PERFECTIBILITY . The etymology of the word perfect indicates the centrality of the idea of perfectibility in religion. Derived from the Latin per facere, the English word perfect implies completion or being thoroughly made. Also the Greek word teleios is translated as "perfect," and it lends to the concept the idea of attaining a goal or end (telos ). Aristotle saw human perfectibility as the capacity to achieve the goal of fulfilling or realizing one's nature. Drawing on these definitions, we can say that perfection as the goal of actualizing the highest human potential plays an important role in religion.
Anders Nygren (1960) has described the dynamic of religion as fourfold. First, religion reveals the eternal, the ultimate reality, which represents perfection in the sense of wholeness, completeness, and integrity. Second, this revelation of a perfect ultimate reality throws into sharp relief the imperfect nature of humanity. The human predicament becomes visible in its separation from the eternally perfect. Third, religion seeks to provide a means of overcoming this separation. Having judged human nature to be radically imperfect when compared with ultimate perfection, religion nevertheless declares that human beings are perfectible. Ways of purification or atonement have been made known and can be followed by the members of the religion. This affirmation of human perfectibility and the provision of means to achieve it stand at the heart of religion. As Nygren writes, "A religion which did not claim to make possible the meeting between the eternal and man, a religion which did not claim to be the bridge over an otherwise impassable gulf, would be a monstrosity" (p. 44). Religious traditions provide for the bridging of this gulf to take place in two opposite directions: either from the human side, by human initiative, or from the divine side. The final characteristic of religion results from this mediation between the human and the divine: religion makes possible the union of the soul with the eternal. Variously phrased in different religious traditions, the perfectibility of human beings is realized by identification or union with the perfection of the ultimate reality. This dynamic of religion as a means to perfection inheres in all religions but may be seen clearly in the biblical traditions of the West and in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of the East.
Perfectibility in Biblical Religions
For the biblical traditions, God represents perfection, the embodiment of all wisdom and virtue. God possesses transcendental and metaphysical perfection. In the Middle Ages Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109), declared God to be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." By contrast, human beings are separated from and judged by this divine perfection. When Isaiah saw the Lord seated upon his throne, his response was to say, "Woe is me! For I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips" (Is. 6:5). The Hebrew scriptures depict this understanding of God's perfection and man's imperfection in terms of the covenant. God is righteous and desires to establish his covenant with humanity. But, as the primeval history (Gn. 1–11) indicates, humanity, beginning with Adam and Eve, was unrighteous and violated the covenantal relationship. Eternally righteous and loving, God reestablishes his covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs. But even the chosen people continually fall short of the demands for perfection, as the Pentateuch shows. Later, the Hebrew prophets declare that only God is holy, and all human beings have turned away from God.
The New Testament and Christianity inherited and developed this understanding of human nature as fallen, sinful, or imperfect. The apostle Paul set the stage for much of later Christian theology when he described human sin as having come "into the world through one man," Adam. Whether taken literally or figuratively, the fall depicts the human condition. And when this condition is compared with the perfection revealed in Christ, Christians perceive the imperfection that is the human predicament.
Both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, however, proclaim that the human predicament can be resolved; the fallen state need not be permanent since human beings are perfectible. In the Torah, God's desire to restore the covenant with the Israelites indicates the possibility of rapprochement with the divine. This covenantal relationship is not something impossible for human beings; as Deuteronomy says, "This commandment is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.… But the word is near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it" (30:11–14).
The New Testament attributes to Jesus the straightforward demand, "You, therefore, must be perfect [te-leioi] as your heavenly father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). In its context, this demand follows Jesus' reformulation of the major commandments, in which he requires inner purity, radical obedience to the spirit of the Law over and above the letter of the Law. When Jesus summarized all the commandments with the two love commandments (Mt. 22:37–40), he also summed up the essence of this demand for perfection. He further described perfection in the same radical fashion in his dialogue with the young man who asked what he must do to gain eternal life (Mt. 19:16–21). When Jesus responded that he must keep the commandments, the young man, replying that he had kept them, asked what more he lacked. Jesus answered by placing before him the radical demand of love: "If you would be perfect, go and sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."
