Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Perfectibility—Possible among the Puritans

Christ taught: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as you Father which is in heaven is perfect” (The Holy Bible: New Testament, Matthew, 5:45). But Christ knew perfection on earth was not attainable for man without Him. However, the Puritan society dwelt falsely under the experimental premise that societal and spiritual perfectibility was possible. It was even mandated. But they especially misunderstood the Savior’s comment to the hypocritical Pharisees when they brought the woman caught in adultery before him and he told them, “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (New Testament, John 8:7). In Puritan society, everyone who appeared strange, did strange things or transgressed their godly laws would have found themselves buried beneath a pile of stones. This delusional infatuation with perfection is best illustrated by a statement issued by an early colonist Kenneth Lockridge, in New England, when he decreed that Puritan Societies ought to be perfect. His explanation of the Puritan experiment was found in a book by Francis J Bremer:

Christian Utopian Closed Corporate Communities:
Christian because they saw Christian love as the force which would most completely unite their community. Utopian because theirs was a highly conscious attempt to build the most perfect possible community, as perfectly united, perfectly at peace, and perfectly ordered as man could arrange. Closed because its membership was selected which outsiders were treated with suspicion or rejected altogether and Corporate because the commune demanded the loyalty of its members, offering in exchange privileges which could be obtained only through membership not the least of which was peace and order. (Bremer 103)
Knowing the Puritan obsession with perfection, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrayed the Puritans of The Scarlet Letter in just that way—obsessed. He played up their hypocritical and false premise. Hawthorne emphasized that law and religion were inseparably connected in their community. Fanatically so. The colony worked under regulation, “that the legally mandated penalty for adultery . . . was death. . . . Nevertheless, adulterers were, at the very least, beaten, branded, imprisoned, fined, and banished . . . " (Johnson p. 79). Central to the story of The Scarlet Letter is the sin and crime of adultery. The story follows as one of the offenders was taken, charged and punished while the other hid his sin under the guise of godliness. It is under this assertion that Hawthorne dangles the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale as a clear demonstration that moral and societal perfectibility was not possible.

Hawthorne chose Dimmesdale as a paradox between the perfect saint and the perfect sinner. He, Dimmesdale was seen as attaining some type of saintly godhood by his parishioners. This is a notion the reverend did not discourage, though it was said of him by Hawthorne, “it is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured him” (Hawthorne, Chapter II, p 133). He could have confessed. But no. It was much more self-atoning to endure silent suffering. But that didn’t stop the love fest. Referring to the pious young priest, a townsman told Chillingworth at the pillory punishment of Hester Prynne, “‘she hath raised a great scandal, I promise you, in godly Master Dimmesdale’s church’” (56). Single women of his church gang went ga-ga over the seemingly unspotted Dimmesdale. The “virgins of his church grew pale around him, victims of a passion so imbued with religious sentiment, that they imagined it to be all religion, and brought it openly, in their white bosoms, as their most acceptable sacrifice before the altar” (133). Were they offering their bosoms to him? As if! And the elder members of his congregation not to be out done believed thought Dimmesdale, “would go heavenward before them,” so much so that they wanted their kids to bury them “close to the young pastor’s holy grave” (133). Delusions of perfection! Even the famous godly man himself, the reverend John Wilson refers to Dimmesdale’s perfectibility when he said, “‘I have sought, I say, to persuade this godly youth, that he should deal with you, here in the face of heaven . . . ” (60).

What Dimmesdale offered the world was a perfect veneer while underneath he hid a perfect lie—a “black secret.” He tried to go straight. On one or more occasions, the young minister rose to the pulpit with the intent to confess his adulterous sin. Yes, he confessed alright. He confessed—but only to being a “vile sinner, a viler companion of the vilest, the worst of sinners” (134)—so generic, so theatric. He didn’t confess to adultery. He would draw in that “tremulous breath,” and end up appearing more sublime, more perfect. Then his beguiled sheep would reverence him even more. “The godly youth!” said they among themselves. “The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such sinfulness in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle would he behold in thine or mine!” (134). The Puritans saw points of perfection in others and not in themselves. But Hawthorne stirred the pot with Dimmesdale’s almost confession. “The minister well knew—subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he was!—the light in which his vague confession would be viewed” (135). Not only did he not confess to his guilt, but he compounded the sin by self-deception. Maybe that was his goal to appear in the eyes of his followers as the perfect confessor! And “they deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness" (133). At the close of Dimmesdale’s life he delivers a stirring speech exhorting the people to live correctly.Afterwards, the combined townspeople actually thought they saw “a halo in the air about his head[.] So etherealized by spirit as he was, and so apotheosized by worshipping admirers, did his footsteps, in the procession, really tread upon the dust of the earth?” (235). Oh, come on!

There was another who kept the pastor’s guilty secret; a person who hid the seeming sublime person of the clergyman from public view. One may ask why. Love is the answer. Love is the very emotion that elevates the recipient to the lofty level of perfection in the eyes of the one who loves. Hester Prynne loved Arthur Dimmesdale. She loved him so much that she kept his identity and seeming perfection in the eyes of his parishioners hidden. This fact is attested to when she was confronted on the scaffold and asked to reveal her partner in sin. As she replied, she looked deeply into Dimmesdale’s eyes and referred to the reviled symbol she was forced to wear on her bosom, “it is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!” (63). There is no greater sacrifice for love than what Hester did. She offered to take on his sin knowing that if he were to be punished along with her, he would lose his spotless, godly reputation before his followers. Hester offered a perfect sacrifice to maintain his spiritual purity. This she did because of love. She tells Dimmesdale in the woods, “your sin is left behind you, . . . Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works?” (180). She still sees the good, the embodiment of saintliness in him and he was “still so passionately loved!” (182).

