Waiting for God’s Own Time

By Peng Yin ’12 M.A.R.

The plausibility of Christianity for me is decisively sustained by two communities: Chinese Christians in house churches and queer Christian groups before the arrival of wider acceptance. For those of us with memories of persecution during the Chinese Communist revolutions and of afflictions during the early years of AIDS, certain conceptions about God’s power are ruled out from the start. 

God does not show up where and when we expect, but in a manger, a frail body, and an anguished last gathering among friends facing an impending execution.

It was never possible for me to entertain a manifestation of God’s power through Constantine’s reign. Nor was it possible to rest my faith in a power that intervenes triumphantly even in the most dire cries for physical healing. From the archives from early AIDS I learned the protracted sorrow that so many experienced, a serial and repetitive kind of loss beyond singular events of illness or death. Many gay men dealt with the deaths of lovers and friends one after another in quick succession even as they nursed their own dying bodies. In the words of Dagmawi Woubshet, these pains speak of “compounding losses” suffered by disprized mourners afflicted by social stigma, bodily pain, and medical neglect all at once.[1] What does it mean for a minister to preach about God’s power every Sunday in the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco when on average four parishioners were buried a week? What does it mean to meditate on God’s providence in the ten devastating years of Cultural Revolution? 

A Saintly Procession

Many years later, I would learn from my teachers a more precise theological language about the contraction of divine power, a notion I held on inchoately to make sense of these sufferings. God’s power manifests through planting in humans an infinite desire for communion and then works with relentless devotion wherever humans might stray. Much modern trouble with theodicy and the ensuing disenchantment with faith have to do with an understanding of divine power that is similar to modern disciplinary or sovereign power, exercised through imposition by coercion, punishment, coaxing, or reward to compel people to give up their inclinations. This modern habit of thought aligns divine power too closely with the world of Caesar’s imperium, rendering it arbitrary, absolute, limitless, and invincible.[2]

Theological wisdom lends some intelligibility to the world, but what has been more consequential for the plausibility of Christianity are the exemplary characters with whom I share a communion across time, saints like Lin Zhao, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, and the Black Social Gospelers. Their belief is expressed through persisting in the good despite never seeing the promised land. For Lin, this is best expressed in her allusion to the poem by Li Shangyin: “Spring’s silkworms will not cease winding the threads till death. The tears of the candle will not run dry until its wick turns to ash.”[3] In these figures, we might touch a future of God felt through Christianity as a moral force in the world.

Traumas of the Heart

At age 19, I was first attracted to Christianity by its moral power, not the supposedly superior behavior of Christians but the moral meaning of Christianity implied in its narrative at every turn. That year I moved from Mainland China to Hong Kong for college. As I sat in the basement of my college library every night, breathing the first air of academic freedom, details about the Great Chinese Famine, the Tian’anmen Crackdown, and the felt sense of betrayal and collective failure incited a desire in me to search for a transcendent source of morality.[4] In my moral loneliness, Christianity amounted to a whole bundle of meanings for the moral life: Christianity tells a story of God creating an intrinsic capacity oriented to infinite goodness, maintaining the moral law even if it is being flouted every day, inspiring a Scripture with morally complex stories, inaugurating embodied divine teaching in Incarnation, establishing a church for communal formation, instituting the sacraments for bodily habituation, unleashing the Holy Spirit to heal the inmost traumas of the heart, and eschatologically redeeming us with the fire of judgment, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Entering into a Christian community rendered these narrative units real. In the age of suspicion of institutions and decline of voluntary association, we might easily romanticize a solitary faith. But the solitary search for God in a society like China with no visible churches and no ready access to religious education meant that I inevitably constructed little pictures of divinity who can be jealous, possessive, capricious, and easily dictated by my own concerns and psychic upheavals. Membership in a church by contrast means embedding myself in the discipline of a text, a liturgy, a communal discernment of spirit, a tradition’s ongoing debate.

A Most Precious Food

Standing on the other side of the podium now as a teacher of Christian ethics, I relish showing the resourcefulness and polyphony of Christian moral teaching. It is invigorating to introduce my students to provocative precedents such as the Levellers and Diggers, the cogency of natural law thinking, and the collective authorship of Catholic social teaching. But I also routinely remind my students that the most powerful moral teaching occurs right in their midst, implicitly, in the mundane practices of Christian life.

