God, the perfectionist

"Speak to the whole congregation of the Israelites and tell them, 'You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy." (Leviticus 19:2)

"You must be blameless before the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 18:3)

"So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

These are tall orders here. They make out God to be quite the perfectionist: nothing less than holiness and blamelessness will suffice if people want to live in God's presence. And this is not just blamelessness of deed we are talking about. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments, in which the whole Law could be summed up, are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourself. (Matthew 22:37-40) In the Hebrew Bible version of these commandments, neighbor only extended to fellow Israelites, but Jesus made it clear that neighbor was anyone, including members of a hated 'other' community, to whom one had the opportunity to show mercy. (Luke 10:29-37)

Notice that these commands go beyond the so-called 'Golden Rule', which simply says to treat others as you would have them treat you. That might suggest only a very minimal ethic, in which you basically leave others alone, and expect them to do the same. No, we are called upon to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we love ourselves a whole darn lot. We tend to think we're a pretty big deal, that our needs and problems are of Earth-shattering importance. And we do this even in the face of suffering which is incomparably greater than our own. As Adam Smith perceptively observed,

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

It is clear that we do not love others as we love ourselves. Now one might object that this is only to be expected, and prudent, since if we really felt each of those loses as keenly we do those of close friends and relatives, we would become nearly catatonic with grief, all day every day. Similarly, it seems only natural and fitting to care more about the needs and happiness of our immediate family and friends than those of strangers halfway around the world. But I suspect that what Jesus was really getting at is not that we should have the same feelings of affection and attachment for complete strangers that we have for our parents or wife or siblings, but rather that we should value and esteem each person just as we do ourselves, because we are all made in the image of God, and treat them as such as we come across them. The virtue of the good Samaritan was that he showed compassion to the one whom he encountered by the wayside, not that he constantly went out of his way to find strangers and help them with their problems, although that is certainly an admirable vocation for some people.

But regardless of how these commandments would practically play out in our lives, it is very clear that we fail miserably to obey them. Not only do we not love God with our all heart, mind, soul and strength, but we often live as if he does not exist, and even ridicule the very idea of a personal God as infantile or stupid. Not only do we not value others as we value ourselves, but far too often we actively belittle, disregard or even hate them (I am often astonished at the degree of contempt I feel for a colleague at work for something as trivial as a particular gait or accent).

It is tempting to think that people are basically good, most especially ourselves. And certainly we are often pleasantly surprised by the small acts of kindness strangers show to us, or the big acts of heroic virtue we read of, such as families hiding Jews during the Holocaust for example. And it can be readily admitted that human beings do have sentiments and dispositions that allow them to come together to form communities and trading networks, which are the foundations of society. Nevertheless, these good acts and good sentiments fall far short of God's commands, and in many cases are actively opposed to them. For example, a person might make a humanitarian contribution solely for self-aggrandizement (for Joss Whedon fans, Captain Hammer's unbelievably outrageous and self-serving homage to poor people in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a good example). Or we might volunteer at a shelter because it makes us feel good about ourselves, gets us off the hook for our petty jealousies or little white lies or beefs up our resume (see this humorous but mostly accurate take on teenage volunteer work). And it is plausible that many acts of altruism are of the 'tit-for-tat' variety found even in primates. Jesus himself said that was an inadequate basis for true Christian love: "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don't they? And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don't they?" (Matthew 5:46-47)

It is therefore plausible (and if we really think about it, undeniably true) that nobody really does good, not good that stems naturally and inexorably from the twin motivations of wholehearted love of God and of our neighbor as ourselves. And if we are even more honest with ourselves, we will admit that the problem is not just that we don't love as purely and as fervently as we should, but that we are often filled with loathing for our fellow human beings. We slander, gossip, lie, cheat and steal with impunity. We judge others' character on the most superficial external characteristics. Many of our relationships, even friendships and especially romantic ones, are objectifying and self-centered, if not downright abusive. And this all takes place in a context of middle-class affluence, where people's basic needs are met and we are largely free from the anxiety that comes from not knowing where the next meal is coming from, or whether a routine infection will lead to gangrene and eventually blood poisoning and death. (Anyone who has seen the movie Borat knows what unbelievably awful, prejudiced and demeaning opinions of other people lurk under the surface of so-called 'civilized' society).

