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The More Perfect State

Written by Michael Cline : April 2, 2008

cthulhu4prez-preview.pngOne thing about this post that might throw off long time readers of JM: This will not be about “the Man,” that overbearing nation-state. (At least not directly).

One thing about this post that will not catch anyone off-guard who has ever read my stuff: There will be at least one quote from a church history document that hardly anyone else finds interesting.

Seeing as how it is election season (anyone who says it is an “election year” apparently missed out on life since 2004), it is little surprise that posts on Jesus Manifesto about voting are gaining in link power. Two of the most popular are Mark Van Steenwyk’s 1o Reasons Why I’m Not Voting and Casey Ochs’ 10 Reasons To Vote (a gentle rebuttal to Mark).

For Mark, voting only gives us the chance to choose between the “lesser of two evils,” something he’s not satisfied with. The system is just set up this way, there is no way around it. Furthermore, any choice for President is to effectively place someone in a position where non-Christian decisions have to be made (going to war being the main one). How in good conscience can a Christian make such a choice? Much of Casey’s rebuttal falls along the lines of “the system isn’t perfect but it is the best we’ve got.” We should be faithful to Christ before we are faithful to the Constitution, but where the two do not directly butt heads, we owe it to our ancestors and immigrants to vote (This is a simplification. His article is much more nuanced and well presented than this). You can vote and still be prophetic in many areas.

This dialogue gets to the heart of what I have been wrestling with in many of my latest posts. It is Voltaire that is held responsible for the saying “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” Pushing towards some perfect state, whether in studies, religion, or even exercise, can indeed become the enemy of the good. We feel beat down when we don’t reach the pinnacle of perfection–when we choose the “lesser of two evils.” When someone volunteers at a soup kitchen we remind them that they don’t “really live among the poor.” Or when a middle-aged mom of three buys a hybrid SUV in an effort to go “green,” she is bombarded by her even more progressive friends that she still lives in the suburbs and relies on oil every day.

But the opposite of Voltaire’s often summoned quip is true as well–the good can become the enemy of the perfect. After all, we are fallible human beings; why not just try our best and see where we land? We are at the same time saint and sinner (Luther’s famous “simul justus et peccator“), so sin boldly. The “good enough for now” can become “good enough”…which gets translated through time into “the way it has to be.” Our familiar rocking chairs become comfortable as “adequate” gets passed off as “reality.”

And now for the historical quote that you’ve all been waiting for:

For many readers of church history, the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church overshot the mark, as many reactionary movements do. Ignatius of Loyola, for instance, wrote that if the Church had “defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” But Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” had me pondering another passage in light of my struggle to balance the good with the perfect:

“Let us remark in passing, that we must never engage by vow to take a state that would be an impediment to one more perfect…” (Spiritual Exercises, part ii)

There is no doubt that Ignatius was referring to the vow of celibacy in contrast to the state of matrimony. Marriage was “good,” but it was not as “perfect” as the vow of chastity. For Ignatius, the good could certainly become the enemy of a more perfect state. The question is where to employ this attitude in our daily lives.

When are we to search after “the more perfect state” rather than settling with an apparently good option?

Where are the areas where the “good” is never “good enough” and all lesser options should be shot down?

General Editor’s Note: Mike didn’t choose the image for this post. I (Mark) chose it for the 3% of those readers nerdy enough to get the joke. End note.

for further reading . . .

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