But Dimmesdale wasn’t worthy of the self-sacrificing love of a good woman, or of the child they bore. So many times Dimmesdale had the opportunity to pronounce his fatherhood of Pearl, to admit she was his crime and his sin—his daughter. But he refused. So the saintly, godly minister of the practically perfect Puritans was anything but. Pearl wanted him to be complete, (another meaning of perfection), and to acknowledge her and her mother. “Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide?” She inquired of her father. But Dimmesdale replies, “nay; not so, my little Pearl, . . .” (142). He didn’t have the courage or the moral fiber to admit his mistake for fear of public outcry and public humility.Dimmesdale wanted to keep up the appearance of holiness solely for the purposes of selfishness. Once again towards the end of the story when Arthur and Hester meet and confess their love and hopes for a bright future together, one mixed with love, Pearl asks again, “‘Doth he love us? Said, Pearl, looking up with acute intelligence into her mother’s face. ‘Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?’” (200). Pearl knew instinctively that the clergyman should have demonstrated a singular perfect love for them, but because of the fear of looking less than faultless, he never did where it counted for good.

Into the mix Hawthorne throws Hester’s husband, Roger ChillingworthAs the story progresses and Chillingworth’s obsession to find Hester’s partner in crime consumes him, he sees through the good reverend’s untainted guise. This gives the reader another hint at Hawthorne’s scorn of perfectibility. Chillingworth saw something in the unblemished purity of the clergyman that did not ring true. Hawthorne hit the perfect nail on the head with this quote:

These men deceive themselves, . . . They fear to take up the shame that rightfully belongs to them. Their love for man, their zeal for God's service—these holy impulses may or may not coexist in their hearts with the evil inmates to which their guilt has unbarred the door, and which must needs propagate a hellish breed within them. But, if they seek to glorify God, let them not lift heavenward their unclean hands! If they would serve their fellowmen, let them do it by making manifest the power and reality of conscience, in constraining them to penitential self-abasement! Would thou have me to believe, O wise and pious friend, that a false show can be better—can be more for God's glory, or man's welfare—than God's own truth? Trust me, such men deceive themselves! (123-124).

The reverend brushes it away with subtle reasoning. "‘There can be, if I forbode aright, no power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose, whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be buried in the human heart. The heart, making itself guilty of such secrets, must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed’” (122). The reverend doesn’t believe confession is for him. He would rather wait for the bar of judgment. If perfection was the goal of the Puritans, Hawthorne painted them as having missed the mark. He did this cleverly by categorizing the hypocritical and false perfection of the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale. And in the end, what is left appears like the surface of the perfectly calm sea while underneath it is a seething hot bed of sin and un-repented guilt. Hawthorne revealed Dimmesdale’s preference to suffer when he said: “it avail him somewhat, that he was broken down by long and exquisite suffering; that his mind was darkened and confused by the very remorse which harrowed it; between fleeing as an avowed criminal, and remaining a hypocrite. . .” (189).

It should have been so easy to repent. But Dimmesdale deluded himself into thinking he was equal to the Savior. Instead of allowing the Savior’s atoning sacrifice to work in his behalf, Dimmesdale took upon himself the suffering for his own sins—which is not possible. All he had to do was offer a broken heart and a contrite spirit and the Savior’s atonement makes up the difference and takes away the sin. It’s in the Bible. They should have believed--he should have known. There was no need for him to beat himself up—literally and figuratively. His inability to confess was reprehensible. The delusions of grandeur his parishioners held for him was laughable. The cowardice he displayed by not standing with Hester and his child was abominable and even when Chillingworth pegged him for what he was, he did not climb down from the lofty godly tower and admit his guilt. What he did was deny his Savior’s sacrifice all in the name of appearing to be perfect. He could have found peace and freedom. He could have been loved. He could have come home to the arms of his lover and his child. He could have been freed from sin and recrimination by openly confessing. But he let selfishness, pride and hypocrisy rule his existence and finally died, not a perfect man, but a broken man. "Poor, miserable man!" (138).

In J. I. Packer’s book, A Quest for Godliness: The Reverend White said: “come, dear souls, in all your rags; come, thou poor man; come, thou poor distressed woman; you, who think God will never forgive you, and that your sins are too great to be forgiven: come, thou doubting creature, who are afraid thou wilt never get comfort; arise, take comfort, the Lord Jesus Christ, . . . calls for you . . ." (Packer, p. 160). "God will forgive; that's his job. . ." (Packer, p. 206). Dimmesdale should have sought the sublime cleansing that comes from repentance. But he did not—not completely. In the end, Hawthorne confesses through Dimmesdale’s admission that he and his society were anything but perfect. It could be said of any of the Puritans: “I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!” (134). “Therefore, above all things else, he loathed his miserable self!" (135).

Works Cited

Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society for Bradford to Edwards. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. 1995.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: 1850. Re-published by Barnes & Nobel Books. New York: 2003.

Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding the Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1995.

Packer, J. I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1990.

The Holy Bible: New Testament. King James Version. Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1979.

1 comment:

CMalone said...

Tim has also written an essay on The Scarlet Letter. Go here to see: The Personal Power of Hester Prynne