It is implausible to think that we are basically good and only turn nasty under duress, which is supposedly entirely understandable. In a recent article on the frustrations of air travel in the U.S., Dave Sedaris observes that "We're forever blaming the airline industry for turning us into monsters." But, he asks ominously, "what if this is who we truly are, and the airport's just a forum that allows us to be our real selves, not just hateful but gloriously so?" The philosopher Immanuel Kant was similarly pessimistic about our true nature, even though he lived in an age when most of his fellow philosophers were very optimistic about the power of reason and the basic goodness of human nature:

That such a corrupt propensity must indeed be rooted in man need not be formally proved in view of the multitude of crying examples which experience of the actions of men puts before our eyes. If we wish to draw our examples from that state in which various philosophers hoped preeminently to discover the natural goodliness of human nature, namely, from the so-called state of nature, we need but compare with this hypothesis the scenes of unprovoked cruelty in the murder-dramas enacted in Tofoa, New Zealand, and in the Navigator Islands, and the unending cruelty (of which Captain Hearne tells) in the wide wastes of northwestern America, cruelty from which, indeed, not a soul reaps the smallest benefit;* and we have vices of barbarity more than sufficient to draw us from such an opinion. If, however, we incline to the opinion that human nature can better be known in the civilized state (in which its predispositions can more completely develop), we must listen to a long melancholy litany of indictments against humanity: of secret falsity even in the closest friendship, so that a limit upon trust in the mutual confidences of even the best friends is reckoned a universal maxim of prudence in intercourse; of a propensity to hate him to whom one is indebted, for which a benefactor must always be prepared; of a hearty well-wishing which yet allows of the remark that “in the misfortunes of our best friends there is something which is not altogether displeasing to us” ; and of many other vices still concealed under the appearance of virtue, to say nothing of the vices of those who do not conceal them, for we are content to call him good who is a man bad in a way common to all; and we shall have enough of the vices of culture and civilization (which are the most offensive of all) to make us rather turn away our eyes from the conduct of men lest we ourselves contract another vice, misanthropy.

So our predicament is not just that we imperfectly obey God's Law, as if we were always aware of how short our efforts fall and were constantly remorseful about it, but that we actively and gleefully disobey it. It may sound harsh and misanthropic for the Bible to say that "the inclination of [human] minds is evil from childhood on," (Genesis 8:21) but having observed several of my brothers grow up from birth, and remembering my own thoughts and behavior from that period in my life, I can attest that children, even small children, can be unbelievably self-centered, cruel (we shudder to think that torturing small animals is a favorite childhood pastime when they are available) and willfully stubborn and opportunistic.

But shouldn't God cut us some slack in all this? After all, we emerged in a world of limited resources with dangers surrounding us on all sides, and evolutionary psychologists tell us we share many of the same behavioral dispositions as other primates, who are also frequently vicious, almost unbelievably so (see Howard Bloom's The Lucifer Principle, pp.23-47, for an incredibly disturbing portrait of violence and aggression in the animal kingdom). In the Malthusian struggle for scarce resources, who could blame frail, vulnerable humans for ferociously defending their own access to those resources, even at the expense of other human beings? And if aggressive, manipulative tendencies are hardwired into us, as evolutionary psychologists say, surely we are not to blame if we 'do what comes naturally'?

The problem with this line of reasoning is two-fold: first of all, excusing our inhumanity on the grounds that we live in a dangerous world and must fight to survive by any means implies that we have already violated the first commandment, which is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, because implicit in that love is trust, trust that God created us and has our best interests at heart. If we really had that trust, why would it matter if we lived in a dangerous world? We would know that, as Paul so fervently believed, nothing could separate us from the love of God. Excusing our inhumanity because we live in a dangerous world already implies that this world is all there is, and that there is no broader purpose to human existence other than to survive for as long as possible. It is already unbelief, in other words, which is a part of sin.

