Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Meandering Towards the Perfect

Yesterday I attended an excellent talk on the cultural effects of social media. The speaker (John Mark Reynolds) unsurprisingly identified himself as a conservative, but went on to give a rather surprising definition of the breed to which he claimed to belong. Conservatives, said Dr. Reynolds, are people who “muddle through.” Between the easily defensible licentiousness of the libertarians and the equally easily defensible paternalism of the progressives, conservatives often find it hard to explain why they think some things should not be regulated by the government while others should. We tend not to see the policy world in black and white. (The moral world, of course, is another question.) And sometimes our apparent inconsistency (“Wait—you’re against abortion—but in favor of the death penalty??!!”) can make us appear . . . well, muddle-headed.

But the real virtue that Reynolds would claim for conservatism is that it admits a fact that neither progressives nor libertarians seem to be able to acknowledge: the fact that we are living on the wrong side of Eden’s gates, and that no matter how much we may aspire to create a perfect society or foolproof polity, we will never succeed. Absolutes in civil law tend to lead us further away from that paradise, and not closer towards it. For the conservative, the creation of public policy is very much a circumstantial exercise. And the conservative’s antennae (yes, they really are antenna and not horns) tend to go up whenever we hear anyone implying that this or that approach to a problem will solve the world’s ills. We're cautious beasts. Our practical creed might be summed up in the command not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Thus, loosely, Mr. Reynolds.

I was mulling over all this, and finding myself in general agreement with it—but only in general. I felt rather than thought that there was something profoundly lacking in the even-handed, muddle-headed, cautious conservative attitude. I wasn't about to turn in my conservative calling card and apply to the nearest [fill-in-your-own-favorite-ideology] assocation. I simply mean that the attitude appropriate to politics is not an attitude at all appropriate to private life. In private life our tendency is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, but to make the good the enemy of the perfect. Our tendency is to settle. In politics the sheer multiplicity of people and their innumerable personal considerations makes settling a necessity, and even a virtue. But in private life compromise is seldom a satisfactory solution to tensions either inter- or intrapersonal.

“Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We tend to either forget that phrase, or else to identify it with an unhealthy perfectionism that rapidly gives way to apathy, depression, or even despair after the first few failures. But if the command to be perfect doesn't entail what the perfectionist thinks it entails—the complete absence of mistakes in oneself and others—then what does the command require of us?

Nothing but love. We tend to think of love as a warm soft thing, comfortingly or uncomfortably close, according as our temperament is more sentimental or practical. There is nothing wrong with this; as attributed to affection or to purely biological love “warm, soft, comfortable” is not at all an inaccurate description. The words convey the feeling. But love, while it nearly always includes some feeling, is far more than a feeling: it is a fact, an act of the will that becomes incarnate in further actions: a reality. As a description of that reality, "warm, soft, and comfortable" is stunningly inaccurate. Real love is not comfortable but terrifying. Real love demands commitment, suffering, change, humility, courage, sacrifice—all things we humans in our fallen state tend to shy away from.

Real love is all about perfection.

It’s true that love loves the imperfect. We love our dad, so we put up with his rocket story (for the hundredth time). We love our son, so we forgive him when he leaves his wet towel on the floor (for the thousandth time). We love our friends, so we adjust to their tardiness or timeliness, their persnickety or slovenly tendencies, their differing perspectives on all the things on which the friendship is not based. We become a little blind—do not choose to become blind, but our affection makes us so. But even when it becomes blind to imperfections, love still keeps its heart for the perfect. If love does stoop to loving imperfection, it does so only for perfection's sake.

Love may seek to bestow perfection, as when a mother teaches her child—sometimes “the hard way” or through “tough love”. The mother’s knowledge is fuller than the child’s, more perfect; and she seeks to bring him up to that degree of perfection which she has achieved. It is in this way that God must often love us. It is the hardest of the loves to accept and perhaps the hardest to give, because it demands tremendous humility from the receiver, and tremendous resignation from the giver. Most children don't want to be perfect, or at any rate don't want to undergo the process of being perfected; and neither do most souls.

But sometimes love proceeds not from a desire to recreate perfection in another but from a desire to receive it into oneself. Hero worship, most romantic love, many friendships partake of (if they do not actually arise from) this recognition of a good in another that corresponds to a lack in ourselves. This is the first, natural love that the creature has for the creator: a recognition of its incompleteness and emptiness, that only God can ultimately fill.

