PAST PERFECT

I’m very excited that this week sees the publication of my new book “Past Perfect: freedom from perfection in life and faith”. It’s available on Amazon and Kindle and other outlets! I’d be grateful if you felt able to share this blog, not only to publicise the book but because we need to free ourselves from ideas of perfection and imperfection.
 
We seem to be obsessed with perfection. It’s everywhere, permeating our conversations, our language, our advertising, our films and our religion. It’s not only widespread across our culture; it has roots deep in the beginning of civilization.
 
Generally when we describe something as perfect, it’s simply an expression of delight, but as soon as we try to impose standards of perfection upon ourselves or others it can become debilitating, undermining our confidence and linked to feelings of hopelessness, eating disorders (especially amongst young people) and in extreme circumstances, attempted suicide.
 
Due to a huge shift in our thinking, the terms perfect and imperfect have become largely redundant and that demands a radical revision of our theology. God is often described as perfect in hymns and services – “Perfect in power, in love and purity” according to the hymn Holy, holy holy. If these terms have little meaning in our everyday language, they  must be regarded as no more than poetic alliteration.
 
I’ve enjoyed looking at the uses and contradictory notions of the terms perfection and imperfection. “Just a perfect day” sang Lou Read… “Drink Sangria in the park / And then later / When it gets dark we go home.” What made the day perfect? Probably nothing exceptional at all. Imagine a wedding in which  everything went wrong – it rained, the bride was late and the groom fluffed his vows. Yet everyone said it was the perfect wedding! It’s been fun unravelling ideas of perfection in concepts of beauty, human life, love and goodness, society and even death – “Grant us, O Lord, a perfect end” and shaping an understanding of God free of this notion.

THE ABDICATION OF GOD

Image result for Harry arctic

Although here in the UK we have a Queen as our nominal head of state, we are not ruled by monarchy in the traditional sense. We live in a democracy, in the hope that the self-evident dangers of investing power in one person alone can be avoided. If we hold that to be a morally sound principle of government in the secular world, then surely we should apply the same philosophy within our spiritual lives.

That is exactly the focus of Pentecost : the power, energy, life and responsibility of God are poured out on each of us. Together as the body of Christ we have the responsibility to act in the world. We have the power to forgive, the power to create, and the power to love.

I think there is a tendency to view the spiritual life as akin to the polarised society of Downton Abbey, or of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; a world of glamour, bright lights and luxury upstairs and a world of darkness and drudgery downstairs.

Even through the distortions of those rose-tinted, period-drama spectacles, we can see clearly what an inherently unsatisfactory existence it must have been; Women wouldn’t have the vote, the food would be cold having been brought long distances from the kitchen, medical treatment would be primitive by today’s standards, not to mention the lack of wi-fi in the house…..and that’s just upstairs.

Some still peddle the notion that down here in our earthly existence we toil away against the odds of nature and disease and then in the life to come we will enter the bright, glamorous world of heaven.

The Gospel of the incarnation asserts that God is with us, born among us, and power is outpoured upon us. We are here to build heaven on earth, indeed the kingdom of God is among us already.

If we think of the spiritual life in terms of an upstairs and downstairs realm, all power will be invested in God alone, allowing us to abdicate our own responsibility to others and society.

Read the parables of Jesus which begin “the Kingdom of heaven is like . . . the kingdom of God is like” . . and you can begin to understand early Quaker Gerrard Winstanley’s notion of the Republic of Heaven. Kingship and God are simply not compatible in post-Pentecost thinking.

In an open, liberal society words themselves cannot be banned but if we are to continue to use the image of kingship in our theology, let us at least have the right sort of image to inspire us. Think of Prince Harry on his Arctic Charity trek trudging to the North Pole with wounded fellow servicemen, enabling them to become the first amputees to ski to the North Pole unsupported; or think of the Queen, powerless to speak her mind in public.

After all, in the New Testament, it is the dying Jesus, powerless, subjugated and nailed to the cross, who is described as king.

GOD

I suppose my first theological blog ought to be about God!

In classical orthodoxy, God cannot be defined or described, so here are four quotations summing up the viewpoints that have guided me in my theological explorations. Although they are all classical orthodox statements, they have utterly radical implications.

God is not a thing that exists but existence itself.  Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae: The perfection of God Prima Pars, Q. 4.

St. Aquinas was a thirteenth century philosopher and theologian. His argument was that God is not like other things that exist – tables, chairs, animals, planets. God is existence itself. We might say God is not a real thing but reality itself or God is not alive but life itself. An exploration of life in all its fullness is an exploration into God.

God is that in which we live and move and have our being.

St. Paul quotes this saying of  Epimenides in the Acts of the Apostles (17.28). God is as close to us as water is to the fish, or the air we breathe. There is no need to search for God but simply to relax in God’s presence.

God is that which cannot be doubted. Anselm  in Proslogion chapter 3)

St. Anselm was a twelfth century philosopher, theologian and archbishop of Canterbury, whose views challenge many of our theological notions. When people say “I’m not sure about God, I don’t know whether he exists or not”, they are labouring under a misapprehension. Our exploration of God needs to begin with things that we don’t doubt – life perhaps, love, ourselves. Exploring these things is an exploration into God.

If I know myself I shall know thee O God.  Augustine  in Soliliques.

St. Augustine was a fourth century theologian and bishop who propounded the view that since we live and move and have our being in God, then getting to know ourselves is getting to know God.

All these avenues of exploration may take us down well-trodden religious paths. They might also take us into the everyday world without any obvious religious language or symbolism. Does that matter? I don’t think so.

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