The Shape of Perfection
Readings: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, John 20: 19-31, Heaven and Hell #56 (see below)
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Artwork by Bronwen Henry, www.bronwenmayerhenry.com
This text appears in this spot in all three of the lectionary cycles, so basically, this is the reading that always appears the week after Easter. Often times it causes us to consider the intersection of doubt and faith. Today, however, we will focus on Jesus, and what it means that he appeared to the disciples, not transfigured and whole but with wounds on his hands and feet and on his side.
It might, at first, seem that his wounds were retained only as a help to us poor humans in believing the unbelievable. The disciples were afraid that they were seeing an apparition, a ghost. Being able to touch Jesus, and to see the evidence in his body of what they had witnessed happening to him, helped them to understand that it was Jesus himself that stood before them.
But when we go a bit deeper, this appearance by Jesus has some really interesting implications. It leads us to ask: Is it by our wounds that we are known? Is it by our wounds that we can connect with other people? Is it by our wounds that we can believe in the transcendent? And if so, what does this say about God, about the wounded-ness of God?
Naturally, we are not used to talking about God in this manner. Theologians, preachers and liturgists have often used the word “perfect” to describe God, and lots of other words besides that imply the perfection of God like unchanging, omnipotent, supreme. Swedenborg was certainly among them, often using the world “perfect” to describe the Lord, as well as angels and heaven.
It is important, however, to understand the way in which the word is used. From a Swedenborgian perspective, we can’t have a conversation about the perfection of God without taking about the “universal human,” (or as previously translated, the “Grand Man.”) From Heaven and Hell #59:
“….heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual…Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human—“divine” because the Lord’s divine nature constitutes heaven.”(1)
The vast embodiment of God in reality takes the form of a universal human being, from which heaven takes its form as a universal human being, from which heavenly communities take their form as universal human beings, from which individual angels take their form as individual human beings. And because all things earthly take their existence from a spiritual inflow, we too (as angels-in-training) take our human form from the universal human shape of God.
This certainly urges us to recall Genesis, and how human beings were created, in that story, in the divine image: So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them. (Gen 1:22)
And here we are given our first hint that when we think of this universal human form of God, clearly, it is beyond our earthly framework. For example, both male and female are created out of God’s one divine image, not to mention all of the normal and expected variation in human form. When we think about the universal human, it doesn’t appear that we are supposed to just take an earthly idea of the human form and make it enormous, or perfectly beautiful or powerful and say that this is God’s form.
Of course, it is tempting to do this because when some universal truth is beyond our earthly ideas, it very easy to default to an ideal, to our own personal concept of what perfection is, because what else would God be except for the most beautiful perfect thing we can imagine? Except that, when Swedenborg actually describes what makes perfection, it is actually something quite a bit different than simple beauty. Further from Heaven and Hell:
…The reason that so many varied elements act as one in an individual is that there is nothing whatever there that does not contribute something to the common good and do something useful. The inclusive body serves its parts and the parts serve the inclusive body…they provide for each other respectively, they focus on each other mutually, and they are united in the kind of form that gives every single component a relationship to the inclusive entity and its well-being.”(2)
It is worth noting that the more members there are in a single community and the more united they are in action, the more perfect is their human form. This is because variety arranged in a heavenly form makes perfection, and variety occurs where there are many individuals.(3)
So here, whether we are speaking either about communities or individual bodies, we are seeing a more nuanced idea of what perfection is and how it relates to the universal human. In what we just read, there are two important ideas. The first is integration: every single component is in a relationship to the inclusive entity and its well being. The second is unity of purpose: the more united in action the components are, the more perfect the form.
From this we see that the perfection of the universal human is not in any way an aesthetic determination, but rather a functional one. It depends upon integration and unity of purpose, not upon beauty or wholeness or one specific ideal.
