“Above all, trust in the slow work of God… Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Long before I had any knowledge of Teilhard de Chardin’s theological and paleontological work, long before I knew anything about the Omega Point or the Cosmic Christ, I knew these words. They were given to me as an undergraduate student at the Newman Center. Teilhard’s words have served as faithful companions through the twists and turns of young adulthood and entrance into religious life. Now that I am diving into Teilhard’s work, these evocative words take on new meaning for me.
I am a work in progress and you are a work in progress, amid other human beings who are works in progress. Collectively, we exist in congregations, institutions, and groups that are works in progress on a planet that is a work in progress. We are evolving. We are not finished yet. We are still under construction.
If you’re anything like me, you run into this truth over and over again within yourself, in interpersonal relationships, and in widening circles of community. It’s by turns exciting and confusing, chaotic and adventurous, frustrating and scary to be a work in progress at every level.
Within the Christian tradition, we speak of sanctification and the call to continual conversion. Paul writes about the need to grow up as Christians and go from milk to solid food (I Cor 3:2). Can insights from science – though in secular and not religious language – provide another lens to which to see this same charge to cooperate with God’s grace, to grow, to change, to evolve?
The name of this blog is “In the Beginning…” As Laurie and I were brainstorming names that would capture the essence of the questions driving our research, I insisted that the ellipsis (…) is important. The ellipsis implies the rest of the Genesis story and, by extension, the rest of the Bible. The ellipsis also points to creation itself as ongoing and unfinished.
There are two images I find helpful in sitting with this truth and reflecting on its implications. My novice director’s gift to me last summer when I made first profession of vows was a “work in progress” heart that I’ve kept on my altar. The pink soapstone heart is hand carved by machete by Kenyan artisans. Though it is clearly a heart, it’s unpolished and marked by uneven spots, rough edges, bumps, and chips. The gift card stated the heart is to “encourage you to embrace the process of being a work in progress.”
Secondly, in a 2014 lecture, my heart leapt when I heard theologian Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ say, “God sings the universe into being.” She went on to say that God doesn’t create the way a painter or sculptor creates, which implies a finished product which can displayed, a finished product from the artist can distance themselves. That would be deism – a clockmaker God.
Rather, a singer is intimately engaged with the creation of song in an embodied, active, ongoing way. The moment a singer stops singing, the song ceases. The moment God stops creating, creation ceases to exist. As a singer myself familiar with the effort, focus, and breath support necessary to sing, I found myself saying, “yes!” to Johnson’s words.
But if I’m honest, a part of me (okay, a big part of me!) doesn’t want the messiness and chaos and confusion of all this “in progess-ness.” It requires a lot of trust, surrender, patience, humility, and willingness to embrace the unknown – which, I admit, aren’t exactly my strong suit. (Just ask any of my Sisters in community!) As Teilhard wrote, I’d like to “skip the intermediate stages” and have a least a little less uncertainty. Yet it seems that a spirituality truly informed by the New Cosmology and the truth that God creates through evolution needs to embrace the reality of my/your/our existential incompleteness.
How do you think about yourself and our world as a work in progress, and God as a God who continually creates us?
What are the Scripture passages, stories, and images that help you to pray with the “the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that it may take a very long time?”
A note to commentators from Laurie Brink, OP: I am a Catholic Christian scholar for whom the Gospel directs not only my teaching, but my actions and hopefully my speech. I look forward to your insights, but I ask that in the spirit of Christian charity and courteous discourse you write with love and civility. Uncharitable or discourteous speech has no place in thoughtful dialogue.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).