Richard is a philosophy undergraduate student with ambition toward a career in jurisprudence. He likes banter and debating but can be impatient and at times unsympathetic to the questions of God. Sundar is a student in electrical engineering with hopes of working in the field of wireless communications. Both young men enjoy each other’s company and discussion even though one is an atheist and the other a committed follower of Jesus and the Christian way.
Sundar: What’s good today Dick?
Richard: Not much. And don’t call me that. It’s what my Mom calls my Dad so cut that out. Not in a good mood. I’m really stressing out about law school and getting ready for my LSATs.
Sundar: You’ll do fine man, you’re the smart guy remember?
Richard: But if I don’t get in to the right school, it could affect everything. I worked my butt off for the last eight years to get to this point. I’m just a little stressed.
Sundar: What if you screw it all up now?
Richard: Not an option man. My dream has always been to become an attorney. All my focus on grades these past few years, learning how to think clearly and make good arguments was for getting into law school. If I don’t get in… [Sundar interrupts]
Sundar: What? What then? You are worthless? I mean, I think you’ll smoke the LSAT and have your choice of schools. But you need to chill out or this sort of thing is going to ruin you.
Richard: What, wanting to be the best? Not a thing wrong with that.
Sundar: Not what I’m saying. I’m trying to do the best I can do as well. This idea that you can’t make mistakes, mess up at anything.
Richard: It keeps us going though…the striving for perfection is part of what makes us human.
Sundar: But what does “perfection” even mean? I don’t know anyone who thinks they are perfect. Do you?
Richard: [After a long pause] No, not really…I mean, who could claim that…to err is to be human
Sundar: And what is “perfect”?
Richard – I’ve actually thought about this some when I was taking early modern [philosophy] It seems dumb to say nobody IS perfect if there is no perfect to be found.
Sundar: Agree, but we are not saying nonsense here. It seems we all know we fall short of something.
Richard: I’m not really sure. Maybe. What if by “perfect” we mean qualities we know about in people that are good and we just see them maximized. A “perfect” person need not exist for us to imagine one. For instance, unicorns are simply combinations of known realities but the totality of a horse with a horn does not exist. I actually think people create the idea of a god as a bundle of known human qualities. We just say a being possesses love, goodness, happiness, etc. in an “infinite and perfect” manner…and presto, you have a God.
Sundar – You are kind of missing something. Imagining a perfect being is an exercise of conceiving something/someone who is good, but in every way. If this does not exist we are imagining no-thing. Plus, just to say that goodness can be discussed in varying degrees means that there must be a sort of “goodness scale”, some reality by which we could judge such so called progress. Of course we can create imaginary things like unicorns but saying “I’m not a unicorn” has meaning. I’m not an animal with horse-like and rhino-like qualities. Of course, we only know horse-like and horns because they are real.
Sundar – My point is the infinite and the good are real concepts. If they are not real we sure speak of them as they are. When someone says “Nobody is perfect” they are saying something rational and coherent, it is not a meaningless statement. My contention is the concept and category of “perfect” is not empty – there is someone who actually is infinitely good.
Richard – couldn’t we simply mean by saying that “I know I could be better” and ditch all this “perfect” talk as nonsense?
Sundar – No, because it is not nonsense at all. You just demonstrated that.
Richard – Wha? How? I just said “better.”
Sundar – Right. But what do we mean by “better.” You ever read Nietzsche?
Richard – Of course, it is required reading for guys like me! We love us some Nietzsche in the free thought club.
Sundar - Remember his parable The Madman? He asks: Is there any up or or down? What is better if you are not moving towards some sort of limit? If we wipe away the perfect and deny that it is real, we then have no way of knowing how anything is “better” than another. Not objectively any sense. It would only be a manner of preference to say Hitler or Osama are worse than someone else. This is why Nietzsche had to say timid and cowardly things like “we must move beyond good and evil”
Richard – How is that cowardly, some say it is very bold, you know step outside of the herd of dumb humanity and live your own way, on your terms, with your own idea of morality? I think he means we can be courageous to live the way we want and not be bound by society and its dogmas; particularly the arbitrary assignment by those in power of what is “good.”
