About 400 years before Jesus, Plato taught the world about perfection in his Philosophy of Forms. According to Plato, everything in existence was just a shadowy representation of a higher perfect form, like shadows on a cave wall represent the objects casting the image from the fire light. For everything there is a higher perfect form. The chair you are sitting in is merely a representation of a perfect chair. A horse is a representation of a perfect horse. Everything in existence has a higher perfect form.
Some 400 years later, when Jesus was born, Plato’s ideas of perfection were still the dominant philosophy. God was perfect, righteous, holy, sinless, without flaw. Humanity was a dung heap compared to God. However, among life in the poop pile, some were less putrid than others. The religious in Jesus’ day saw themselves as far from perfect, but in comparison, far more perfect than your regular run of the mill sinner. They were confident if the people of the world would all try and be more like them, the world would be a better place. In order to help others, they were glad to point out all the areas in which people had fallen short from the glory of God’s perfect plan.
Today, The Platonic Model of Perfection is still followed religiously with each church believing that even though we are all sinners, some are just a little less sinful than others. In order to be helpful, like the other Platonic Perfectionists that have come before us, we don’t begin by validating other people as beloved, we begin by invalidating others as far from perfect. We consider that the best way to be helpful.
The Platonic Model of Perfection is also primary in education, from the primary grades on up. If you take a test and answer 100 questions and answer accurately on 97 of them, your paper may be returned to you with a red, -3. Even if your test has a 97 on it, if asked, “How did you do?” you will likely answer, “I missed 3.” Plato would be proud. We learn to grade ourselves on just how far from perfection we are always seeking that perfect Platonic form.
There is an alternative. For example, I heard of a teacher who started marking her tests differently. She got rid of her red marker. She put the number answered correctly on the paper. For a child who only got three correct, she put a 3 and a smiley face. The child asked her, “Why did you put a smiley face on my paper?”
She replied, “Because you got 3 right. If you got three, then you can get the rest.”
She was not saying, “There is no goal, no scale, no measuring.” What she is saying is, “Let’s celebrate potential. You got three correct, that means you are capable of getting more.”
Rather than showing what the child could not do, she pointed the child toward potential. Billy, in this next story needed a teacher like her, and parents, and pastors, and…
A teacher asked her third grade class, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
She got the standard answers, “Fireman. Doctor. Astronaut.”
Then she asked the only child who had no response, “Billy, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Billy replied, “Possible.”
She did not understand, “Possible? What do you mean?”
He replied, “Everybody is always telling me, ‘Billy, you’re impossible. When I grow up, I want to be possible.”
Possibility or Potential is a contrasting model to Platonic Perfection and dates back to the same era as Plato. Plato had a student named, Aristotle. When Plato died, Aristotle was hoping to be appointed to Plato’s position as a tenured professor of philosophy. When he didn’t get the job, dejected, he left the city and went out into the forest to rethink his life. While he was out in the woods, he touched a tree.
Touching something alive, Aristotle thought how limited Plato’s idea of ‘perfection’ was when it came to living things. What worked well in the classroom had little application with living things. What relevance did perfection have to do with trees, shrubs, flowers, birds, deer, or people?There was no ‘perfect’ form for anything alive. Living things come in so many varieties there can be no perfect form as each has a particularly unique and distinctive form of its own. Instead of perfection, Aristotle focused on ‘potential’. He used the word, telos. In an acorn is the telos of an oak tree. In atadpole is the telos of a frog. In a kitten is the telos of a cat. In a baby is the telos of an adult. To the frustration of Jesus’ adversaries, he was a telos man. He looked at people as alive, not in some silly less than perfect ranking system. Jesus saw people as distinct individuals, alive and beautiful, each in his or her own way. While the religiously right saw many people as irredeemably imperfect and shouted, “Shame! Shame!” he saw potential in each person regardless of his or her imperfections or their past. Jesus called to all the individuals who could hear him during the Sermon on the Mount,
Each of you is the salt of the earth. If salt has no flavor, can you make it salty again? No. It’s purpose is to give flavor to food or else it is thrown out.
Each of you is the light of the world. When people get together and build a city, they do not hide it in a valley but put it on a hill so others can come to it. In the same way, why would anyone light a candle or a lamp and put it under a bucket? No, you put it on the table so that it gives light to all the house.
So let it be with you. Let your light shine so that others may see the wonder of what you do and give glory
Jesus’ call was not to consider in shame what we are not, but to find our potentialand live it out. Each of us is to find our flavor and share it. Each of us is to find our light and shine it. Each of us is to take whatever we have and set it on a hill for all to enjoy! Each of us must move from seeing ourselves as “impossible” to proclaiming, “I’m possible!” and living out our God-given telos.
If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility! Soren Kierkegaard