Besides these two kinds of love—in which some readers may recognize C.S. Lewis’ “gift-love” and “need-love”—there is a third kind, that Lewis dubbed “appreciative love.” Appreciative love sees the perfect and, irrespective of its own degree of possession of or participation in it, recognizes that “it is good.” The preeminent attitude of the self in gift-love is charity, and the attitude of the self in need-love is humility; but real appreciative love cannot be said to have any attitude about the self at all. It is the love that says of a good man or a beautiful woman, “Thank God for that!” irrespective of whether their goodness or beauty touches us personally. It is a love that knows no poverty, because it seeks no possession. The other two kinds of love look to the perfect; this kind of love reposes in perfection, delights in it. It is a true foretaste of what we will enjoy in heaven.

Love is directed towards perfection; but what does it mean to be perfect? One answer would be to say, circularly, that “To be perfect” means “To love!” I suspect the circularity is only in appearance. For while the first two kinds of love are creative of perfection, the last revels in it: and thus one kind of love produces another, as the acorn produces an oak. The acorn wants to give itself up to create an oak (“Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die . . .”)—that is gift love. The acorn wants also to be an oak, to have its incipient, imperfect oakiness blown full with the help of the sun and wind and rain—that is need love. The acorn knows it is a thing incomplete, and it seeks to be finished, to be thoroughly made.

Thoroughly made. “Perfect” comes from two Latin roots, “per” meaning “through” and “facio” meaning “to make”. Together they signify precisely what I have been trying, with probably too much pain and labor, to spell out: that to be perfect means to be done being made, to have our rough spots filled in an smoothed over, to be full grown, completed (“filled up”), finished, done, consummated (“with the highest”). It is an intimidating prospect, being made perfect.

Only God, of course, can be fully perfect—can lack nothing—that is what it means to be God. But we can (and hopefully, most of us someday will) be perfect to the extent that our creatureliness allows: we will be the perfect John, Mary, Richard, Jane, Thomas, Sarah, Michael, Rachel, Jude, Anne . . . that we were meant to be. But we can’t expect God to come straight into our souls and do all the rough work himself. In this area as in every other he tends to prefer to work through instruments. (Hence, I suspect, the reason, or one of the reasons, why the vocation to the married life is normative, and not the vocation to the religious life. Religious are of course also perfected by those around them—recall Thérèse of Lisieux's account of the nun she couldn't stand—but their vocation naturally puts them more directly under God's hand than marriage would.)

I confess I don't much like being perfected. And I would far rather that God came down and did the rough work himself—it would be so much more efficient than this complicated, rock-tumbler, all-together existence that he puts most of us through instead. So much more efficient. And it would be a salve to my pride, I'm sure, to have the finishing touches—OK, let's face it: the full scale remodeling job—executed by the architect himself, and not by his sometimes unwilling and nearly always unwitting assistants, who are, after all, only human like me. But God doesn't operate like that; and even when he changes us immediately, he changes us only bit by bit. Love seeks perfection; but the perfection of man includes the possession of a certain degree of freedom, a freedom that too much haste would spoil, a freedom that is perfected by a million choices, choices each day to accept whatever love offers, however strange the gift may seem to us at the time.

To accept whatever love offers. It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking "God can't want that from me!" when we feel some sacrifice is asked for or (worse yet) "God wouldn't give me that!" when we have some great desire. It would be a false charity on God's part if God did not demand great things of us. It is a false humility on ours when we cannot believe that he will, and when we cannot bring ourselves to ask great things of him in return. Real love is not afraid to demand the extraordinary. After all, it could only be by the most extraordinary of means that a soul like yours or mine could be made perfect.


  1. Thank you; you're welcome--and touché.

  2. I got lost. I agree with the latter part of the essay, but it would have been nice to tie it back into the anecdote at the beginning. I rather thought the topic of the whole post would be a definition of conservatism.

  3. I suppose I could have (and should have) made the tie in explicit. Would it help if I said that the very same attitude which makes us excellent statesmen cannot, or at least ought not, be applied to our private lives? But going back to stress that fact at the end of the essay would have been rather anticlimactic.