Second, not even secular thinkers buy the fact that our evolutionary hardwiring determines our conduct. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and fierce atheist, has boldly declared that even though we have been 'programmed' with certain undesirable impulses by our 'selfish' genes, nevertheless "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism -- something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our own creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." And if we are not the helpless slaves of our evolutionary impulses, and those impulses go against God's law, we are rightly held accountable for succumbing to them (note that we needn't have a completely individualistic understanding of agency here, as if each one of us were supposed to stand completely alone in suppressing undesirable impulses: if we truly loved people with an alcoholic tendency we would make every effort to keep them away from alcohol, thus sparing them an agonizing struggle; when we see children develop with self-centered, cruel instincts we gently but firmly instruct them in the ways of other-regard, kindness and tolerance).

But why must God be such a tyrant in burdening us with such unreasonable laws, especially when he created us imperfect, and then hold us accountable for them? Wouldn't we be happier if we could just live without those stifling laws and constraints? Doesn't guilt over breaking the law just make us miserable? And how can love be a law anyway? Isn't it something that's supposed to be freely given, without any constraint?

It is indeed true that love given under constraint is no love at all, and God certainly wants us to freely and joyfully give our love to him and to each other. But we should not think of God's law principally as a constraint on our unruly behavior. At least, that was not its original intention. In its original intent, God's law is more like the 'law' of human health: whatever we must do to keep ourselves healthy. The fact is that human beings are not infinitely malleable: we have a nature, and in order to flourish we must act in accordance with that nature. On the physical level, if we want to be strong and healthy we must eat a balanced diet of nutritious food. On the psychological level, if we want to be truly happy we must cultivate wholesome, intimate relationships with others. Now if we truly want to flourish, to be all that we can be, it would make little sense to complain about these 'stifling' constraints, or to insist that real happiness is the freedom to do whatever we want. On the contrary, we see these constraints, not as stifling, but as liberating: they are what empowers us to be truly happy; they are in a very real way the source of our life as human beings.

It is the same with God's law. Far from being some kind of tyrannical scheme to keep us from getting out of line, it is supposed to be a source of life, indeed THE source of life, the keeping of which is the only way we can truly flourish, the only way we can truly be free (think of how crazy it would sound for a couch potato to say about a healthy person, "Gee, that guy's really stuck in a rut, he only eats healthy food, he always go to bed on time and he exercises regularly; how can he be happy under those stifling constraints?"). However, as a result of our sinfulness, since we are fundamentally self-centered (Augustine and Luther both described humanity as homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved inward on itself), we experience the command to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourself as stifling, because we would rather spend all our time tending to our own needs and desires, because after all they're really the most important in the world, aren't they?

The problem is that we cannot share in God's life if we insist on being self-centered. God in His essence is the perfect, mutual, completely self-giving love shared between the Persons of the Trinity, and he means for us as image bearers to reflect that love. And while there is room in this love for the existence of something which is other than God (and indeed it is a marvelous manifestation of God's love that he 'withdraws' in order to make a space for creation), there is just no way God can give his unique kind of life to a creature not wholly oriented toward that kind of love, just as a radio broadcast cannot be received by a radio not tuned to that station. Neither is it enough for the broadcast to be shaky and filled with static: either we fully, completely and perfectly embody God's love (to the best of our capacity as human beings, of course, but there is nothing about human nature to suggest that, absent our sinful bent, we could not be perfectly loving to God and others), manifested in our love for him and for our fellows (and in a different yet still perfect way the rest of God's creation), or we can't share in God's life, which is the only truly incorruptible, non-frustrating, non-futile, everlasting kind of life there is.

I could go on to talk about how it is perfectly just that our active disobedience to God's commandments merits God's perfect wrath, but that will have to wait for another post. My point here has been to explain in a perfunctory way why God is a perfectionist: because he wants to give us the ultimate gift of his own life, and he cannot possibly give that life to any creature that is not fully perfect. God demands perfection because there is simply no way God can live in a being whose love is not completely perfect. Neither should we mistake Jesus' condescension to sinners as tolerance for their sin, as if he came to say that adultery was really alright, that God won't bat an eyelash at unscrupulous tax collecting, or that it's OK if we go on thinking lustfully about our neighbor's wife. No, Jesus may have hobnobbed around with sinners, but only so that he could cleanse them of their sin and make them perfect, vessels fit to be filled with God's life, so that they could become agents of the Kingdom of God.


