“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Not “do the best you can.” Not “try hard.” Be perfect. In one sense, Christians must necessarily be hypocrites: they preach a way of life they cannot live. They preach perfection and live imperfectly.
Said another way, Christianity is a religion of failing to the clear the bar, of coming up short. The question is, what does one do with the bar after coming up short time and time again? Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B. muses over this problem in his recently published memoirs, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church. Recalling his theology studies as a young monk, he writes,
The courses in moral theology left me with the conviction that the Church’s traditional approach was to set the bar high, perhaps too high in theory, but to mitigate it by counseling compassion in practice. While Europeans seemed very comfortable with this approach, it made us Americans uneasy. They did not take the Church’s teaching with the same rigor as we Americans did, but accepted that there were many exceptions to every rule. Later I found myself uncomfortable with the discrepancy between practice and norm when the bar was set so high and then not observed. Was this approach helpful in our literalist contemporary religious culture? I wondered then and still do.
Weakland has his finger on the pulse of the problem—and without doubt it is a problem. So what to do? One answer—and one for which Weakland himself, it seems, would have some sympathy—claims that the bar must be lowered. Some of the Church’s teachings are simply too demanding, too difficult. The Church’s position is outdated and out of touch with the experience of contemporary Christians. Therefore, it is argued, these difficult teachings should be changed.
Malcolm Muggeridge has offered a different lens through which to view this problem. In a 1978 interview with William F. Buckley, Muggeridge—with characteristic wit and charm—explained,
Let’s think of the steeple and the gargoyle. The steeple is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting, as it were, its own inadequacy—attempting something utterly impossible—to climb up to heaven through a steeple. The gargoyle is this little man grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior of men on earth, and these two things both built into the building to the glory of God. . . . [The gargoyle] is laughing at the inadequacy of man, the pretensions of man, the absolute preposterous gap—disparity—between his aspirations and his performance, which is the eternal comedy of human life.
To lower the bar—to bring the heavens down to the top of the steeple—would crush the very drama of Christian life. Christ teaches “Be perfect”—and the Church, faithful to him, sets a moral high bar—because built into the human heart is the desire for greatness, the desire to break out of our human finitude, and—dare I even say—the desire for perfection.
Had Christ not united heaven and earth in his Person, the gargoyle would have the last laugh. In that case, the moral bars should be lowered. The demand for perfection would be nothing but folly. But on account of Christ, it is precisely the space between the top of the steeple and the heavens, the incongruity between our performance and our aspirations—or, to state it bluntly, all of our failed attempts to clear the bar—that allows the depths of God’s mercy to be manifest.
The saints, like the gargoyles, see this and so can laugh. In fact, in the end, it is the saints alone who can laugh for they see that while none of humanity’s Promethean attempts have succeeded in uniting heaven and earth, something else has: the Cross of Jesus Christ. Knowing this, the saint does not find the demand for perfection to be a source of frustration but rather of freedom. The saint does not spend his time asking that the Church lower the bar. Rather, he is busy building steeples, all the while smiling at the distance between the highest spire and heaven.
© Vincent L. Strand, 2009.