Perfectionism

This article is part of a series entitled Correlates of Religious Impulse.
See also: 1. Purists; 2. Unconditional; 3. Perfectionism

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One of William Sharp’s illustrations for The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitri stands at right.

T. H. Luhrmann is surely correct when she argues, in her New York Times OpEd of the same title, that “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith”. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, notes, both in her editorial and in her broader work, that the popular vision of the Evangelical Christian who literally believes in God — a fantasy cultivated, largely, by the secular left — is but a fantasy, and that the normal folks at the Baptist service are there, rather, for a collective exercise in faith. They seek a community of fellow worshippers, Luhrmann argues, a group with which they can learn “how to be more aware of God’s presence.” [1]

Though the impetus to religion which Luhrmann describes is certainly empirically dominant, it might leave something to be desired. For one, the image of a group of people coming together for the worship of an entity in which they only tenuously believe has something of an air of dishonesty to it. “Please stand if you’re able” — a church service should perhaps unorthodoxically insist — “to pause for a moment, put your books down, step into the aisleways, and begin to actually discuss the difficult realities of your beliefs.”

Further, the sheer abstractness of these doctrines might leave one feeling empty. Patrons of the New York Philharmonic’s Lincoln Center love Beethoven and Brahms. In the New York Public Library, readers love Nabokov and Tolstoy. In New York’s Trinity Church, worshippers love, well, love. Is that all there is for me?

Deeper investigation will lead us, in time, to rationales for religion with more propensity to induce fulfillment. They’ll also lead us to religious practice’s most imposing problems, and also, I hope, to their eventual solutions.

Those particularly prone to emotional sensitivity

“What is more, he can be carried off his feet, positively carried off his feet by noble ideals, but only if they come of themselves, if they fall from heaven for him.” — Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov [2]

Dmitri Karamazov, the family’s reckless eldest brother, “is a lover of culture and Schiller, yet he brawls in taverns and plucks out the beards of his boon companions.” He falls in love with the coy Grushenka — but soon becomes so frantic that he, travelling alone one night by horse cart, “took the bullet and, before inserting it, held it in two fingers in front of the candle. … ‘[I]f you meant to put that bullet in your brain,’ “ Dmitri calmly asks his driver, “ ‘would you look at it or not?’ “ He is sentenced to hard labor in the Siberian mines, yet, still, collapses and emotionally insists to his brother, “we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist… What should I be underground there without God?” [2]

Certain people, I contend — particularly those who suffer volatile, difficult emotions and who carry troubled, perceptive intellects — are prone to be especially moved by this world’s rare glimpses into “all that is good and beautiful”.

It’s with the Dimitri Karamazovs of the world that I’d like to begin.

Sensitivity disposes one to perfectionism

“These natures often thirst for tenderness, goodness, and justice, as it were, in contrast to themselves, their unruliness, their ferocity.” — Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov [2]

Dmitri desperately chases ideal passions. His nightmarish journey by horse cart ends in the bedroom of a provincial inn — Dmitri and Grushenka spend but a moment of peace together — before Grushenka, staring transfixedly beyond Dmitri’s gaze, notices a face peeking through the curtain. The chief of police has finally closed in, and Dmitri is immediately arrested. Imprisoned, soon afterwards, Dmitri experiences a sudden religious reverie so powerful that it moves him to tears. Dmitri’s passions positively consume him.

For these stormy characters, moments of perfection assume profound importance. For one, in them they’re simply more rare. These people are gloomy, and their moments of joy shine as beacons in the dark. Further, these people are keenly emotionally perceptive. They retrospectively explore their experiences, dissecting them and reliving them — and imbuing the best among them, in the process, with immense value. These memories of perfection become the objects of their deepest reverence.

It’s no wonder, then, that these people chase perfection with a fanatic determination. Perfection represents the encapsulation of all of their desires, the solution to all of their problems. This pursuit of perfection can become an obsession.

Religion is particularly appealing to perfectionists

“Oh, yes, we shall be in chains and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great sorrow, we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist…” — Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov [2]

Religion is replete with images of the perfect, and these perfectionists are liable to be especially enticed. I need hardly cite the literature to demonstrate the prevalence of perfection in religious doctrine. Christian theology, in particular, speaks of the omnipotence of God the Almighty, of Mary’s immaculate conception, and of Jesus’ sinless nature. The list goes on.

By exposing themselves to religion — and to its associated themes of perfection — these perfectionists can find meaning and value. For one, even witnessing and interacting with these ideas, particularly in a regular, ritualistic way, can be uplifting. They can offer the mind a place to dwell. Further, these models can furnish the means and the motivation for perfectionists to actively bring themselves closer to their ideals. Religion has meaningfully guided many.

Even if religion doesn’t comfort these perfectionists, moreover, it’s likely to attract them nonetheless. They’re so preoccupied with perfection, that religion — concerned with perfection in so many ways — is likely to become the object of their keenest fascination. Religion encourages us to strive to be perfect, for example, a dictate which, for all its impossibility, is likely to be particularly intoxicating to the perfectionist.

Perfectionism, then, is a positive — albeit potentially distress-inducing — characteristic. It infuses one with a longing to be better. This drive typically does lead to personal and philosophical improvement. Religion too, meanwhile, which provides an institution and a framework for the pursuit of this perfection, is also quite positive. Perfectionism provides a philosophically rich incitement to religion.

Religion as it’s often implemented, though, presents a few dangerous pitfalls.

