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The damage that perfection has done

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You wouldn't expect that the concept of perfection would be a source of suffering and torment, but the way I see it, there is no avoiding that reality.

"Be ye perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect." [Matthew 5:48]

As a Christian I have no problem believing and even arguing that God is, and must be, perfect by human standards (to say the least) in order to be a proper object of worship. We must believe that God is better than a human being if we are to believe at the same time that anyone can love or worship God. If we believe that God will punish us if we are not perfect--which is an unwarranted interpretation of the quote from St. Matthew--we begin the descent into fear. If we believe that achieving perfection will make us happy, we doom ourselves to perpetual misery as we fail again and again. The only way to view perfection is as an ideal, an ideal that has been set before us for inspiration but not for torture.

If God is, as the Catechism holds, "a spirit without body, parts or passions," then we cannot impute human emotion to him. However, this idea is basically the entire theme of the Old Testament: God setting down Commandments, castigating the Hebrew people through their (mistaken) prophets for falling short, and visiting punishment upon the Hebrew nation for those shortcomings. The great difference between Judaism and Christianity is not in their Scriptures but in their concepts of this God. Jesus imputed only one emotion to God: that of unconditional love. He taught that the traditional Jewish interpretation of their history had been lacking in appreciation of the true nature of God. The response of the vast majority of his contemporaries speaks for itself. The first teaching of St. Paul was to begin the long process of correcting the old idea that "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." It is not; the fear of God is the beginning of atheism.

The idea of God's punishment for insufficient righteousness crashed out on the Holocaust. Nothing in the history of Judaism right up to the present day could be twisted into a justification of the horrors that befell the Jews of Europe. Looking at our own personal misfortunes as some sort of visitation by God for our personal flaws has led to two things: first the self-righteous preaching of those who pretend that they are perfect (or at least closer to perfection than you and me), and second the constant insecurity that is expressed in the trite question, "What did I do to deserve this?"

Many of the people who mistakenly hold that perfection is a requirement for religion will opt for a very simple tactic: look perfect. The belief that if it looks good, it is good, will work for many people whose hypocrisy becomes known sooner or later, and often at the worst possible time. This hypocrisy of looking better than you are also crashed in the televangelist scandals, which were inevitable because they sprang from primitive evangelical Christianity, a system in which appearance is everything. We see it continue to break out periodically, as in the recent scandal about child abuse in one celebrity preacher's life and a sex scandal in the life of one of their pundits. Lesser-known preachers are hauled into court all the time, showing us that any system that forces their clergy to pretend they are above the common clay will reveal eventually that the opposite is true. It makes no difference whether the clergy are Protestant or Catholic.

We may also ask legitimately just who it is that is qualified to define personal perfection. Virginity was once touted as a path to perfection, frequently by communities that either fell apart because no children were born, or fell apart because it emerged that the spiritual leader felt no compunction to be virginal himself. Piety has also been held up as a founding virtue, whether in Judaism, Christianity or any other faith. Unfortunately, piety can be practiced very ostentatiously in public, only to be abandoned in private. This when the pretenses come crashing down and careers are terminated with little ceremony. Many preachers will tell their faithful that obedience trumps everything, as long as their followers allow the preacher to define obedience. This does not hold up to analysis since the preacher always feels free to interpret his "infallible" scriptures.

Viewing perfection as an ideal allows everyone to find their own goals by examining their shortcomings. Clergy can certainly be helpful in that, as can Scripture. But alongside the study and counseling is a never-ending obligation to know what you are talking about--something that the "Don't think about it" churches discourage. The amount of information about Scripture and Church history on the internet is astounding and beyond the grasp of anyone. However, you can begin with something that has been put together for you, such as the Huffington Post's Religion page. Start Googling ideas and there is literally no limit to what you can learn. I would point out, though, that forbidding the congregation to use the internet is a very common characteristic of dictatorial evangelical churches.

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