Although the New Testament seems clearly to demand perfection as the way out of the human predicament, the Christian tradition has debated at length the meaning of perfection and the question of human perfectibility. Augustine questioned the possibility of human perfection for two reasons. First, only God has perfection in an ontological sense; human beings are far lower in being and power. Second, because of original sin, human beings cannot now even will finite perfection. It is the human predicament that a person cannot on his own fulfill the demands stated in Matthew 5:48 (quoted above). The only way that progress can be made toward moral perfection and salvation is by God's grace. Without grace, people experience the situation that Paul described when he said, "I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want" (Rom. 7:19). Thus, Augustine held that such perfectibility as humans have results from the prior action of God. God predetermines who shall receive salvation, but this predetermination does not obviate human free will. Salvation is possible for those who receive grace, but full perfection lies beyond this life even for the saints. This view, placing the initiative for perfection on God's side, has its parallel in the Hebrew scriptures and in Jewish tradition also. In his vision, Isaiah received purification from one of the seraphim who touched his mouth with a burning coal (Is. 6:6–7).
Pelagius, a fifth-century English lay monk, questioned Augustine's views, however, saying that God would not have commanded anything (i.e., perfection) that was impossible for man to achieve. He was much more sanguine about the human exercise of free will to achieve perfection. This commonsense approach has appealed to many Christians, and as R. N. Flew observes, the history of Christianity—and of the notion of perfectibility—can be told as the swing "between the extremes of Pelagianism and the extremes of dual predestination" (Flew, 1968, p. 99).
Thomas Aquinas agreed theologically with Augustine, although he held out much more hope for human perfectibility. Absolute perfection, he said, belongs to God alone and cannot be possessed by human beings, but a lower perfection is not only possible but incumbent upon them. This "evangelical perfection" involves removing all mortal sin and cultivating the love of God. It was with regard to this kind of perfection that the Catholic church interpreted Jesus' dialogue with the young man (cited above) to imply two standards of virtuous conduct. The first consists in following the commandments, as the young man said he had done. This is the standard for ordinary virtue and salvation. Jesus' response, "If you would be perfect …," sets out a higher standard, a "counsel of perfection" for those who wish to ensure salvation by works of supererogation. The church traditionally interpreted these counsels of perfection to imply the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Within Christianity, this distinction between spiritual foot soldiers and a spiritual elite provided the constitution for the anchorite and monastic movements. Mystics and ascetics of various kinds have flourished in the Christian tradition alongside mainstream Christianity. The quest of the mystics was the quest for perfection, both in the sense of freedom from sin and, even more important, in the sense of the contemplation of and union with God. Renouncing the body, they frequently employed severe asceticism to subdue the desires of the flesh. John of the Cross, for example, wore knotted ropes under his clothing in his quest for the vision of God.
The Reformation marked a swing of the Christian pendulum away from Pelagianism and back toward predestination. Martin Luther developed a radically theocentric theology in which human salvation as well as perfection depend on the grace of God. For Luther, free will could not be regarded as a means to perfection because human beings, in their fallen state, had only self-will, which was alienated from God. John Calvin also regarded humanity as totally alienated from God and unable to do anything on its own to achieve perfection. Calvin and the other reformers, however, still believed that humanity reflected the image of God and was thus perfectible by God's grace. In this world, however, even with grace, one can do no more than make progress toward perfection, for final perfection can come only in the afterlife or in the Kingdom. Modern Protestant theologians have tended to reaffirm these reformers' views of perfectibility. Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, wrote, "The ethical demands of Jesus are incapable of fulfillment in the present existence of man … their final fulfillment is possible only when God transmutes the present chaos of this world into its final unity" (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, 1936, p. 56).