Let’s think this through in terms of an example: have you ever seen athletes who are competing in the ParaOlympics? Perhaps basketballers with their super-fast wheelchairs, or runners with custom prosthetics? What they are able to do is amazing. Often times their prosthetics seem like an organic extension of their bodies because they are (just as we discussed above) integrated and unified with the function of that person’s body. Components that we might otherwise call “non-human” are in a perfect relationship with the other parts of the “human” body. According to the tenets of heavenly perfection, these “disabled” bodies are in perfect human form, because the various parts of their bodies, natural or otherwise, are usefully and seamlessly inter-related and inter-connected. I think one might even be able to say that they are more perfectly engaged with the universal human form than myself, for example, even though I have what is understood as a whole and abled-body, because on my worst days, I do not support the integration and purpose of my body; sometimes I ignore it, abuse it or despise it, as many of us do.
This is why disability theologians have called out a too close identification between tragedy and disability, the idea of “physical disability as travesty of the divine image.”(4) Throughout the ages, physical disability has been connected to sin, or conversely to virtuous suffering. Either way, it has been considered an obstacle to be endured, and an impediment to participation in the divine image. But of course, thinking about disability in this way obscures the fact that the perfection of the universal human form is a question of integration and unity of purpose, not of aesthetics or ideal. The universal human was never about aesthetics, about perfection from sameness, but about how various disparate things come together, and about the inter-dependence that is formed between them.
Even prior to today, I’ve already preached before about the Swedenborgian theological idea that “variety makes perfection.” That the perfection of something is increased the more various its parts. But we haven’t explored as deeply why and in what way variety contributes to perfection. Why is variety and difference so important to the reality and embodiment of heavenly perfection? I believe that it is because when there is variety, there are more different ways for perfection to be achieved. So, here is the third leg in the heavenly-bar-stool-of-perfection: first, integration, second, unity of purpose, and third, increased possibility. Perfection comes from an integrated unity that is born out of the beauty of potentiality. It does not have an orchestrated or preferred outcome; it is organic and it is particular and that is what makes it real.
So, what of the wounds of God? How do they play into what we have been exploring here? Jesus’ body was “a body reshaped by injustice” (5) as many bodies are, by disease, violence, time, and chance.
Nancy L. Eisland, in her book, The Disabled God, writes:
“Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God. In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection to God, their own salvation. In doing so, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that true personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.” (6)
The revelation of true personhood, or a conscious and engaged participation in the universal human, must contain all of our experiences with disability and contingency, because Eisland continues “our bodies participate in the [image of God], not in spite of our contingencies and impairments, but through them." (7) This makes total sense in light of the notion of heavenly perfection: the universal human form is manifested by striving to integrate and unify what “is,” not by striving to eliminate what “is” in order to reach what “could be.” Thus, disability represents not brokenness, but rather, holy possibility. The wounds of Jesus prove that the universal human is not prevented from manifesting until something broken is fixed, but rather that the image of God incorporates and uses whatever is happening in service of connection and integration.
And, lest I mislead you with my example of the disabled athletes from earlier, it is important not to unconsciously make the image of God about excellence, achievement or “overcoming,” but rather about surviving in, as Eisland calls it, “a simple unself-pitying honest body, for whom the limits of power are palpable but not tragic.”(8) Overcoming cannot erase the difficulty of disability, but still difficulty is not the same thing as tragedy. In the wounds of Jesus we see this: it’s not that Jesus was excellent at not dying, or even that he triumphed and overcame death, it is that he survived a vicious and brutal act and proved that thriving, proved that living, is still possible in the face of difficulty. The universal human is not aspirational but pragmatic; it blooms fully wherever it is planted.
Thus, the experience of disability does not take away personhood, does not prevent participation in the universal human. And it is not that we must be martyrs and saints, and pray for suffering so that we may prove our faith, prove our mettle. Rather, knowledge of Jesus’ woundedness, woundedness that was incorporated into the resurrection, helps us to see that the divine image contains not only beauty and power but also integrity: wholeness-in-what-is. Eisland quotes a women who suffers from multiple sclerosis, who in contemplating her journey said: “I’d take a cure but I don’t need one.” When the perfection of the universal human is about the possibility inherent in unified integration rather than in aesthetics or excellence, or in the erasure of difficulty and challenge, we see how fully God really is with us, wherever we are, however we are. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
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