The Worship of Perfection

"When I live my life worshipping embodied perfection, is it any wonder I discover my pursuit of perfection has stopped me from living?", Erin Thomas, www.reluctantmysticism.com

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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.

Doctrine

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.

Impact

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.

Seeking Wisdom

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.

Yikes.

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?

Now What?

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?

Sources:

http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/view/1489

Wholeness and Love

 

  One thought on “The Worship of Perfection

  1. Shaley Hoogendoorn
    May 29, 2018 at 9:53 am

    So much to think about. I am only starting my journey of reframing perfection. It gives me so much more hope to see things this way.
    //
    What if his perfection was an embodiment of vulnerability with God rather than a western Roman ideal?
    YES!!!!

    • Erin Thomas
      May 29, 2018 at 9:55 am

      Changes everything all the way back to before the beginning, doesn’t it?

    • May 29, 2018 at 4:49 pm

      Or maybe perfection is an embodiment of Gods vulnerability with us? Relationships go two ways. Both sides share in some form of vulnerability. There is the idea that God never intended Jesus to be crucified. That was the risk God took. But of course death is not the end for God who made this gruesome image into one of healing and life.

      • Erin Thomas
        May 29, 2018 at 4:55 pm

        I like the idea of God taking risks about unanticipated outcomes.

  2. May 29, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    I invite you to dwell on Mark 7:1-30. This is two stories. The first is Jesus response the to our image of perfection. The second story is the faith of the Greek woman who put Jesus in his place. When read together we see a Jesus who acted no different than the ones he reprimanded. This woman is quick to call him out on it. The point of this is how Jesus responds. Has Jesus just made a mistake? Yup. And rather than getting all defensive he himself welcomes this criticism. It’s a beautiful portrait of what perfection truly is. It is not being flawless, but how we gracefully learn and love in the mistakes we make. Now this is just one perspective found within this story so internet please don’t burn me as a heretic.

    • Erin Thomas
      May 29, 2018 at 4:46 pm

      Love the perspective. Thanks Jai!

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