The Quest for Aesthetic Perfection

The following is an excerpt (first draft) of an article I am writing. The article’s title is “Better than New: Reflections on Wabi Sabi as a Metaphor for Christian Perfection.”

The Greek ideal of beauty is tied to Platonic philosophy. With this, the goal is to conform an object to an ideal form. A carpenter making a beautiful, “perfect,” chair is then attempting to reproduce the idealized form of a chair. His skill as a craftsman is understood in terms of how closely he is able to conform his creation to that ideal chair. Since the ideal forms cannot be perceived, the standard for perfection is unavailable for judgment, and the imperfection of a creation becomes, in essence, an act of faith. In the eighteenth century, this understanding began to be challenged with J. G. Sulzer and Immanuel Kant, who taught that beauty did not necessarily imply perfection. However, even with Kant, there is still a serious attempt to see beauty as an objective quality, not simply subjective, so a form of idealism persisted.7 The Greek ideal for beauty/perfection could be thought of as otherworldly and superficial. It is otherworldly since the standard is something that does not exist in the world we live in. It is superficial, because beauty is limited primarily to perception – something that is quite literally skin deep. Such a metaphor of ideal forms could be said to be seen used for the animal sacrifice among the Israelites, and the Bride of Christ as described in Ephesians 5. However, I Samuel 16:7 reminds as to the limitations of lessons one can draw from this metaphor since God values more what people are unable to see, and that appearance (beauty) can misinform as to character.

In time, the quest for a flawless perfection became questioned further in the West. As John Ruskin noted in the 19th century.

…imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we

john_ruskin_1863
John Ruskin, Art Critic (1819-1900)

know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom,—a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom,—is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain, irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect…” 8

Returning to the Bible, flawlessness is not the only aesthetic view. Another is commonly seen in the Old Testament. It has been described in different ways. One way could be an “aesthetic of natural abundance.” This term follows the logic of Gerald Downing who recognizes that natural abundance is not merely a utilitarian appreciation, but also an aesthetic evaluation.9 The Israelite nation was primarily an agrarian society, and so were tied to the land economically. But there is more than this. This writer was raised in an agricultural community and can attest that members of that community can see a large sow with a dozen piglets, or an apple tree straining under the weight of its fruit as objects of beauty. As Yeshua Ben Sirach stated, “The eye likes to look on grace and beauty, but better still on the green shoots in a cornfield.”10 The Hebrew Bible has much appreciation of natural abundance. Psalm 65 would be good example.

Much like the aesthetics of idealized forms, the aesthetics of natural abundance is used at times to point towards ethical holiness and a form of perfection. An example of this is Psalm 1 where a righteous, godly person is compared to a well-watered tree whose leaves never wither, and produces abundant fruit. Isaiah 58:11 speaks of the righteous as being as a well-watered garden. The aesthetics informs the character of the righteous. Berleant and Carlson note that this sort of “environmental aesthetics,” as they describe it, has a quality to it quite unlike an aesthetics based on static ‘flawless’ perfection. Beauty seen in the form of living abundance has an “engaging, inclusive, dynamic character.”11

7Alexander Rueger, “Beautiful Surfaces: Kant on Free and Adherent Beauty in Nature and Art” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 16(3) 2008: 535-557, 535-536.
8 John Ruskin, “The Stones of Venice, Volume II” Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30755/30755-h/30755-h.htm, p. 171-172.
9 F. Gerald Downing, “Environmental Beauty and Bible” Ecotheology 7.2 (2003), 185-201, 193-195.
10 Ecclesiasticus 40:22.
11 Quoted by Downing, p. 199.

Perfection as Holy Defect

I am working on an article right now that

ptforsyth
P.T. Forsyth.  (Image from Wikipedia)

considers a different metaphor for understanding the goal of “perfection” as a Christian. So this post is a bit of a scratchpad where I put down my thoughts. Commonly, the term is linked with moral holiness and holiness often is connected to the metaphor from the OT sacrificial system, an animal “without spot or blemish.” It is indeed a metaphor… a lack of problem externally in an animal, or lacking variety in coloration hardly means in some “real” sense that the animal is particularly holy, to say nothing of perfect. One only has to consider the illustration of Jesus regarding “whited sepulchers.”

One of the challenges in the Bible is that in Greek thinking, there was at least two very different ways to look at perfection. Aristotle listed three, but two of them overlap considerably. One can think of the perfection in terms of Substantive Perfection, or Functional Perfection. In one case, perfection is seen as something absolutely complete, inherent to the item, and lacking the possibility of being improved upon. The other means that it meets the need or function it was designed for… perfectly. As such, the perfection is not inherent but in its role. In the former understanding, perfection is static, final, unchanging. With the latter, there is no such assumption.

Consider Jesus in Luke 2:52. Most of us would see Jesus as perfect. The passage speaks of Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. With the first definition, Jesus would be transitioning towards perfection but as a child would be imperfect. However, with the latter definition, children are suppose to learn, grow, and develop. As such, there is no reason to presume that Jesus was imperfect as a child. He was growing exactly as a child should. Likewise, Jesus scars after His death and resurrection are not imperfections, but demonstrations of God’s perfect faithfulness and power.

For me, a useful metaphor for the perfection of the saints is not in line with the Holiness movement… or with linking perfection with holiness at all. If we are called for perfection, even though we are flawed and constantly changing, it seems as if we have to see perfection as unattainable—- OR we have to rethink our understanding of perfection.

<A similar thing comes up with Righteousness. Some link righteousness with holiness. But the OT word for righteousness “tsedeq” has more to do with “right relationship.” So when we are told in the New Testament that through Christ we are righteous, this is more than simply a legal sleight-of-hand (“penal substitutionary atonement” may be a useful explanation, but it misses the point in this case). Through Christ we have a right relationship with God, so in that sense we are righteous even though we are not sinless.>

I am getting long-winded and I haven’t even gotten to writing the article. But I found a very nice quote by Forsyth:

“Perfection is not sinlessness. The perfect in the New Testament are certainly not the sinless. And God, though He wills that we be perfect, has not appointed sinlessness as His object with us in this world. His object is communion with us through faith. And sin must abide, even while it is being conquered, as an occasion for faith. Every defect of ours is a motive for faith. To cease to feel defect is to cease to trust.”  –Peter T. Forsyth (1848-1921)

Anyway, I am still researching. I may change my mind still.  But my hypothesis of perfection being a more dynamic rather than static quality appears to be good… so far.