In What Do We Seek Perfection?

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  • Matthew 5:48

“As for God, his way is perfect:
    The Lord’s word is flawless;
    he shields all who take refuge in him.
For who is God besides the Lord?
    And who is the Rock except our God?
It is God who arms me with strength
    and keeps my way secure.

  • 2 Samuel 22:31-33

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.

  • Isaiah 26:3-4

“We are so constituted that we find perfection boring. Whether that has always been so I do not know. But I cannot otherwise explain why I care so little for Raphael or for Dante’s Paradiso. Nor am I charmed by everlasting ice or everlasting blue sky. I should seek the ‘perfect’ in the human, the living, and the earthly, and therefore not in the Apolline, the Dionysian, or the Faustian. In fact, I am all for the moderate, temperate climate.

“Please excuse these rather pretentious ‘pensées.’ They are fragments of conversations that have never taken place, and to that extent they belong to you. One who is forced, as I am, to live entirely in his thoughts, has the silliest things come into his mind—i.e. writing down his odd thoughts!”

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

The first of Bonhoeffer’s perfections is Raphael.  I am sure that critics could find fault in Raphael.  Then again, critics are usually defined as intellectual snobs who could not accomplish what the artist accomplished, but they can nick pick what they think are errors versus an unwritten set of standards that only the critic can access.  I have been mildly critical when reviewing things (documentaries and books), but an old instructor at a community college required us professional industrial instructors to find four good things for every bad thing in a new instructor’s technique.  It is very hard rephrasing “You did not pass out while presenting your lesson” four different ways so that you can get to one of the hundreds of things they needed to improve upon.  Then I read on the internet, about a year ago, that you had to say ten positive things or more for every criticism to avoid hurting their self-esteem.  I guess no one cared about self-esteem when I was starting because the ratio for anything I did was usually ten bad things for any one good thing.  But when it comes to people who are published or on the large or small screen, they have placed themselves in the public arena and should expect criticism, just very little from me, unless I detect heresy.  I can accept a difference in opinion, but teaching something that is simply wrong is going too far.

But if Bonhoeffer had said that van Gogh was perfection, I could state, tongue in cheek, that an artist thinks that he has improved van Gogh.  Recently, the Immersive van Gogh exhibit has been in the Pittsburgh area.  From the photos and videos, it is a strange exhibit.  There are no “paintings” in the exhibit.  The exhibit is made of digital images of various van Gogh pieces of art that are projected on all walls and the ceiling at the same time.  Wherever you are in the “theater”, you have the same image, zoomed in for greater effect, covering five sides, not on the floor.  You get a zoomed in version of the brush strokes, but a digital image of those brush strokes, not the real thing.

Is this an improvement on perfection?  I think it is a totally different experience, one that van Gogh might have thought as gaudy or he might have applauded.  I feel van Gogh is the only one who could truly critique this adaptation of his art.  But it is not the same thing as studying the intricacies of Sunflowers, Starry Night, Irises, Wheatfield with Crows, van Gogh self-portrait, or Café Terrace at Night.  To the modernist it is mind-blowing in that you are totally immersed, as if sitting at a table at the café terrace at night, but then to go to a museum or art gallery, you buy a ticket and roam around.  Here, it is like buying a ticket to a theater, but you stand the entire time.  Because it is performance art.  You have a limited timeframe in which to view the art.

But our problem, and Bonhoeffer’s point, is that we look at a master’s work and everything else seems imperfect.  Everything else seems disappointing.  Maybe that is why my mother never complimented me.  Ever!  Instead, “You could have done better.”  Which was the best she offered.  Usually it was detailed criticism about every fault.  She accepted the compliments with pride when her friends said I had done so well, but she had a private higher standard for me that was impossible to reach.

At what point do you simply give up and settle for mediocrity?

We have many ways to react to such endless criticism.  You can work harder so that you can prove them wrong, but that is futile.  You can give up and go in the opposite direction out of either spite or a state of depression.  Or you can coast along, near perfect or just mediocre, but not quite ever perfect.

By the time this is published, our Sunday school’s study of the book of Acts will be completed and we will have already started a Bible study of the book of James.  But the Sunday before I wrote this, one of the ladies in class talked to me after the class was over.  She said that she marveled at how Paul was so well guided by the Holy Spirit that he always said the right thing at the right time.  I replied, “All Christians should strive to be more like Jesus every day, but that goal is way up there, impossible to fully attain.  We are not perfect.  Then you read Acts and you learn about Paul, who was a human just like you or me, but that would be a tall order in which to attain.”

The thing is that if our focus when we look upon another Christian is to compare them to Jesus, we might always find them lacking.  Even looking upon them to compare to how the Scriptures portray Paul.

What Bonhoeffer is saying is that when we look at others without considering the perfect or Plato’s Ideal, we can see them for what they are.  We can see in them qualities that we should improve in our lives.  We can also see qualities in them that may not be perfect, but we can love them just the same.

There was a movie called “10.”  It was about a man who rated every woman that he saw on a scale of one to ten, ten being perfect.  He had never seen a “10” until “she” walked on the beach, and he saw her.  I did not see the movie.  I have no idea how the movie ends, but in real life, if we look for a “10,” we will always be disappointed.  But if we look with love toward our fellow man with no preconceived “10” in mind, we might find small qualities of “10” within them.  After all, they are human, just like us.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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