Man’s Vain Search The quest for perfection can lead to the Gulag or the Cross
In 1922 H. G. Wells published A Short History of the World. He would have been better off sticking to science fiction. At the end of his book, Wells wrote: “As yet we are hardly in the earliest dawn of human greatness ... What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state, and all this history we have told, form but the prelude to the things that man has yet to do.”
He asked: “Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realise our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, that it will live, the children of our blood and lives will live, in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever widening circle of adventure and achievement?”
This quest for perfection — and belief that it was attainable — was characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Christian circles, it led to the teaching of perfectionism, that Christians could actually become perfect in this life. It was behind a lot of the naïve political thinking of the day whereby people such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb became convinced that the Soviet tyranny of the 1930s and 1940s was actually a new civilisation, worthy of admiration and imitation. In Germany the notion of utopianism could be found in the Nazi master race theory.
Another manifestation of this idea can be found in the eugenics societies that existed in most Western countries before World War II. The Nazis managed to give eugenics a bad name, but not dissimilar views continue to prevail today. The various family planning associations (known as Planned Parenthood in the USA) began life as eugenics societies dedicated to the principle of racial improvement.
Now we are seeing that same philosophy taken the next step. Having children is increasingly becoming a kind of shopping experience. Babies are supposed to be defect-free or their lives are forfeit. Genetic testing is being used to “weed out” undesirables. There are three cases before Australian courts whereby people with disabilities are suing their doctors and perhaps even their mothers for “wrongful life”. In effect, they are suing because they were not aborted. The demand for perfection can produce tyranny, a cheapening of life, and degradation.
Yet Christianity too demands perfection. Christ commands us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Mt. 5:48). God’s ways are perfect (Ps. 18:30), and we are to walk in his ways. There is, however, a considerable difference between the biblical view of perfection and the various worldly views.
Paul said that he strove for perfection, while realising that he had not attained it (Phil. 3:12-14). Indeed, we cannot attain it in this life. It is part and parcel of the limitations of this earthly existence that here we see in a mirror, dimly, and know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12).
H. G. Wells’ view of life led him from idiotic optimism to despair. His last book, written in 1945, was entitled Mind at the End of its Tether. Sadly, that is how he died. The Christian quest for perfection does not lead to despair but to humility. We recognise that we will never attain perfection by ourselves. In repentance, we see that our only hope is in Christ: “For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).
H. G. Wells rejected any belief in the Fall, and any subsequent understanding of the limitations of humanity. The Christian, on the other hand, is conscious of the awful reality of human sin.
This keeps us from the kind of presumptive folly that infected Wells’ thinking. But it does not make us content with sin. While recognising its reality, we rejoice that Christ has overcome it, and that in heaven there will be no more sin.
I came across a highly interesting quotation from George Orwell, who was not a professing Christian although he did come to see the dangers in the humanistic quest for heaven on earth.
Orwell wrote: “One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.”
The quest for perfection can lead to Auschwitz or the Gulag, or it can lead us to the foot of the cross and ultimately to heaven.