In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls on his listeners to “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Some early Christian thought, however, was swimming in thick Greek philosophical soup, which understood “perfection” after the manner of Plato – there is a perfect idea of which the things of this world, including us, are merely a shadow. Our quest is to strive towards the elusive realisation of perfection which can never be attained. Thank God for the perfection in Jesus the Christ who vicariously saves us!
This is at odds with the notion of “perfect” we find in the Sermon on the Mount which rests on the Hebrew notion of engaging with growth towards wholeness, or completeness. It is strongly associated with “goodness” with a focus on beauty and attraction, rather than its by-product, moral uprightness. In the beginning, God created…and he saw that it was good… (not “perfect” in Plato’s sense).
Jesus’ call to perfection is the climax of all the practical wisdom distilled in the Sermon on the Mount. It speaks of radical transformation to wholeness, completeness that is beautiful and attractive rather than an unattainable ideal.
In pondering these nuances I ran a question through my philosophical sparring partner, Chat GPT, asking a general question “When is the notion of “perfect” not “good?” It naturally adopts the common version of perfection that is heavily influenced by Plato. Here is its response, and, if inclined, we can run it through the filter of Jesus’ notion of perfection.
The notion of “perfect” may not be considered “good” in various situations and contexts. Here are a few examples:
- Perfectionism and its consequences: When the pursuit of perfection becomes an obsession or an unrealistic expectation, it can lead to negative outcomes. Perfectionism can generate excessive stress, anxiety, and self-criticism, hindering personal growth and well-being.
- Creative endeavours: In creative fields like art, writing, or music, the pursuit of perfection can stifle creativity and spontaneity. Sometimes, imperfections or unconventional elements can enhance the overall appeal and uniqueness of a creative work.
- Human relationships: Expecting perfection in relationships can be detrimental. People are fallible, and expecting perfection from others can create unrealistic standards and strain relationships. Accepting imperfections and embracing each other’s flaws can foster healthier and more meaningful connections.
- Innovation and progress: In scientific or technological advancements, the pursuit of perfection can impede progress. The iterative process of trial and error, learning from mistakes, and embracing imperfections often leads to breakthroughs and innovation.
- Subjectivity and diversity: The concept of perfection is subjective and varies across individuals and cultures. What one person considers perfect may not align with someone else’s ideals. Embracing diversity and different perspectives often enriches society and fosters inclusivity.
It is important to recognize that perfection is often an idealized concept that may not always align with the complexities and nuances of the real world. Embracing imperfections and focusing on personal growth, learning, and adaptability can lead to more fulfilling experiences and outcomes.
2 thoughts on “When Perfect Ain’t Good Enough”
Thank you Dennis. I think i’d like more of the Hebrew and less of ChatGP especially expanding ‘the Hebrew notion of engaging with growth towards wholeness, or completeness.” my memory is the greek word is eschatological and like a spiral that offers movement forward towards wholeness, with slippage down the spiral from time to time. What do you thinK? I think i need to see your smiling face again soon.
Thank you for reading my waking thoughts from this morning. My understanding is that whatever the original scribes intended with the Greek translation of “perfect”, the contention is that the Platonic ideal has often formed a context for its application in didactic and pastoral application – even filtering into more secular usage and practice. Translations can be both a bane and a boon. The Greek “teleios” translated to the Latin Vulgate as “perfectus,” thus “perfect” in many English translations is better understood as “whole” as in “mature” and “complete.” While this does have an eschatological twang to it, its application often speaks of things more immediate and pragmatic, as in “Yet among the mature (teleios) we do speak wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2.6), “Let those of us then who are mature (teleios) be of the same mind” (Philippians 3.15) and “… let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature (teleios) and complete” (James 1.4)
This leans more to the Hebrew nuance in my humble opinion.
My jousting with AI was intended to offer a foil that I could wrestle with further. Oddly its protests seem more in sync with the Hebrew concept as well.
A challenging thought from Richard Rohr’s meditations this week suggests perfection (as an ideal) relies on established benchmarks ensconced in the past, hence our conservative resistance to change. The act of Creation in Genesis 1, however, uses “goodness” as a benchmark, leaving room for change and improvement as the Creator’s continuing engagement with the universe with “wholeness.” Another eschatological perspective, I suppose.
Looking forward to that coffee!