his merciful intervention for sinful humanity by, in Jesus Christ, acting in our place and on our behalf. Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross of Good Friday, and the deafening silence of Saturday when the dead Jesus has been silenced, reveal to us that even when we feel the absence of God and experience his silence, we are, in fact, not alone. The patience of God gives us hope in the midst of darkness and suffering, for in his faithfulness the patient God will not give up on his creatures, will not abandon us to darkness, destruction and annihilation. God is patient in that God is the God of salvation and life. It is in the patient, saving will and action of God that we must place our trust, even, or especially, in the face of the darkness of human suffering, pain, and death.
God’s patience is an essential, though often neglected or overlooked, element of the Gospel. As such, it is a part of what the church has to offer an unbelieving world in its invitation to believe again. Moreover, close attention to God’s patience will enable the church to reflect more faithfully on God’s presence and action in the world, and to grasp the profound effects of the affirmation that God acts slowly; God takes time; God has time for his creatures and makes time for his creatures. God acts in this fashion not because of inattentive indifference, but because of the strength of his resolve to bring his creatures to saving perfection. The basic suggestion of this essay is that the contemporary church and her theology heed Peter’s admonition and word of encouragement:
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance(2 Peter 3:8–9 New Revised Standard Version).
Cite this article
- Richard J. Mouw, “Humility, Hope and the Divine Slowness,” The Christian Century 107(April 11, 1990): 366.
- Auden as quoted in Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity (New Haven, CT and London:Yale University Press, 2005), 7-8. We see that for Auden, in order to have mature belief today, one must acknowledge that unbelief is a real possibility and perhaps an apparent necessity so as not to rely upon a comfortable naiveté. This is echoed by Czeslaw Milosz in his reflection on the fragility of his own faith. “My piety would shame me,” Milosz writes, “if it meantI possessed something others did not. Mine, however, is a piety without a home; it survives the obsessive, annihilating image of universal disjointedness, and fortunately, allows me no safe superiority.” Czeslaw Milosz, “Religion and Space,” in To Begin Where I Am: SelectedEssays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 224.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of HarvardUniversity Press, 2007), 376.
- Ibid., 325.
- Ibid., 60
- While there is a darkness associated with the enormity of the universe, according to Taylor, there is a disquieting darkness to the expanse of time. “The immense universe of galaxies can indeed, be thought of as dark, insofar as most of it is empty; but it can also be thought of as lit up by the countless stars. The countless aeons of time which lie behind us are dark in another sense; in attempting to explore them we meet the twilight of our own dawn, and then beyond that the night from which we conscious – light-bearing – animals emerged.”Ibid., 326.
- Ibid., 60.
- Ibid., 363. Czeslaw Milosz sees the threat of evolution to the meaning of the individual clearly as he writes, “Nature in its incredible prodigality, producing the billions of creatures necessary to maintain the species, is absolutely indifferent to the fate of the individual. Once integrated into Nature, man also changes into a statistical cipher and becomes expendable.This erosion touches every human being’s perception of life in terms of salvation and dam-nation. It is as if one image of life, the traditional image, were covered by another, the scientific, thus producing the constant anxiety that arises when the mind cannot cope with contradictions and reproaches itself for inconsistency.” Czeslaw Milosz, “The Lesson of Biology,” in The Witness of Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 43.
- Taylor, A Secular Age, 325.
- Ibid., 330.
- Walter Ong, S. J., “Where Are We Now? Some Elemental Cosmological Considerations,”Christianity and Literature 50 (2000): 11-12.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Why Religion?” in To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar,Straus and Giroux, 2001), 329-330.
- Václav Havel describes the loss of God in the modern world as fragmentation, a loss ofcoordinates in which previously we could affirm coherence to the world and the relation ofeverything. “I believe that with the loss of God,” Havel writes, “man has lost a kind ofabsolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything,chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate,incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates…” quoted in ColinGunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cam-bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 71.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Scientists,” in Second Space: New Poems, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Rob-ert Hass (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 25.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Against Incomprehensible Poetry,” in To Begin Where I Am, 375.
- See Milosz, “The Lesson of Biology,” in The Witness of Poetry, 52.
- Ibid., 51-52.
- Ibid., 53.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Either–Or,” in New and Collected Poems: 1931–2001 (New York:HarperCollins, 2001), 541.
- Ibid., 342.
- Gunton, The One, The Three and the Many, 29 and 36.
- Milosz, “Either–Or,” in New and Collected Poems, 540. Or as he writes in the poem “Oeconomia Divina,” “Dispossessed of its objects, space was swarming. Everywhere was nowhere and nowhere, everywhere.” in New and Collected Poems, 263.
- Milosz, “Religion and Space,” in To Begin Where I Am, 221.
- Taylor, A Secular Age, 325.
- Milosz, “Temptation,” in New and Collected Poems, 342.
- Milosz, “Either–Or,” in New and Collected Poems, 540.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Father Severinus: 5. Caravels,” in Second Space, 40.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “A Poem for the End of the Century,” in New and Collected Poems, 546-547.
- Milosz, “Father Severinus: 11. Emperor Constantine,” in Second Space, 43.
- Milosz, “Oeconomia Divina,” in New and Collected Poems, 263.
- See David Baily Harned, Patience: How We Wait Upon the World (Cambridge and Boston,MA: Cowley, 1997); and Rachel Muers, “The Silence of God and the Patience of God,” Modern Theology 17 (2001): 85-98.32 Colin Gunton regards the following definition of divine patience by Barth as “incomparable”:
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume II, part 1, “The Doctrine of God,” eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 409-410.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume III, part 1, “The Doctrine of Creation,” eds. G. W.Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958), 109.
- Barth writes, “This is the undeniable risk which God took upon Himself in the venture of creation—but a risk for which He was more than a match and thus did not need to fear.”Ibid.
- Ibid., 132.
- According to Barth, we cannot apply here any notion that God is powerful in his action, yet somehow weak in his inaction. Rather, God is equally powerful in his overt action and in his patient forbearance. Barth writes, “It is to be noted that God is not more powerful in His action than in His forbearance from action. Indeed there is no antithesis here: God’s forbearance is only a specific form of His always powerful doing and being. God is therefore no less effective in His patience than in His grace and mercy, than in His holy and just wrath which includes His grace and mercy.” Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume II, part 1, 410.
- Ibid., 418.
- Ibid., 411.
- Ibid., 369.
- Ibid., 411.
- Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume III, part 1, 59.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume III part 3, “The Doctrine of Creation,” eds. G. W.Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), 88.