The Shape of Perfection

By Rev. Shada Sullivan

What does it mean that Jesus appeared to his 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 who stood before them.

But when we go a bit deeper, this appearance by Jesus has some really interesting implications, which lead us to ask some important questions:

  • 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 and about God’s woundedness?

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 many other words besides that one have been used to imply God’s perfection (e.g., unchanging, omnipotent, supreme ). Swedenborg was certainly among them, as he often used the word perfect to describe not only the Lord but also the angels and heaven.

It is important, however, to understand the way in which the word perfect is used in this context. From a Swedenborgian perspective, we can’t have a conversation about the perfection of God without talking about the Universal Human (Maximus Homo), or, as previously translated, the “Grand Man.”

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. (Heaven and Hell §59)

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, and 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 how human beings were created in the divine image: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

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, not to mention all of the normal and expected variations in human form, are created out of God’s one divine image. When we think about the Universal Human, it doesn’t seem as though we are supposed to just take an earthly idea of the human form and make it enormous or perfectly beautiful or powerful, saying that this is God’s form.

Of course, it is tempting to do just that, because when some universal truth is beyond our earthly ideas, it is very easy to default to an ideal, to our own personal concept of what perfection is. What else would God be other than the most beautiful and perfect thing we can imagine? When Swedenborg actually describes what makes perfection, though, it is actually something quite a bit different than simply beauty.

The reason 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 because the inclusive body is made up of parts and the parts make up the inclusive body. So 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. (Heaven and Hell §64)

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. (Heaven and Hell §71)

So here, whether we are speaking about either communities or individual bodies, we are seeing a more nuanced idea of what perfection is and how it relates to the Universal Human. Swedenborg expresses two very important ideas here. The first is integration: every single component is in a relationship with 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 Paralympics? Perhaps basketballers with their super-fast wheelchairs, or runners with custom prosthetics? What they’re able to do is amazing. Often times their prosthetics seem like organic extensions of their bodies because they are integrated and unified with the function of that person’s body (as discussed above). 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 interrelated and interconnected. I think one might even be able to say that they are more perfectly engaged with the universal human form than I am, for example. Even though I have what is understood as a whole and abled-body, 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.”[1]

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 meant to be about aesthetics based on perfection from sameness; instead, it is about how various disparate things come together and about the interdependence that is formed between them.

Swedenborg says that the perfection of something is increased the more various its parts are. But why and in what way does variety contribute to perfection? And why are 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 available many 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.

Heaven is where the Lord is recognized, trusted, and loved. The different ways [the Lord] is worshiped—in variations that stem from the difference of activity from one community to another—do not cause harm but bring benefit, because they are a source of heaven’s perfection. . . . Every perfect whole arises from a variety of elements, for a whole that is not composed of a variety of elements is not really anything. It has no form, and therefore no quality. However, when a whole does arise from a variety of elements, and the elements are in a perfected form in which each associates with the next in the series like a sympathetic friend, then it has a perfect quality. Heaven is, then, a single whole composed of a variety of elements arranged in the most perfect form; for of all forms, the form of heaven is the most perfect. (Heaven and Hell §56)

So, what of the wounds of God? How do they play into what we have been exploring here? Jesus’s body was “a body reshaped by injustice”[2]—as many bodies are—by disease, violence, time, and chance. In her book The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy L. Eiesland 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.[3]

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 “our bodies participate in the [image of God], not in spite of our contingencies and impairments, but through them.”[4] 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 “a simple unself-pitying honest body, for whom the limits of power are palpable but not tragic.”[5] 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 is 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; s/he blooms fully wherever s/he is planted.

Thus, the experience of disability does not take away personhood or prevent participation in the Universal Human. And it is not that we must be martyrs and saints, praying for suffering so that we may prove our faith, prove our mettle. Rather, knowledge of Jesus’s woundedness, a condition 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.

In The Disabled God, Eiesland quotes a woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis, who in contemplating her journey said, “I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one.”[6] 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. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27).

Rev. Shada Sullivan is a minister in the Swedenborgian Church of North America and serves at the Church of the Holy City in Wilmington, Delaware. Shada is also on the program advisory team for the Helen Keller Spiritual Life Center. To find out more, visit www.swedenborgchapel.org/HK.

Notes

[1] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1994), 72.

[2] Eiesland, Disabled God, 100.

[3] Eiesland, 100.

[4] Eiesland, Disabled God, 101.

[5] Eiesland, Disabled God, 102.

[6] Eiesland, Disabled God, 46.

Related Bible Readings

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. . . . For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:19–31)

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