The most significant exception to the Protestant Reformation's reluctance to accept perfectibility was pronounced by John Wesley. Preaching in eighteenth-century England, Wesley placed perfection at the center of his theology. He based Methodism on the idea that all Christians should strive for perfection in this life. By perfection he seems to have meant primarily evangelical or ethical perfection, but, at times, he also described it as an absolute perfection that unites one with the love of God. Wesley was not a Pelagian, however: he believed that perfection came only by grace through faith. But he held that Christians must seek that grace and faith by following the commandments and "taking up the cross daily."
Perfectibility in Indian Religious Traditions
Turning from the West to the East, we find that the great religious traditions of Asia that began in India have affirmed human perfectibility in similiar ways. The Hindu tradition has taught that absolute perfection represents the nature of the ultimate reality. The Hindus who composed the Upaniṣads (c. 800 bce) reflected on brahman, the Absolute, the source of the universe. Brahman transcends the world and yet is also immanent in all things in the world. The Upanisadic thinkers described its perfection positively by saying that it is higher than the "great" and higher than even the "unmanifest." Mainly, however, the Upanisadic thinkers described brahman by negation, "neti neti," saying brahman is "not this, not this." Because it transcends the world, it cannot be described by any terms—even positive ones—appropriate to worldly things. Later theistic Hindus, for example the author of the Bhagavadgītā, adapted this language to describe deities such as Kṛṣṇa as "unborn, beginningless" and generally splendid to a degree that human beings could not com-prehend.
The Buddhists, although they discarded the notion of a deity, took over the idea of a transcendent absolute. This absolute can be seen as either nirvāṇa, the blissful state of transcendent enlightenment, or as dharma, the truth that both underlies and transcends all existence.
In comparison with this perfect absolute, human beings, according to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, lack perfection in three ways. First, they lack perfection in wisdom: they do not comprehend the absolute and their relation to it. For Hinduism, especially in the Vedanta tradition, this means that individuals do not know that they too are one with brahman. Second, human beings lack perfection in action: because they have a wrong perception of reality, people act in ways that are contrary to the absolute truth. The term karman denotes for both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions this idea of action. Karman, or action, whether positive or negative, is based on desire and generates a causal force that must come to fruition. Finally, because of karman and its consequences, human beings lack perfection in their existence: they are bound up in cycles of saṃsāra, or reincarnation. In these cycles they are separated from the absolute reality.
Despite humanity's threefold imperfection, the Indian traditions hold that perfectibility is possible. For the Hindus, human beings are perfectible because, although they may not be aware of it, ultimately they are sparks of the divine or drops of water from the infinite ocean. The human soul (ātman ) is one with the Absolute (brahman ). In the Buddhist tradition, human perfectibility stands as the basic presupposition for all of the Buddha's teachings. He told people to "be refuges for themselves" and to "work out your liberation with diligence" (Dīgha Nikāya 2.100, 2.120). Those who did so, he proclaimed, could reach their highest human potential just as the arhat s, or Perfected Ones, had.
To bridge the gulf to perfection, the Hindu and Buddhist traditions set out various paths, some requiring human initiative, others requiring divine action. In the Hindu tradition, human initiative is required to follow the two paths called karma-mārga, the path of action, and jñāna-mārga, the path of wisdom. Karma-mārga, expounded and popularized by the Bhagavadgītā, requires that people perform their actions in life without attachment. By so doing, they will free themselves from karman and desire. Jñāna-mārga represents the classic Hindu path of meditation to achieve the wisdom that overcomes separation from the Absolute. With its counsels of asceticism and solitary meditation, this path resembles the way of the mystics in the biblical traditions. The early Buddhists' path follows this model of meditation.
