Along with all the other modern heresies I wonder if we oughtn’t to recognize a new one: Perfectionism. Now, by ‘perfectionism’ I don’t just mean being persnickety and fussy about details. I don’t just mean that somewhat neurotic tendency to be obsessive about things. Instead I’m talking about the modern ambition to be (like Mary Poppins) ‘practically perfect in every way’, and this ambition is rooted in an underlying assumption that we can actually achieve success in every endeavor and create a ‘perfect’ life. What I’m talking about is an individualistic kind of utopianism. We may not wish to create a perfect world, but we do think we can make our world perfect.
So we set out from the very beginning to get the perfect career, the perfect spouse, raise the perfect children in the perfect house, take the perfect vacations with the perfect people and die a perfect death and have a perfect funeral in a perfect funeral home with perfect flowers and perfect people saying the perfect eulogy. There is a sort of Puritanical streak in all this, and the result is a kind of neat and tidy, Pollyanna Mary Poppins perfectionism. It’s pure and clean and tidy and perfect. But it is also sterile, dull, predictable and deadly.
It is a heresy because it is a form of salvation by good works. It turns religion into a set of table manners. It tames Aslan. It confines the Holy Spirit and reduces the vital and radical religion of Jesus Christ to a code of ethics for respectable people. People wonder why the Catholic Church (or the whole Christian Church in the West for that matter) is so sick, why the young leave in droves, why there is a vocations crisis, why the liturgy seems empty and the pews are empty. The problem is complex, and the network of heresies is vast and intricately interwoven, but one of the heresies is this kind of Perfectionism.
In contrast to this compare who, in the gospels, had the most radical encounters with Christ. It was the leper crying out for pity. It was the outcast dwarf tax collector who climbed a tree to see the Lord. It was the penitent woman washing his feet with her tears. It was the terrified Peter walking on the waves. It was the doubting Thomas frightened and alarmed at news of the resurrection. It was the murderer Saul knocked off his high horse on the road to Damascus. It was the sick woman who reached out to touch the hem of his garment.
So I preach the need, not for perfection, but for penitence. You can keep Mary Poppins. Give me Mary Magdalene. You can keep Pollyana. I’ll take St Paul. You can have your pretty perfection. I prefer Peter and penitence.
Penitence takes us to the encounter with Christ because he meets us not at the top, but at the bottom. He is one who descends, and if we wish to encounter him we must also come down where we ought to be. He comes to us from below, and if we would meet him we must kneel.