Christ did not come to call the just but the unjust. (Luke 5.32) We are gently commanded to be “perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48) But it isn’t easy. Indeed, by ourselves, it is not possible. We are not gods. We are told to “repent” and be baptized (Acts 2:38). The assumption is that everyone has something to acknowledge that ought to be repented, if he just knew exactly how and, more importantly, chose to do so.
Christianity, at least initially, is not a religion intended for the perfect, but for the imperfect. This fact does not mean that it does not know about the perfect. But none of humanity’s individual members is simply perfect. We are at liberty, as it were, to be imperfect without at the same time being encouraged to be sinners in the use of that liberty.
Recently, I came across the following sentence from Joseph Ratzinger (June 3, 1977). To be able to “quote” someone, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski often tells us, is to be able to include in our own thoughts what we find in the mind of others. We can be, as it were, more than our own limited range of thought. But we need to acknowledge what belongs to us and what comes from another. This is why we have footnotes.
Ratzinger wrote: “The unrealistic demand that everything the Church teaches be lived completely and in all its fullness fails to take into account humanity as it actually is.” Such a passage recalls Aquinas admonition that improvement in ourselves or in our surroundings comes about “gradually.” If God had expected us to be able completely to transform ourselves on just one hearing or seeing of what is good, He would have made us angels, not men. It is all right to be a human being. It “ain’t” easy, but it is all right.
Ratzinger continues: “There exists in every man a certain tension between that which the Church recognizes as what the Christian ought to be and do and that which the average Christian normally achieves.” Such a passage is very close to Chesterton’s common man. This approach does not mean that we need not weep often enough when we see our failures for what they are. Indeed, our capacity to reflect back on ourselves enables us to acknowledge and restore to right order what has gone astray because of our own causality.
“Humanity as it actually is”—this is a very provocative phrase. We can contrast it to “humanity as it ought to be” or “humanity as it was never intended to be.” David Warren said someplace that, if God had wanted the whole world to be Christian, it would have happened by now.
Again, it is all right to live in the world that we are given. But we can reject it too. We can so see the world that we have no responsibility for the mess. Others are responsible, not us. God is the culprit. He created the world to be this way. He could have sent a band of angels to help us out at times of need but didn’t. He wanted to see what we made of ourselves if left free to do so.
God has, as it were, a metaphysical bet with humanity – namely, that God’s understanding of what man is and ought to be as indicated in reason and revelation is much better than any alternative man comes up with. We are now living in the era of the alternatives that man has dreamed up, as it were.
“Humanity as it actually is” now includes the deviations and aberrations manifest in human living. The import of Ratzinger’s admonition was to counteract a certain utopianism that would tear the world down for the slightest imperfection. The Church itself is caught between its obligation to teach what is true and its sense of realism about what degree of perfection we can expect from the kind of normal beings we are.
The high side of this tension is the expecting too much, while the low side is expecting too little so that the crossing of the line between good and evil is broached in the name of man as he is. We judge man not by what he ought to do, but by what he “does” do – words made famously by Machiavelli, though he has many friends.
Which causes us more difficulty – to expect too much of us or to expect too little? The question can be debated. Sometimes, I suspect it is the demanding too much. Yet it is precisely from those of whom much is demanded that we take our models. Humanity as it actually is includes Socrates and Christ, without whom it would not be easy to call ourselves human beings as we actually are.
*Image: Portrait of Machiavelli by Antonio Maria Crespi, c. 1600 [Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan]