I was sharing some thoughts about launching Reluctant Mysticism with a group of online friends. While I wasn’t intending to go deep theologically, words popped out of my mouth before I registered what I was saying:
“Isn’t it heartbreaking that we worship a perfect figure while living in a society that despises our imperfections?”
I was referring to Christianity’s belief that Jesus was perfect and, as our central figure of worship, his perfection has become a rocky, bloody, stupid-ass stumbling block for most of us.
One of the primary tenets of Christianity is that Jesus was (and remains) perfect in both his humanity and his divinity. In Christian-ese, we often refer to this core tenet as “being without sin”. Usually when we confess this tenet in the Creed or in another doctrinal forum, we are referring to Jesus’ relationship with God the Father as being unbroken (in contrast to our relationship with God, which is broken). He was tempted and yet chose to defy his own self in favour of choosing the character and the will of God.
I remember imagining this doe-eyed, gentle man silently staring down temptation in the desert; a smiling man welcoming dirty snot-nosed urchins with all the disapproving religious people looking on; and a quiet, strong man able to look evil in the face and simply walk away.
My vision of perfection involved a lot of silence and a lot of warmth.
It involved a lot of gentleness.
I don’t recall imagining a terribly loud Jesus, except when the temple was being cleared out or when he wept at the death of Lazarus. My form of perfection involved defying social conventions in the most simple ways. My form of perfection had Jesus in complete emotional control all of the time. My form of perfection had Jesus able to express truth and love in perfect measure. My form of perfection had Jesus able to read people and be present with them exactly where they were at. And he embodied this perfection perfectly in that he lived what he taught.
That’s a heaven-load of perfection.
No wonder I can’t accept my own humanity.
And my version of perfection certainly doesn’t account for the multitude of other definitions of perfect either. A quiet, gentle Jesus isn’t everyone’s reflection of perfection.
Richard Rohr writes, “Perfection is not the elimination of imperfection. Divine perfection is the ability to recognize, forgive, and include imperfection—just as God does with all of us. Only in this way can we find the beautiful and hidden wholeness of God underneath the passing human show.”
Accepting imperfection as a part of connecting with God flies in the face of my North American Christian upbringing. Many churches would preach and teach doctrines of grace, but translate that grace into a need for perfectionism. “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father was perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Many of us can resonate with the fractured paradox: we aren’t perfect — we’re sinful — and the original sin was trying to be like God. So don’t be like God! But…be like God. Don’t strive for divinity! Only strive for perfection.
No wonder we can’t accept who we are as loveable or created good. Our central figure has been displayed as the epitome of moral perfection. This is not so much a statement on who Jesus really was so much as our perception of perfection. We demand moral superiority from Jesus between himself and God because we demand moral superiority of ourselves. We determine that Jesus lived without mistake or blemish, worshipping that possibility of that end result in ourselves, and so we despise any mistake or blemish in ourselves.
When I live my life worshipping embodied perfection, is it any wonder I discover my pursuit of perfection has stopped me from living?
Kathleen Norris writes, “To ‘be perfect,’ in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness. To mature is to lose adolescent self-consciousness so as to be able to make a gift of oneself, as a parent, as teacher, friend, spouse.” (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith).
I’m deeply troubled by the image of a maturing, ripening Jesus. To suggest that Jesus may have made mistakes would be to question two millennia of doctrine. My intent is not to dabble in heresy (not yet anyway), but rather point out a harsh reality:
How can we expect ourselves to engage in healthy expressions of spirituality when our fixed focus is on an expression of western perfection?
I suppose one solution would be to stop fixating on Jesus. It’s a possibility, but seeing as Jesus remains a rather critical figure for many people, inside and outside Christianity, it’s not the wisest or healthiest course of action.
Another solution would be to stop fixating on Jesus’ perfection. However, our recognition of brokenness in our lives keeps us striving for some kind of embodied perfection. We could try, but I suspect our primal brains would continue striving for patterns and meaning and symmetry.
A third option would be to reframe our definition of perfection.
In my culture, perfection is defined through a consistent lack of hypocrisy (well that’s me out), pleasing symmetrical body features (not my body), mature emotional awareness and expression at all times and in all places (I’m definitely hooped), and ongoing wise decision making (I encounter only limited success).
What if Jesus’ perfection displayed intimate union with God rather than moral blamelessness? What if his perfection was an embodiment of vulnerability with God rather than a western Roman ideal?
What if perfection meant something different from perfectionism?
It would be a game-changer for so many of us who have lived lives with Jesus as that central, perfect pinnacle. It would mean liberation.
So the question becomes:
What would it take for me to let go of my vision of perfection?