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) andwhen it perfectly suits its purpose.
Other philosophers and theologians have defined perfection to be:
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.
I am going to resurrect and modify a presentation I did a few years ago with Terra Morgan, Bjorn Peterson, and Denise Ritthaler. In this presentation, we develop the case for a theology of Liberation of the Body. Although we use references, occasionally, from Christianity, the topics transcend that particularity. And unfortunately, this dialogue has framed much of western culture’s understanding of our bodies.
This will be a four part series looking at:
The case for a Liberation of the Body & Liberation of our sexual being
Liberation of women and particularly body image
Liberation of elder bodies
Liberation of men
(Note: This already is too gendered and separated! But it is the beginning of our thoughts on the topic).
And we just barely touch the iceberg!
Why do I consider this sacred space? I consider that we are in relationship with three things:
us and bodies
us and the world
us and the divine
If we are not at peace with our bodies, our own selves, our angst and anger will spill into our treatment of the world and into our understanding of the divine. If we believe the Divine is within, and within us we hurt ourselves, then the Divine is also hurt. If we believe the Divine is outside of us, and has caused this, the Divine becomes capable of vengeance and capricious pain. Either way, it seems a difficult place to hold. Throw in the world and how we use it, and we are done for. So in an effort to move into peacefulness within ourselves and then in relationship with the world, let us consider our bodies as sacred space worth liberating.
Additionally, since nobody has really written “Let’s liberate our bodies!” what you will experience may be music, images, factual stuff, poetry…it’s all fair game!
Do you want the geeky stuff? Here it is!
The Theological Problem: Liberation of the Body
We are talking about liberating the body in a variety of forms. It is a theological problem that has developed from Platonism which brings us the realm of forms and particulars. In forms we have transcendence, the soul, and reason. This is the optimal way of being in the world. In the particulars, we have our senses, opinions, and our body. This is not the preferred way of being in the world. Separating ourselves into dualistic (tri-istic?) bits ignores that we are one integrated body and only one way to experience our senses.
Platonism impacts Christianity through an interpretation of Jesus’ ascetic personal practices. Then Paul, who was Greek and had a greater influence from Platonic sources, brought a more extreme sexual ethic into his writings.
Then, through the source of tradition, we then have Augustine who tells us that the body is sinful and that the soul and reason are to be preferred. This places God as “out there.” Away from the body because clearly, God is not sinful, therefore, even though the Divine is incarnational, the Divine has nothing to do with the body.
Maya Rivera, theologian, says, “This privileges “sameness over difference, of the One over the multiplicity, of the universal over the particular…in such systems there is no place for real otherness. Totalities reduce persons to categories.” (Rivera, 57)
However, Neale Donald Walsh reminds us of the inseparability.
“Your mind holds the past,
your body holds the present,
your soul holds the future.
Put another way,
the mind analyzes and remembers,
the body experiences and feels,
the soul observes and knows.”
So who are we really?
We are the body of the Divine participating in one diverse reality that would cast us all as other.
And who is the Divine?
God is love in the recognition that we and all of creation exist together and yet the Divine is so much more. The source, the center, the spring of existence. The Divine is other, existence is other, and we are other to ourselves. And yet, we are all each an incarnational part of Love’s cosmic creation.
This approach to liberation of the body is through a demonstration of what it means for humans as sexual beings, humans as women and their body image, humans as the elder body, and humans as men. (Note: I would also consider that this is entirely too gendered, but it is a starting point.)
Liberation of the Sexual Body
We are all sexual beings. Whether or not we have sex, we are sexual beings. In Western culture (and many others around the world), our sexuality is frowned upon. The appreciation for eros is limited. In ancient Greek, we have three words for love – agapos, philos, and eros. Each one describing a different aspect of love. Eros is believed to be that type of love that is the seat of creativity. In sexuality, we see this as the drive to have children – create! Some scholars believe that eros is the seat of all our creative desires. But our religious authorities rarely express this. This is because of a theological battle endured 1600+ years ago between Augustine and Pelagius.
If we had only chosen Pelagius! But the foundation is there to have a theology based in free-will and the idea that we are indeed born in a state of being good rather than in a state of being a worm. And it was good! Very, very good!
The Unity Church developed a philosophy of “The 12 Powers.” Spiritual abilities that we are perfectly able to express and that are present in every person. These powers hold that the body is good, very very good! This connects very nicely to the Chakras as described in so many ways and visualized to the right.
But through it all, from the beginning to now, the body, mind, and spirit has been connected to our bodies. Pelagius knew that and we can see it. And our creative, generative bodies can also experience being liberated through the concept of liberating our own bodies to give and receive love. We are created, we create. That is the Divine circle of our eros bodies.
One way to experience a liberated body grounded in eros-creativity is through music and movement. I encourage you to listen to the below, simple music and to move your body however you will–without shame or reservation. Reach an arm to the sky! Roll your head from side-to-side! Sway! Thou shalt do what thou shalt do! And this is the end of part 1, laying the groundwork for a Liberation of the Body and using cultural items to show that we are already liberated! Let’s claim our sexual, eros selves as liberated beings.
Book FHR.com, “Better Access For Disabled Passengers at Prestwick Airport”, posted by Graham Greenaway October 9, 2008, http://www.fhr_net.co.uk/travel- news/1467/better_access_for- disabled_passengers_at_prestwick_airport