In my blog posting on John Foxx's visit to Hudson, New York, I mentioned a particular question that someone asked him, and his answer, that got me thinking once again about the “goal” of religion, and the idea of “perfection”.
In case you didn't read the posting or don't remember the question—someone asked John about the “religious imagery” (particularly angels) in his artwork. John insisted that he does not use religious imagery, as he considers religion to be dangerous. The angel concept is one of perfection or perfecting, as humans are always striving to do. While this can be admirable, it can also be dangerous—if a powerful person or group gets the idea of creating a “master race” and oppressing or slaughtering those who don't measure up.
The first thing that immediately comes to my mind is something that was said by the late, great Joseph Campbell. In the West, and in Western religion, Nature is corrupt. There is the book of Genesis, there is the “Fall” in the Garden of Eden—nature is corrupted by the Fall, and separated from God. Therefore, it is a Western idea that we are born imperfect, and have to be “perfected” again. In the Christian worldview, this would be through Baptism, and/or all attendant sacraments (if you are Catholic). There are similar ideas in the other great monotheistic religions. It was this idea of corruption that prompted Erik Erikson to discuss the idea of “pseudospeciation”--the idea that a particular group of human beings could be better than another, or greater than another. The idea that some human beings are fundamentally superior to others cannot lead to a positive end. Group psychology almost condemns those involved in such a situation to have one person dominate the others—and if that person does not have the qualities that make a good leader, there will inevitably be persecution or ostracization of someone in the group.
By contrast, the East does not have the same view of Nature. We are part of Nature, and should strive to live in harmony with it. Eastern religion suggests that we are already perfect—the only problem is that we've forgotten. The role of the Guru or Master is to wake you up and make you remember your perfect nature, at which point your suffering will end and you will act in accordance with the best thing in you. In an Egyptian magical text, there was an appropriate phrase--”The Aspirant takes his (or her) seat among the Gods, only to find that he (or she) never left.” As Spinoza pointed out, viewing each other as “gods” in this sense is not a blasphemy, but in recognizing the core perfection or “godliness” of another person, and treating them with the appropriate respect. When you are all imperfect and “sinful” by nature, it is easy to start creating hierarchies and to look down on those who are “lesser”.
But all this begs the question—what is perfection? How do you measure or define that? Is it by how successful you are in a worldly sense? Is it about how kind you are to others? Is it about doing everything exactly right? The word “perfect” comes from the Latin “perficere”, meaning “to cease” or “to finish”. For something to be perfect, it has to be finished. There is nothing else to be done—the person has nothing else to learn, nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Think about moments in your life where you've finally finished something successfully that you've been doing for a long time. After you have the satisfaction of a job well done, what's the next natural thought? “What's next?”, of course.
Humans like to feel useful or to feel that they have a purpose in life, a reason for being here. If we were perfect, what would be the point in being alive? The whole idea of perfection is a sham—it's an El Dorado that can never be reached. With apologies for sounding cliche—life is a journey, not a destination. We are never “finished” until we die, and even the idea that we're finished then is debatable. But finishing necessarily implies annihilation, at least of our worldly identities.
Interestingly, John pointed to the image of the angel as the concept of perfection. But angels by definition are not perfect—in fact, they are supposed to be envious of humans. In this way they are similar to deities in Hinduism—to be a deity in Heaven is not the ultimate perfected state. But the perfected state in Eastern religions requires a merging with the Paramatman, or Primal Soul. Merging with the Paramatman is liberation, but it also means you no longer exist in an identifiable way. According to Hinduism, only humans are capable of reaching this perfected state—a god would have to be reborn as a human to attain it. Back to Campbell—he points to the idea of a Unified existence, where everything is One. In order for life to occur, there has to be a separation into Two, and then further separations. To be alive is to be separated, broken apart. Religion is supposed to serve the function of making you “One” again, but much has to be given up to do that. Alan Watts used the wonderful expression “dismemberment and rememberment”--which goes back to the idea of “remembering” our perfect, Divine being.
One of the problems with religion in the modern world is that it acts as a filter. Carl Jung said that one's religion and image of God is the final obstruction to a religious experience. Religion has not served the function of bringing you back to Unity—instead, it has adopted a social function that fragments things to an absurd extreme, at its worst. To be fair, not everyone is psychologically prepared to try to attain that unified state, nor is it always desirable to try. But religion should not pretend to be something it's not—at best, it should be a road map, a set of guidelines for negotiating the great mystery of Life. Dr. Michael Kogan once suggested that God is infinite potential, and evil comes out of trying to limit that potential. There is no one way to go through life, and no religion should claim to have it. The Buddhists have this idea of learning and unlearning—in the face of that Mystery, there are no words, and none of your learning helps you. Everything just is, and it's “good”. One of the most profound experiences I had was a meditative stillness that carried into my working day. I stood in front of a woman who was screaming, pouting and carrying on about something I no longer remember—and I just looked at her and marveled that she was here, how wonderful it all was that any of this was happening at all. There wasn't any anger, just amazement at the presence of the Mystery in everyone, even her at that moment. Life is an elaborate game, and all you can hope to do is to play along, and play fairly—just don't forget that you are playing.