An achievable perfection - some lessons from lichen . . .

One of Jesus' most problematic, difficult and even impossible calls found in the Gospel according to Matthew is that "to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). I want to look at this because I think it is a teaching that can cause many of us beat ourselves up and leave us feeling utterly inadequate to the task at hand - namely living the good life. We can never come close to what we imagine this perfection is like and so will always feel like we never even really got going. Perhaps Luke thought similarly because in his Gospel he changed the teaching to the slightly more achievable - though still very difficult - "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
    Today I hope to show us another way of understanding the teaching that, though itself still difficult, is not only possible to achieve but, when done properly, even likely to be achieved.
    The reason Jesus' teaching appears to us impossible to achieve is for the most part because God's perfection is, by definition (one we made), beyond human grasp. We have tended to arrive at a conception of in what God's perfection consists by taking what we think are the best human characteristics/feelings and then expanding them out to infinity; we placed God's perfection infinitely beyond us at the start of the process and then, insanely, went on to encourage ourselves to try to match it. Madness.
    But it seems that Jesus didn't think in this fashion and was, himself, much more interested in how he might offer his hearers a practical way to live, ever more appropriately and fully, as human-beings commingled in the world rather than setting us off on a path that we could never complete.
    Given this thought we might, therefore, choose to take the teaching merely to be a circumlocution for the much more reasonable and achievable "do the best you can folks" or to enjoin, as Luke did, the practice of mercy. However, this doesn't really seem to do justice to the teaching, after all any call to 'perfection' seems to be about something more than simply doing our best - good though that is.
    Here it helps to consider towards what our English adjective 'perfect' might be gesturing. In the NT/Christian scriptures text it is a translation of the Greek word 'telios' which also carries with it the idea of 'completeness' and so is connected with the idea of what we have come to call the 'goal' or 'fulfillment' of life. Consequently we may also say it gestures towards the idea of being 'full-grown' or of achieving a state of 'maturity' and 'wholeness'. As many of you know Jesus' mother tongue was Aramaic and Hebrew, not Greek, so it is worth knowing that a similar range of meanings appears in the Hebrew of the OT/Hebrew scriptures. So, in Psalm 19:7 when we read that "the law of the LORD is perfect" the English word 'perfect' translates 'tamim' which gestures towards ideas of 'completeness', 'wholeness', 'healthfulness', 'having integrity' and being 'entirely in accord with truth and fact'. As we have been wisely reminded a number of times, etymology is not current meaning bu these connections seem to me to be suggestive.
    Maybe Jesus was himself gesturing not towards what he thought was God's 'perfection' but, instead, towards our own possible 'perfection' as human-beings within the perfection of God. Just as God achieves perfection as the kind of thing God is (or might be) so too, he thinks, we may we achieve perfection as the kind of things we are (or might be).
    The trouble with Jesus' teaching as we receive it seems to me, therefore, to be twofold. On the one hand we begin with a misconception about towards what the word 'perfection' gestures and, on the other, we get thoroughly thrown off the track by the unnecessary comparison with God.
    So, as we proceed let us keep to the forefront of our imagination the nexus of meanings lying behind the word 'perfection' - namely, 'wholeness', 'completeness', 'healthfulness', 'integrity'. 'goal', 'fulfillment', 'full-grown' and 'maturity' - and, secondly, let us pick an object of comparison other than God to help us understand what might have been the kind of perfection towards which Jesus was gesturing.
    Before continuing I want to note that Jesus encouraged us in our attempt to understand our place in the world through a consideration of the natural world and he summed this up by speaking of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. I take this approach very seriously and choose as an object of comparison today (I have chosen it before) - if not quite a lily then at least another natural biological thing - lichen. (There are not many sermons on the subject of lichen . . .)
    Now lichen (the name given to the group of some 15,000 thallophytic plants) is very interesting object of comapison because 'it' is a symbiotic association of algae (usually green) and fungi (mostly Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes).
    What is important in this illustration is that, although it is not at all certain when exactly fungi and algae began for the first time to form lichens, it does appear to have been after they had achieved a certain kind of 'fulfillment' and 'maturity' as separate things. In other words in what consists the perfection of algae freely growing in a pond is different from in what consists its perfection in a symbiotic relationship with fungi. The same is true, of course, for the fungi.
    This means that the 'perfection' of algae and fungi is different when they are growing 'independently' to that perfection they display when growing symbiotically. The former does not trump nor displace the latter - nor vice versa.
    In comparison to lichen a human-being is an unimaginably more complex mix of things that, potentially and in different contexts, could and probably have reached wholly different 'independent' kinds of 'perfection'. So, for example, 70% of our bodies are made up as water. What is the perfection of water? To be the sea or a river, to be rain, cloud or snow, to be a cool glass of water in summer, of the chief component of a lovely cup of tea or ourselves? It depends! Don’t forget that water is itself made up of hydrogen and oxygen. So the same questions over what might be the possible perfect flourishing of hydrogen and oxygen as 'independent.'
    To be a human-being – for the short three-score years and ten we are such an meshwork of things that form something we can identify as a human-being – is to be ourselves a society of things seeking their own 'perfection' in a way not wholly different from which occurs in lichen.
    In other words our 'perfection' as an individual human-being is already a complex interplay of elements and forms also seeking 'perfection'. As the translator Robert Hurley, in his introduction to Gilles Deleuze’s book Spinoza - Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights Books) wondered, perhaps we should consider ourselves not as individuals at all but rather as "a territory" or a "set of boundaries" - we being a 'place' or 'clearing' where all these things that make us who we are come to light.
    This complexity and interdependence is, of course, not just within ourselves but extends out infinitely beyond us. As Deleuze himself says in the final chapter of his book:

"Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly. So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior. The speed or slowness of metabolisms, perceptions, actions and reactions link together to constitute a particular individual in the world."

    If, like me (after Spinoza), you are inclined only to use the word 'God' to refer to God-as-somehow-being-Nature and Nature-as-somehow-being-God, then from where I stand God's 'perfection' - that is to say God's 'completeness', 'wholeness', 'healthfulness', 'integrity' etc. - is already intimately related to the possibility of my own 'perfection' as the kind of being I am.
    Understood in this fashion Jesus' call 'to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect' is a call to be perfectly you - not him or her, not the boy or girl next door, but always perfectly who you are and where you are with the materials, equipment and tools of life you have ready-to-hand.
    The result is sometimes (perhaps for the most part) something that wider society values. But it is equally possible that the result can be something wider general society simply doesn't 'get'. I can think of no better way of showing you what I mean here than via Burton Watson's translation of a story about the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu who lived around the 4th century BCE:

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, "I have a big tree named ailanthus. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!"
    Chuang Tzu said, "Maybe you've never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low-until it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there's the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn't know how to catch rats. Now you have this big tree and you're distressed because it's useless. Why don't you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there's no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?"

Here I may draw to a close by pointing - gesturing - towards what it is we try to do here in this church.
    We bear the name Unitarian because this is a church which belongs to a non-dogmatic tradition which has always gestured towards a wider unity - that tries to express an intuition that "All things are from the Whole and from the Whole all things." (see Chapter 3 p. 15 - p. 21 of the pdf - of John Toland's Pantheisticon)
    And because of this intuition, variety and diversity is intuited as being an expression of the perfection of the Whole and not something about which we must be frightened of feel we must suppress. We celebrate and welcome this variety and diversity and our religious community's simple task is to try to encourage in each other the achievement of the perfection of our own kind whether that turns out to be straight timber or the sort that offers shade by the road side. There's room for both and much, much more besides.


Yewtree said…
Excellent blog-post. I completely agree with your view of perfection. I read somewhere that among the Gnostics, Cathars and alchemists, perfection meant purity in the same sense as a metal is pure and unalloyed, so if you were pure it meant you were purely yourself (in much the same way as you describe here).