Ron said…
Ethics from a Christian perspective has always bothered me. Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson once said that the biggest challenge from a Christian perspective compared to other religions is that of ethics. In Islam and Judaism for example you have a set law that you must follow. In Christianity, you have Paul saying a bunch of strange things about living in the Spirit, working out one's salvation with fear and trembling, etc. With Jesus you have even more mystery. He once said to Nicodemus that the Spirit basically goes where it wills like the wind, to and fro. Basically, Christianity is not a law-based faith but one based upon God's grace.

But where does that leave us in regards to ethics? It gives a lot of room to criticize ethical thinking, as Bonhoeffer does in the beginning of his Ethics, but it doesn't give us much room to really construct anything for as soon as you prescribe a rule to follow, I can easily reply that you are creating your own religious system in your head rather than relying upon the Spirit and Grace of God. So is there really anything more to say after this? Is there anything that does not implicitly deny the basic tenet of Christian theism that God can act in our lives?

I think this is a challenge for all Christian traditions and has bothered me greatly. I wish I had the answer but I can't seem to find it, which is frustrating to say the least. Any possible response (that I've thought of) doesn't seem to fully deal with the problem. Perhaps a great part of it is the simple sin of unbelief which I admit to be guilty of a lot.
two things I see wrong with your understanding of ethics, Ron.

(1) you seem to think that Christian thought is limited tot he Bible. I know you don't think that because do you mention some theological works, but then you are ignoring a lot of work of Christian ethicists. For example you mention Bonehoffer's work but he has a whole book on the end of those criticism and what he says at the beginning sets up an ethical system.

(2) you seem to think ethics is just handing out rules.

Read Reinhold Niebuhr's book on Christian aesthetics.

Dorothy Emmett, the Moral Prism is one of the most eye opening books on meta ethical theory I ever read. Even though her conclusion might appear to back what you say she's actually saying the whole attempt at ethics will always be debatable not just Christian ethics but any ethics (she was an evangelical).

I studied Ethics with two great professors who were both experts in the field. The one who was really famous and immanent was the late Dr. Frederick Carney. He edited the major dictionary on medical ethical ethics. find any book by him on ethics and you will find an approach no secular thinker can best.

I also studied with Victory Worsfold of UT Dallas, not as famous as Carney but also acute, brilliant, great. The studied with John Rawls at Oxford. Worsfold was not a believer but he had studied for the priesthood and was sympathetic to Christianity in general. He admired Carney and many other Christian thinkers. He did not share your view about Christian ethicists.
Ron said…

Thanks for the comment and the book recommendations. To answer your first point let me just say that I am open to Christian thinkers outside the Bible. It's just that from my readings so far I haven't found very many answers.

To answer your second point, I should elaborate more about what I think ethics is. I see traditional ethics as defining principles, let's say from the Bible or some other text like Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. You take a principle like, 'one ought to have courage' and apply it in a rule such as, 'When I am with friends I need to talk more courageously.' This rule in turn applies to something concrete in real life since that's is where everything do actually happens. 'I must speak courageously with my friends when I meet them at the Olive Garden on Thursday night.'

One problem with this is that God is totally left out so there is nothing really explicitly Christian about this kind of thinking. Another is that failure leaves you either repeatedly trying the same kind of method or giving up the whole game in frustration/despair. I find that in my own life I oscillate between these two responses which does not leave me in a good place.
Weekend Fisher said…
Hope you all don't mind an extra commenter here.

I think the foundation of all Christian ethics is this: "God saw what was made, and it was very good" (paraphrase). The "right v. wrong" type of ethics is likely to be capricious unless it is grounded in things intrinsic to existence (ontology, for those who like the academic approach to things); you can't have "right v. wrong" ethics unless there's already an assumption about what is good. That is to say, the reality of goodness is the foundation of ethics, and valuing what is good is the basic enterprise of human ethics.

So "Love the LORD your God" as the ultimate commandment and "Love your neighbor as yourself" as the corollary -- these things follow necessarily from seeing ethics as the exercise of valuing what is good, and good as something objectively real rooted in the nature of existence. The early Christians talked about "rightly ordered loves" in this regard.

"Grace" is a way of saying God values the person more highly than he values the ethical system that might condemn us. It's a meta-ethical teaching; it comes down to love. "Grace" is the only thing that prevents ethics from becoming a semi-totalitarian scheme that devalues us and makes us less valuable than the laws. (Or as Jesus said once, "Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.")