Sundar - But isn’t that all a bunch of junk Richard? Just hiding behind metaphors? Listen to what my man GK Chesterton said on this [Sundar pulls out his iPhone and does a search]
Richard – You love that dude…ease up on that man crush…
Sundar – Here it is [begins reading]: Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.
Richard – But can’t we get better without having an upper limit like “perfect.”
Sundar – How do we know we are not getting worse?
Richard – Why can’t we be moving towards a mean or balance? Even as far back as Aristotle we have known that in terms of human virtue that there seems to be a golden mean…we neither love or hate too much, we find a balance to the force in the middle, in moderation.
Sundar – Because we are talking about “better” not “average” unless you want to say “average” is somehow the same thing as good and getting more average means you are getting better
Richard – My logic prof doesn’t think so, but you see what I’m saying right? Virtue is found being balanced not in going to extremes.
Sundar – On some things yes, I do agree, but on other things, no. We might say moderation is good on some things but not on others. Moderation in evil would not be good at all. We would not want a balanced approach to abusing people would we?
Richard: Of course not, but that person would not be balanced. She would be extreme in anger, or selfishness or lack of temperance in her basic impulses.
Sundar: But it seems we do not simply want a balanced view of justice and injustice right? Or love? Or truth telling? And this still doesn’t tell us why we think we can actually improve or even more interesting, that we fall short or why such falling short is actually lacking/flawed, even bad.
Richard – If we are honest, we can all agree that we fall short of our own ideals.
Sundar – Agree my friend, agreed. The only thing I want to add is that we fall short of something, or more accurately, someone, that is real, a standard of good we did not invent, and who transcends us.
Richard – What if that standard was among us? In the human community? That the virtuous man defines goodness for us? I think Aristotle got this right. We see and experience virtue in people and we can aspire to that.
Sundar – Yeah, I really like that as well. Except for one thing, it is kind of like saying “What is good?” and then answering “The good man is good.” It still leaves the question at hand undefined. I do believe we see and recognize goodness in others as we have a conscience that allows us to “see” good and evil. And if you take the concept of “perfect” would we have to say “The perfect man is perfect?” We both agree we have never seen one of those amongst our college buddies. [both laugh]
Richard: I suppose this is what makes Jesus a really interesting figure. If he is who you say he is then we might have Aristotle’s virtue man on the scene in actuality. It is just that someone claiming to be all that on earth is a bit much. Hi, I’m Jesus, I’m perfect, I’m god. That sounds like a guy that wouldn’t be much fun to hang with.
Sundar: But what we see of Jesus in the gospels is profoundly this. He is super present with people. People loved to hang with him. He loves folks, serves others, teaches patiently, hangs at the parties and makes people feel completely at home with him. Part of perfection we see in Jesus is that he was not arrogant, but humble. He was not looking down on people who were far from perfect. He loved and forgave them. In fact, because he embodies goodness and perfection, people around him knew they did not have to fake anything with him. They knew in one sense that they were OK to not be OK. They knew if they flunked out on the LSATs that he would not just kick them to the curb.
Richard: Hey, don’t get personal man [laughs] – I think we all want to know that we are enough so that we can actually be free to live without all that pressure and burden. To do what we love to do without feeling guilty, without feeling we suck, without some external pressure to make ourselves perfect in the eyes of society or friends or parents…even god.
Sundar: But we do suck. We are not perfect and do some really jacked up mess to one another. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [Richard abruptly interrupts].
Richard: Christians can have such a low view of humanity. I really don’t like all that sin talk.
Sundar: I really don’t like sin. You didn’t let me finish – and I really don’t like how you jump on me when you get pissed about something.
Richard: Ok, apologies, finish your thought.
Sundar: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift. The message about Jesus is that you don’t have to be perfect…he is…and our own suckiness can be forgiven and we can be made right with God. Because he is perfect he’s not down with us sucking – we were made for more. We can be more. Because of his love and grace he forgives us and then begins to transform us; to be more like him.
Richard: I will think I really suck if I don’t do well on that LSAT.
Sundar: And then what?