Recently, I read dragonkatet’s piece on “Perfection and Creation.” This got me to ruminating on the nature of perfection. In the United Methodist Church, clergy wannabe’s are required to answer the question, “Are you going on to perfection in this lifetime?” And the expected answer is “yes!”
I had heard a rumor in seminary by Dr. Jack Olive that perhaps our understanding of perfection is different than the understanding that early theologians and philosophers had. And that John Wesley turned to Eastern Orthodox wisdom in an effort to better understand perfection. That appealed to me because perfection seems so unattainable. What if there is a different way?
Corina got me thinking about all of this again! Is perfection unattainable? Is perfection only attributable to the Divine? What is up with this kind of pressure we put on ourselves? And as with everything, the truth is that our understanding has drastically changed over time. Which leaves us free to define perfection in a way that leads to greater life.
The Greek concept is where it all begins for western cultures. That word was “teleos.” In many cases, this word is understood to be completeness rather than the common understanding of perfection—“without flaw.”
Aristotle defines three meanings of perfection:
- That which is complete.
- That which is so good that nothing can be found better.
- That which has attained its purpose.
Thomas Aquinas goes on to give perfection a dual-fold meaning: That which is perfect in itself (its substance) and when it perfectly suits its purpose.
Other philosophers and theologians have defined perfection to be:
- The greatest
Plato and Parmenides thought that the world was perfect. That it had perfect shape and motion (spherical/circular). The world is perfect, God is not. Attributing perfection, an intellectual concept of humanity, to the Divine, was a heresy.
However, later came the pantheist Stoics who attributed perfection to the Divine. Why? Because the Divine was equivalent with the world. Here, we are just one short step away from the modern idea that only the Divine is perfect and that we all suffer from an inability to be complete in our own bodies and to find and fulfill our purpose. Eventually, Aristotle’s First Cause and Christianity’s Creator became comingled in theology. Although perfection was still not attributed to the Divine as perfection was believed to be finite.
In the 9th century, philosopher Paschasius Radbertus said that “Everything is the more perfect, the more it resembles God.” But still, God was not perfect because of the finiteness ascribed to the concept of perfection. It is Rene Descartes who introduces perfection as applied to the Divine as he introduces the “perfections of God.” However, Descartes also states that “existence itself is perfection.” They may just have been going through a confusion of perfections!
The concept of perfection has undergone great changes throughout human history. “Nothing in the world is perfect”, to “Everything is perfect”; and from “Perfection is not an attribute of God”, to “Perfection is an attribute of God.” (Tatarkiewicz, “Ontological and Theological Perfection,” Dialetics and Humanism, vol. VIII, no. 1 (winter 1981), p. 192.)
Perhaps it is time to render a definition of perfection that lifts us up and allows us to achieve completeness and fulfill our purpose. In Christianity, we often go back to “The Greatest Commandment.” That is “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” We then focus on the loving God part and then sometimes the loving your neighbor part but totally neglect the implied love yourself part. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we love ourselves, we can achieve completeness, find and fulfill a purpose! Artists gotta art. Preachers gotta preach. Poets gotta poem. Architects gotta design. Caretakers gotta care. And so on. Of course, within all of this is the tension between what we want and what we have. There are limits and sometimes part of loving is setting aside the dream and doing the chore. But that is still part of purpose. And it is still part of perfection.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, totally subscribes to the “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” approach to perfection. He writes,
O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but thy pure love alone!
O may thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown !
Strange fires far from my heart remove;
My every act, word, thought, be love!
I never heard that any one objected to this. And indeed who can object? Is not this the language, not only of every believer, but of every one that is truly awakened? But what have I wrote, to this day, which is either stronger or plainer?
John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection
Perfection is living life in such a way that “every act, word, thought, be love!” Easy peasy.
Perhaps living a life where everything is derived from love is not so easy. But it is something that I can ascribe to, and with practice, grow into. So perhaps perfection is the process that leads to a complete life fulfilled in acts of love–love that leads to justice, mercy, and humility.
So mote it be!
Simultaneously published at www.BeguineAgain.com