“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Be ye therefore perfect

I've just been writing my last essay for Regent's Park College, about Pelagius and St. Augustine. Pelagius was a late 4th century British monk, who acquired quite a following in the dying days of the Roman Empire for proclaiming that humankind had free will to choose to do right, and the responsibility to follow all the law and the teachings of the Gospel. And ran up against Augustine of Hippo, who believed that we are all rotten with the taint of original sin, totally unable to do anything right except through God's grace. Guess which one I am in sympathy with?

The thing I found very interesting is that both Pelagius and one of my all-time heroes, 19th century American Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, were both inspired by the same bit of Matthew's gospel: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matt 5:48) Both men believed that humankind has the potential to be perfect, otherwise God would not have commanded us to strive for it. There is an absolutely beautiful passage in Theodore Parker's address The Transient and Permanent in Christianity, which goes like this:

"Christianity is a simple thing, very simple. It is absolute, pure morality; absolute, pure religion; the love of man; the love of God acting without let or hindrance. Its watchword is, Be perfect as your Father in heaven. The only form it demands is a divine life; doing the best thing in the best way, from the highest motives; perfect obedience to the great law of God."

What a challenge! And what an inspiration! Whenever I read those words, it makes me want to sit up straight, and do better.

One of the authors of the books on St Augustine that I was reading for the essay accused Pelagius of a sort of "icy Puritanism", in which there was no room for backsliders and ordinary, everyday, weak, sinful human beings. And I guess I see his point. The sort of church I want to belong to would have the high aims of Pelagius and Theodore Parker to inspire us to do the best we can in all the ways that we can, but also some cradling arms and listening ears to catch the broken and the fallen, and help them back up. Otherwise it could be terribly judgemental, and holier-than-thou, which is not what our inclusive, loving denomination is about.


  1. I'm currently reading David Doel's That Glorious Liberty which gives a different (psychodynamic) perspective on the conflict between justification by faith and justification by works. Worth a read. The liberty spoken of is the inner connection to the Divine which comes with setting aside the ego's identification with the super-ego (the law).

    I personally feel that there must a happy medium between the two poles (Buddha found it and called it the Middle Way). We are not wholly depraved, but absolute perfection is probably impossible too - simply by virtue of the way the psyche functions. But we can integrate the shadow side and become the pure and unalloyed version of who we really are - and that is how I interpret perfect, as pure and unalloyed (and this is the gold that the alchemists were seeking).

  2. I don't believe in God's existence. I see Jesus as about the finest example of what a human being can achieve and as fully human, so if he can do it, so can anyone of us. But we have to work at it. That means some sort of spiritual practice, or we will be unable to control the natural, animal reactions to other people's unkindness and the threats they seem to pose for us, which will mean that we will fail to be compassionate and forgiving to them. I think 'original sin' is a terrible idea that has caused enormous misery to countless millions of people through the ages and continues to infect the minds of otherwise reasonably nice people.