Religion can lead to pathologies among perfectionists

Religions include many prescriptions for the resolution of problems. These come in two general varieties.

The first category is that of directives to hold faith and to trust in God for these problems’ resolution. Examples abound. Again from Christianity: “O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?,” Jesus instructs, “for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew, 6:30-33) [3]

Taking faith is a valuable act. Many problems can be resolved — or dissolved — by a good old dose of mental fortitude.

But these words promise more, though. Beyond these private mental benefits, religion also tends to promise an active contribution from God. Under certain circumstances, these promises can become pernicious.

The promise that God will offer assistance — even, in fact, if this assistance is expected only in the form of, say, mental fortitude itself — highlights prayer as a tempting strategy for the resolution of difficulty. This approach demands less than its earthly alternative, and it may loom attractive to sufferers. Persistently selecting this option, though — supplicating God for relief — one’s own ability to confront troubles may atrophy. The original need for relief, meanwhile, may escalate. We observe a destructive feedback loop: an ever-increasing need for resolution meets an ever-decreasing capacity to resolve. Prayer can become an obsessive psychological tick.

The second category of methods for the resolution of difficulty features those assurances that our difficulties are really no such thing, and that everything is actually the best it could be. From Romans: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose,” (Romans, 8:28), and from Ecclesiastes: “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end,” (Ecclesiastes, 3:11). [3]

These classic reassurances present a parallel difficulty. The world is, ostensibly, full of evils, and our perfectionists are particularly prone to distressedly ruminate on them. Decrees that everything is for the best — that we, in the words of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, inhabit “the best of all possible worlds” [4] — can be bewildering. They can also be similarly damaging. These statements may but half-heartedly reassure us, while simultaneously weakening our ability to understand these problems in a philosophically sound way (and to trust in God’s positive role). Our distress at the world may only worsen while our mental apparatus for understanding it diminishes. We’re left ever-more-dependent on these reassurances, and ever-less-able to reassure ourselves.

We must begin facing the evils of the world in an honest way.

Reform religion for the appreciation of beauty

I think it’s time for a reimagination of religion — a reimagination which achieves meaning and depth and which avoids psychological dangers.

Religion could, for one, feature group meetings for the rigorous discussion of difficult philosophical issues. These groups would discuss the important problems their members face — the eternal questions. Topics would be pre-designated and responses could be prepared. In these groups, members could work together towards sounder understanding of the philosophical problems that face them all. They might also come to realize that, in their difficulties, they’re not alone.

These groups could also convene to experience beautiful things together. Their endeavors could include acts as simple as attending a baroque concert or visiting a starry night vista. They could also discuss the positive roles that feelings of beauty, unity, and perfection play in their lives, and how these feelings can be more often experienced.

They would also work together to become better people. They might construct, through deliberation, and through consulting texts — whether religious or literary — a set of conceptions of personal value. They would recognize their common shortcomings, and they would work together to attain their ideals.

These practitioners would also believe in God. It might be an abstract God, though, simply the sum of the patterns of perfection and beauty that these people encounter. It’s better to give Him a name.

They would also demand less from God. They would face their problems, together, through cooperative emotional and intellectual struggle. They would recognize that the world too has problems — problems which, perhaps, don’t have easy answers.

These people will experience religious joy. Through their directed efforts to reach philosophical profundity, and to experience the world’s beauty, these people will, I hope, experience God.

They will no longer be destroyed by perfection. They will begin to take part in it.

References:

  1. Belief Is the Least Part of Faith
  2. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  3. The Bible, King James Version
  4. Voltaire, Candide
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2 comments on “Perfectionism

  1. Josh says:

    How do you differentiate yourself from this, with its motto “Live better, help often and wonder more”?

    The abstract God you describe, who is representative of worldly patterns of perfection and beauty, is probably also felt by members of Dallas’s Sunday Assembly. So I imagine that your Reform religion for the appreciation of beauty section would be noncontroversial even among the nonreligious.

    You could increase the contentiousness of your argument by claiming that the ideal of perfection, and even the promise of it, for all its pitfalls, should be maintained in spiritual or religious thought. As you mention, this promise encourages a dishonest means of facing the world’s evils. As you also mention, though, this promise is why religion is intoxicating. And it’s why the Sunday Assembly is less so.

    I argue that, while the Dmitris of the world might end up getting hauled off to Siberia, the responsibly religious might entertain reasonable hopes, not necessarily of achieving perfection, but at least of feeling like they have.

    You mentioned that the perfectionist cherishes a select few shining memories of perfection. Looking forward, he probably doesn’t believe that he’ll become a perfect being, or that he will live the rest of his life in “the best of all possible worlds.” He does hope, though, that at least one more time, he’ll feel perfection again.

    Religion might not deliver on its promise of perfection, but at least it might help its constituents feel like it momentarily has, or that it will. The responsibly religious are aware of this, and so even inside a non-free-thinkers’ (read: standard) church, no one is being duped.

  2. Phil Holbrook says:

    The scripture quoted from Romans is more accurately translated “God works in all things for good”. Thus, the reader needs to take his eyes off of his own desire for perfection and instead focus on a more global or cosmic perfection.

    Is history going somewhere? Paul clearly suggests that it is. That there is a cosmic force at work moving history in a direction that will ultimately be more perfect or just than what currently exists.

    Such a noble goal could bring some sense of ultimate meaning to all personality types and should rightly be expressed through all kinds of creative practices.

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