Buddhism, especially in its South Asian forms, divided the path to perfection or purification into three stages: śīla, ethical conduct; samādhi, concentration; and prajñā (Pali, paññā ), wisdom. These constitute a gradual path to perfection that a person can pursue over many lifetimes. At the first stage, the Buddhists said, a person must develop his ethical conduct by refraining from killing, stealing, and lying, as well as by abstaining from wrong sexual conduct and from intoxicants. Further, Buddhist ethical conduct, as spelled out in elaborate lists of precepts incumbent upon monks, nuns, and the laity, required "right livelihood": following a way of life that brings no harm to oneself or others. The highest form of ethical conduct, Buddhists taught, consists in controlling not only one's outer actions but also one's inner desires.
The second aspect of the Buddhist path is samādhi, trance, or, more properly, concentration. At this stage, the Buddhist, having already controlled his conduct, seeks to control and calm his mind. The mind is focused on "one point" so that it may be trained to sever its attachments to the world. The culmination of samādhi comes in the development of the dhyāna s (Pali, jhāna s), or higher trance states. Finally, the advanced follower reaches the stage of the development of wisdom (prajñā ) in meditation. Here, the Buddhist achieves perfection by overcoming ignorance and seeing the truth, dharma. The attainment of wisdom represents the highest human potential, and Buddhists proclaim that the Buddha and countless arhat s have achieved this state, called nirvāṇa. Buddhist descriptions of these perfected individuals declare that they overcame such imperfections as egocentricity, desire, sensuality, doubt, pride, and, finally, ignorance.
Despite an emphasis on individual initiative, the Buddhist and Hindu traditions also set forth ways to perfection comparable to the Christian notion of grace. Among the Hindus, the way of bhakti, or devotion to a deity, represents an important example of this path to perfection and salvation. In the Bhagavadgītā, Kṛṣṇa, the divine embodiment of perfection, declares that if a person will worship and love him, that person will be united with him. For millions of Hindus, devotion constitutes the most accessible and plausible path to perfection.
The Buddhist tradition also knows paths to perfection and liberation that depend on extra-human grace rather than human initiative. The most striking example of this kind of path is found in the Pure Land sect of Mahāyāna Buddhism, with its worship of the Buddha Amida. Buddhist teachers such as Hōnen and Shinran in Japan proclaimed that since in this age the meditative path to purification was too difficult for most people, people must rely on the grace of Amida Buddha. They taught people the mantra "Namu Amida Butsu," which invokes the mercy of Amida, as the only requirement for salvation. As in Christianity, debates have raged within Pure Land Buddhism over the relationship between divine grace and human effort in the process of salvation.
To sum up: human perfectibility represents an ideal central to Asian and Western religious traditions. Perfectibility signifies the possibility of transcending the human predicament of separation from the perfection of the ultimate reality. In religious traditions, perfectibility involves ethical purification but goes beyond that to some degree of absolute perfection in harmony with the ultimate reality. Most Asian and biblical traditions maintain that human beings progress gradually toward the ideal of perfection although some have declared that more rapid or sudden progress is possible. Many Christian theologians have held that perfection can never be fully realized in this life, while Indian thinkers have viewed the process of reincarnation as the context for perfectibility.
Anders Nygren's Essence of Christianity: Two Essays (London, 1960) analyzes the structure of religion in a way that illuminates the importance of perfectibility. Two books particularly trace the notion of perfectibility in the West: John Passmore's The Perfectibility of Man (London, 1970) examines the history of the idea from the Greeks to modern science, while R. N. Flew's The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology (New York, 1968) restricts its scope to Christian theology. The history of the idea of perfectibility in Asian religions has not been written, but two books provide a comparison of Asian and Western concepts: Shanta Ratnayaka's Two Ways of Perfection: Christian and Buddhist (Colombo, 1978) compares Theravāda Buddhist thought with the theology of John Wesley, and the anthology Sainthood in World Religions, edited by George D. Bond and Richard Kieckhefer (Berkeley, 1985), surveys notions of the perfected individual in the major religious traditions.
George D. Bond (1987 and 2005)