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF
To answer your second point, I should elaborate more about what I think ethics is. I see traditional ethics as defining principles, let's say from the Bible or some other text like Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. You take a principle like, 'one ought to have courage' and apply it in a rule such as, 'When I am with friends I need to talk more courageously.' This rule in turn applies to something concrete in real life since that's is where everything do actually happens. 'I must speak courageously with my friends when I meet them at the Olive Garden on Thursday night.'

One problem with this is that God is totally left out so there is nothing really explicitly Christian about this kind of thinking. Another is that failure leaves you either repeatedly trying the same kind of method or giving up the whole game in frustration/despair. I find that in my own life I oscillate between these two responses which does not leave me in a good place.

No offense Ron but I don't think you understand ethics, I mean in the academic sense. I think what you expect from Christian ethics is rule keeping. You say it's defining principles. that's part of it it's a case of defining values. That's why its not just rule keeping. To understand ethics and develop an ethical system one must understand the nature of what is meta ethical theory, that is, what makes something good.

The approach to ethics is all important. Weather one is a paleontologist (belief that ethics is based upon rules and obligation) or a theological ethicist (the end result is what makes something good or bad) is all important. All of those things must be considered first, that's why its' not just rules. you have to understand the nature of the values that motivate the rules.

For Christians the Bible gives us the values, then we as believers have to make the ethical system that employs those values, we do that by understanding our own historical context and how Biblical values speak to it.

That's what Bonhoeffer was saying it's what Niebuhr was saying.
"for those who like the academic approach to things); you can't have "right v. wrong" ethics unless there's already an assumption about what is good."

exactly, that's what I called "meta ethical theory." One way of understanding meta ethical theory is through my own which, whic for obvious reasons I call "meta ethics" (little pun there) is that it's the values that enable us to determine what is good.

Of course as Christians we take our values form God.
Ron said…
Good comments. I'm with Weekend Fisher here and am not one for systematic ethics. I think ethics has to open to the love and grace of God rather than just being something purely deduced from any group of texts (whether it be the Bible alone or the Bible plus Church tradition). I think I'm kind of on a different page from you, Metacrock, but I'll leave the conversation here. Academic ethics is all fine and good as long as it connects with real life and isn't just a bunch of Christian PhDs theorizing. It looks like maybe you've found that with the Christian men of letters that you have already mentioned. I am still looking. Basically, I see God outside and in judgment of any system man can invent, especially Christian men I might add.
Weekend Fisher said…
Christian ethics is a different animal, to be sure.

In theory, in any ethical system, who should be at the highest rung of ethics, just hypothetically? Would it be the ethics police? The ethics instructors? People who live ethically (by the rules)? But on a Christian view the craftsmen and skilled artists are towards the top, because they increase the objective amount of good in this world that is worthy of loving. Parents likewise.

Every once in awhile I think I have it figured out, then I'll have someone hit me with a new thought. Yesterday an old friend of mine pointed out a simple thing about ethics that I'd somehow managed never to notice before. When Jesus went to eat with the Pharisees, they had rules about how pure you had to be first: wash and become clean and then we'll accept you. Jesus did it the other way around and washed those he ate with. He didn't demand purity first, but gave it.

So I'm back to knowing I've got a lot to learn. But I think Jesus -- and there's a strong strain of it throughout the Bible -- is less interested in "constructing an ethical system" or "prescribing a rule to follow" than in constructing a world full of goodness, a world in which ethics matters.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF
sorry guys. the idea that ethics is just little feeling thing that has nothing do with reason and logic is just an excuse not to think. what are you complaining about tin the first place, that Reinhold Niebuhr isn't touchy feely enough?

Love and grace are great, but they not ethics. Love is the background of the moral universe, it has a place in ethics, even in academic ethics. But without the discipline to really understand ethical theory in relation to reason and logic then we just being needlessly weepie.

I'm not afraid of my feelings. Atheists are afraid to have feelings, I'm not. i was a charismatic. But feelings are not ethics.
There's a time to emote and a time to reason.
Weekend Fisher said…
I don't get it. When did you think someone said ethics is separated from reason and logic?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

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