Tuesday, March 27, 2007


What do Quakers believe about the possibility of reaching perfection? Many denominations say it's impossible and presumptuous to believe we can be perfect in this life--only God is perfect. We, on the other hand, are depraved and sinful and can only do good if God does good through us. We have free will, but we only have the freedom to choose to do evil, and any good we "choose" to do is actually God choosing for us. Because of our evil sin nature, we can't ever be perfect in this life because we're completely detached from the way we're supposed to be.

George Fox apparently thought perfection was possible in this lifetime. He repeatedly rebukes the religious leaders of his day for not believing in perfection. In chapter one he says:

But the professors were in a rage, all pleading for sine and imperfection, and could not endure to hear talk of perfection, and of an holy and sinless life. But the Lord's power was over all; though they were chained under darkness and sin, which they pleaded for, and quenched the tender thing in them.

In chapter two he says he can't find any denomination that believes that we can attain "Adam's perfection. He thinks this doesn't make sense if we're supposed to be imitators of Christ, and since it says in Matthew 5:48 "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Here Quakers are fairly close to Wesleyans, believing in the possibility of holiness if we'll allow God to make us who we're called to be. This is different from the Reformed tradition, where good we do is directly done by God--instead it's God in us, transforming us into a new being, that allows us to be able to choose good ourselves.

I agree that we can choose good--theology doesn't seem to make sense to me if we can't. If God is the only one choosing good through us then it doesn't make sense that God wouldn't just choose for all of us to choose good, and it wouldn't make sense to punish us if we don't choose good. But do we have the power, with God's help, to be transformed so much into the new being God calls us to be that we actually attain perfection?

I would answer a qualified "yes." Just like we can work to bring the Kingdom of God to earth even though it will never actually be fully realized, we are also called to work toward perfection even though we'll never fully reach it. We're still supposed to try. I don't mean just doing "works" in order to follow God's laws, but listening and being transformed in ways that help us to follow Jesus' main command, to love God, others and ourselves.

This view is similar to Tillich's view, that we are estranged from God and when we become Christians (or when we start following God in whatever way we do, whether or not we recognize ourselves as Christians), we start a process of becoming a New Being in Christ. He always qualifies all his ideas by saying that we are to work toward the ideal, but in this life all the perfect states of ourselves and our communities will only reflect our "essential selves" (read: who we would be in a perfect world) in a fractured, fragmentary way. And yet, this is truly the mark of God in the world and in our lives, moving all creation toward perfection.

I'm not sure that Fox would agree with this, because he'd probably say it's a way of taming what we believe in order to not have such high requirements. But I think in many cases it's more damaging to say we believe perfection is possible, because then people who know they're not perfect (umm...I think that's all of us!) get extraordinarily discouraged. It can also lead to people covering up their struggles and areas of weakness because they think to be a Christian one has to be perfect. That's why church people tend to look so pious, because if we're truly changed by God we should be good people, right? We shouldn't make mistakes, right?

But we still do make mistakes, and I think it's part of moving toward perfection to be able to acknowledge our mistakes and have the humility to work on them with accountability from others and with the recognition that we've still got work to do. I think a healthy church community isn't threatened by people's failures, but is strengthened by them, because people are able to talk to one another and admit their shortcomings, rather than pulling away from each other because they can only handle looking perfect for a couple hours a week.

So is perfection possible? Yes, but humility is a huge part of perfection that most in the American church seem to not be very perfect on yet...including myself.


quakerboy said...

I heard a Conservative Friend say something about perfection that made a lot of sense to me. Each moment of our lives, we are given a choice...do we act in accordance with Divine Will or not. Each moment, we have the choice to be perfect or not.

While I don't believe that perfection (or sanctification) is a second work of grace, I do believe that perfection is possible in this lifetime. But I gotta tell ya, I sure gotta long way to go :-).

Swallowtail said...

I think your thoughts are on the right track but words can be deceptive. Yes we can choose good over evil, but perfection is something entirely different. Perhaps Matthew meant good, not perfect. Perhaps George Fox meant perfect, not just good. In any event, I think anyone who believes they are perfect or capable of perfection deceives themselves. And that can be a dangerous thing. We are only human and can only strive to be good and the best we can be, which will always be less than perfect.

Will T said...

I commend Proposition 8 of Barclay's Apology to you. In it he deals with perfection. He reiterates Fox's position that it is possible. In fact he says that it is a "horrid blasphemy" against the power of God to say that God cannot make us perfect in this life.

But the key to understanding perfection is, I think, realizing that the English language has changed since the 1600's. Perfect also had the meaning of being whole or complete. So think of the command as "Be ye whole, even as your Father in Heaven is whole" and see if doesn't seem more attainable.

Barclay uses the analogy of a child. A child can be perfect but still have room for growth. In fact, a perfect two-year old can still be difficult to live with (at times) because part of the work of a two-year old is to develop their own identity by exploring the meaning and use of the words "mine" and "no."

So think of the spiritual life as a search for wholeness and not perfection. I find that when I do that, it is easier for me to forgive myself for falling short. I have also found, that if I stay close to my Inward Guide that I am less inclined to wander off where I should not be. When things are going well I can stay in that place for a good 5 minutes or so. I read a prayer once that I liked a lot, it goes something like this:
"Dear God, I thank you. So far today I have not had any unkind thoughts and I have not spoken harshly to anyone or hurt them. I have not been angry or selfish or unkind. But now Lord, I am going to need all the help I can get from you to continue as I am about to get out of bed. Amen."


Chris M. said...

Will's comment is made all the more poignant knowing you will have your very own two-year-old in less than two years now! Thanks for blogging in the midst of it all.

-- Chris M.