There is a form of human compassion that can evoke wonder, which I believe the Catholics call a “special grace.” This form is recounted by Ray Gaita, the well-known Australian philosopher, in his book, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. The wonder of which I speak, Gaita experiences when as a young man he is working as an assistant in a psychiatric hospital. While at the hospital he witnesses a nun who in her interactions with the hospital’s patients (and these patients are persons who have lost much of what passes for the prima facie dignity of human beings) conducts herself in a manner that evokes in Gaita a special kind of wonder and awe. The nun, as Gaita describes her, interacts with her patients in the absence of any condescension whatsoever. Her love is so pure that it compels Gaita to affirm, as he puts it, “its rightness.” Gaita isolates this experience because for him its singularity forces a kind of recognition upon reflection that must acknowledge that in this person, this nun, virtue, in a sense, shows itself as beyond virtue – a goodness that is not merely good, but Goodness itself. Other expressions for it may be: supererogatory action, infinite goodness, divine goodness, etc.
I would like to say that such experiences or epiphanies are the kind of recognitions that set a limit to our moral reflection. And when they are so recognized, we are left with the distinct impression that their application is not susceptible to replication. There is no sense in which I or anyone else can decide to try and improve on our Goodness. We can try to be more good than bad. We can seek to be good in certain circumstances. But to achieve moral purity or perfection is a kind of non-sense. “I think I will be infinitely Good today”. In fact, that anyone should strive to be good is a sure indication that the Goodness of which I speak is not in him or her.
And yet Jesus says to his followers, “Be ye perfect, as your Father is heaven is perfect.” Sounds like Jesus has just uttered complete nonsense. And in one sense he has. As a prescription for future action, no sense can be given to what the Lord has declared. (OK, this morning I am going to embody the Truth, exemplify Goodness, and in all things act in perfect Love). But must all moral interests be considered as prescriptions for “right living”?
What if that to which Jesus has alerted his disciples is not a radical prescription for the sake of serious moral endeavor, but a description of the astonishing contours of divine goodness when reflected in some corner of the created order. What if our Lord is giving a nod to how Goodness, Truth, Love, Purity, Honesty, Sincerity, etc., might look if recognized in someone who says they belong to God. It is one thing to avoid killing someone who deserves it. It is quite another to call someone a “fool” and thereby kill him anyway. Perhaps, because these astonishing virtues are said to be in Jesus is why we see that awe and wonder are so natural to the believer’s experience. Perhaps it is part of what believers mean when they speak of Jesus as “God”. Perhaps, it is part of what we mean by the word “God” — theologically speaking.
by: Dr. Jeffrey G. Willetts