At the Eucharistic table, we enter into a world where the most precious food is given gratuitously, rather than earned through ranked effort. In spiritual direction, we encounter a God who sees into the depth of our heart, a self that is neither exhausted, predictable, nor manipulatable by the pervasive powers of the world—say, the tricks of surveillance capitalism. In prayers to God and the saints, we decenter ourselves and cultivate attention to the needs of the world, forging a communion with saints who watch over our haphazard attempts at faithfulness. In worship, we contemplate a God who does not need forced labor to accomplish creation and does not need to bear us down to radiate God’s glory. In certain blessed moments in this life, we might even sense a ubiquity of grace: in the saints, in the grandeur of the world, in silence, in a bruised community who still gather, in the beauty of liturgy so aflame that it calls for speech.

The Sayable and the Unsayable

Christian life involves a peculiar dance between cataphatic and apophatic theology—between what can be said about God and what remains unsayable. They are ever admixed in this life. The result is a fragmentary speech. Affliction shatters us, threatens our sense of moral coherence. How to speak to the compounding losses of AIDS? Many disdained mourners chose the quilt, stitching together patches of consolation under strain. Perhaps these patches alone can form a collage of meaning that withstands the convulsions of brute fate. This is why an MCC San Francisco preacher in 1989 exclaimed, “I know once and for all that resurrection is real,” as he walked into the Names Project in the National Mall. “Those who died are never lost to us.” The resurrection possibility can be experienced at the gathering of many griefs.[5]

Modern definitions of belief make it sound like a rational decision, a voluntary exertion, an isolatable moment in time. But an older language of faith offers an understanding of belief as something more like a gift, placing oneself in the givenness of things. The Gospels are filled with stories of misrecognition of God; so too our certitudes about belief. Belief is a daily miracle, a chastened gift, a startled gratitude that allows one still to claim the giftedness of the world despite all the evidence to the contrary, and a readiness to affirm that God’s presence might be stronger in those who do not profess this same belief. God does not show up where and when we expect, but in a manger, a frail body, and an anguished last gathering among friends with an impending execution.

God’s Presence Unbidden

One summer in San Francisco, exhausted after months of fruitless work in the archive, I spent an afternoon on the shore at the edge of the city. Amid the noisy celebrants of urban pleasures, the world suddenly fell silent, and I was awakened to an immense beauty I can neither contain nor fully embrace. There and then, I came to see the presence of God as sure as the ocean before me. All these years of wandering, across thousands of miles, in all my waywardness, in all my failure to even murmur the truth, the waves of the ocean kept the shore awash with renewed life. How many hundreds of pages of confident theological speech are preceded by long hours of waiting at the shore?

Those moments are brief, and most days I wait and pray. I still do not understand what it means to believe. Perhaps it is, oddly, a firm certainty about an uncertain belief, to recall Gianni Vattimo’s reflection in his 1998 book Credere di Credere. More precisely, it is a trust that this uncertainty or necessary ignorance is a kind of waiting: “God in God’s time, or out of time, will correct this.”[6]

Peng Yin ’12 M.A.R. is Assistant Professor of Ethics at the Boston University School of Theology. Having earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, he is completing a manuscript on the intelligibility of moral language across metaphysical differences. In March at YDS, he was one of the featured speakers for the annual Bartlett Lecture, where the theme was “Understanding the Divine from an East Asian Perspective.”

[1] Dagmawi Woubshet, The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), p. 3. 

[2] Kathryn Tanner, “Power of Love” in Renegotiating Power, Theology, and Politics, edited by Joshua Daniel and Rick Elgendy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 45-65, and David Kelsey, Human Anguish and God’s Power (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[3] Quoted in Lian Xi, Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China (Basic Books, 2018), p. 173.

[4] An influential book in my early reflection on this issue is John Hare’s The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Clarendon Press, 1996).

[5] Sermon by the Rev. Ron Russell-Coons, March 10, 1989. Transcript courtesy of Lynne Gerber. 

[6] The book in English translation is Belief (Stanford University Press, 1999); R.S. Thomas, “The Country Clergy,” Poetry for Supper (Hart-Davis, 1958), p. 28.