Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Myth of Perfection

Isaiah 11.6
: "Wolves and sheep will live together in peace." 

Jesus rejected the idea of perfection. Lest this statement appear over-the-top, it's probably correct to say that belief in a perfect world other than our own was widespread in ancient times.

Early religions prepared their dead to journey from this valley of tears into the happy hereafter. The pyramids are the best-known example of this. Teaching about a better world to come was common.

The Greek philosopher Plato proposed that every object is given its being by a perfect "form" in heaven. Some 2300 years later, this idea still powerfully influences Western societies.

The Hebrew idea of perfection, on the other hand, centred around the Law. It's our task, said the Jewish people, to obey the letter of the Law or suffer God's punishment.

Yearning for perfection, partly stimulated by Plato's philosophy, continued in the early Church. The Desert Fathers, of whom Antony is the best-known example, retreated into the desert to live alone. They sought to gain perfection by denying themselves the ordinary things of life.

Today the human desire for perfection is no weaker. Sometimes it is sought through social action, sometimes through mysticism, sometimes through religion, and often through money and social status. But it's there - as powerful as ever. 

But there are essential differences now from the past. To believe that wolves and sheep will ever fraternise is to deny nature as we know it. The chances of perpetual prosperity are virtually nil. No society ever has or ever will be that secure. Visionaries who propose such things are misguided and lead the simple astray.

  • We know enough now about nature's mechanisms to conclude that God created the world as it is. The natural world is perfect. There was no Fall through which nature was somehow infected by sin and made imperfect.

  • Psychology has revealed that in childhood some of us (especially the first-born) sometimes come to believe that we should be perfect. Such belief can be extremely powerful. Unless we recognise and let go of it, the message to "be perfect" can drive us so relentlessly that we and those around us are harmed.

Those who strive hardest for perfection sometimes think they've found it. I recall negotiating a trade union agreement with a young unionist in the last days of apartheid South Africa. Within a short time it became apparent that he was unaware of his anti-White behaviour. Perhaps he thought that, as a well-known fighter against the Apartheid government, he had achieved the nirvana of non-racism in a racially-oriented society. 

The same mistake can be made by anyone, of course. Paul recognised this when he lamented that he tended to do things he didn't want to do, and not do what he wanted to do (Romans 7.15).

We sometimes need to take stock and ask, does Jesus require perfection of us?  Reviewing the Gospels, it seems he hopes for us to be complete in the sense of fulfilling our potential. (That's what the original Greek word teleioi in Matthew 5.48 really means, even though its often translated as "perfect".) Completeness or maturity isn't the same thing as perfection.

Again and again Jesus, through his words and actions, proclaims that we're fully acceptable to God as we are. Like Paul we should strive for the good. But to be right with God we don't have to meet the standards demanded of us by moral rules, by our parents, by our families or by anyone else. All that is required of us, says Jesus, is that we love God and others as hard as we can. Anyone who's tried that knows that failure comes easily and perfection is a pipe-dream.

That's why Paul counsels us to "accept one another" (Romans 15.7). We should remember why Paul thought this so important. His fellow Jews tended to look down on non-Jews as lesser creatures. Paul said that Jesus relates to all people regardless of origin or social status. These are two of the many distinctions we humans create to make ourselves feel better, or to give ourselves the illusion of perfection.

Relating to others on condition that they meet our standards isn't acceptance. Acceptance requires that we take others as they are, warts and all. What merit is there in accepting family and friends? Even evil people do that. The Christian calling, if we are to pattern ourselves on Jesus, is to accept even our enemies as they are.

Acceptance doesn't mean putting up with bad behaviour from others. But it does mean taking them as they are first, and then dealing with the difficulties. Anyone who's tried to do this will know that it is hard but can also be immensely rewarding.

So in proclaiming acceptance as a fundamental of the way God does things, Jesus automatically rejects the idea of perfection. Perfection isn't necessary. It isn't even worth striving for since it's a false idea. It's a way of looking at and living life which essentially puts us in chains of either our own or other people's making. Imprisonment isn't what God intends for us. The idea of perfection is one of the chains from which Christians are (or should be) liberated.

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