by George Bailey.
I have sort-of tidied the kitchen, we have done half the homework before getting upset, and one of the children has fed the dog (I think). It’s not perfect, but is it good enough? ‘Good enough’ is a popular concept in the world of parenting theory. The idea was pioneered by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott,[i] and is now popularised in parenting books, including Christian ones such as Good Enough Mother by Naomi Starkey; she writes,
“We may feel that we will always truly doubt whether we are truly good enough mothers – but we should never forget that in God’s eyes we are, fundamentally, good enough […] Knowing this should fill us with confidence – the sense that we can, with our heavenly Father’s help, continue the work of looking after the sons and daughters with whom he has blessed us.”[ii]
This reflects a common feature of popular theology in the last fifty years or so whereby striving to achieve an ideal lifestyle is seen as the mistaken path to an over-anxious, guilt-ridden spirituality. The ideal of perfection is unhelpful: nobody’s perfect, and that’s how God intends it to be.
I do think that there is much spiritual wisdom in Starkey’s book – when we bear weighty responsibilities which it really is not possible to fulfil in all their potential fullness, and parenting, in my experience, is certainly an example of this, it is very wise to trust in God’s mercy and redeeming love. However, I am always wary of this ‘good enough’ way of talking about God and our response to God. It is not an attitude that is easy to locate in scripture, which describes God’s promise for those who are in Christ, and the complementary call to follow. When Paul prays for the Colossians, “…that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God,”[iii] does he imagine that the prayer could become reality? Or would he settle for ‘good enough’?
In one of the most significant recent books on the Christian theology of perfection, titled Diagonal Advance, Anthony Baker analyses the ‘good enough parent’ concept as proposed by the US psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.[iv] Baker acknowledges that Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic point is sound – “the honest and painful acknowledgement of the boundedness of life in time and space, and of the inconsistencies of human desires, is central to any possible happiness”[v] – but he is wary because, “Having rejected perfection as pathology, ‘good enough’ can become the new perfection.”[vi] There is a hint of this in the quote above from Starkey with the use of the word ‘should’. The rejection of the ideal can simply make way for a new lesser measure, possibly even more problematic as hidden behind softer language; to go forward on the basis of ‘good enough’ entails an often unspoken acknowledgement that there is also ‘not good enough’. Furthermore, once we are adrift from scriptural moorings, all manner of ideologies may rush in to fill the vacuum left by a truncated vision of Christlike living.
Baker’s great insight is that both sides of this common debate in the theology of recent centuries are working with an unhelpful theological frame. He terms them ‘Promethean’ and ‘anti-Promethean’. Prometheus is the Titan of Greek mythology who stole the divine fire and so became like a god, and by giving it to humans sparked the beginnings of civilisation; he then suffered eternal punishment for his transgression of the right order of things. Baker identifies some Christian theologians who champion the ideal of perfection and so are accused of desiring to become like gods (and so cease to be human?), and others who resist this ideal and so limit human achievement to isolated human endeavour detached from divine intervention. Both are unsatisfactory – can we recognise instead that we may fully desire union with God without ceasing to be human, and also that no merely human-bound ideal for life can allow us to fully realise our God-given potential? The incarnation is central to uniting these two notions, one spiritually ‘vertical’ and one ‘horizontal’, making a ‘diagonal’ resolution whereby we advance into the perichoretic love of the Trinity. I commend Baker’s voluminous study of numerous authors on this, not least John Wesley. Overall, Baker favours the work of Maximus the Confessor, as the pinnacle of centuries of patristic developments.
“Creatures do not want to be homousian to patria [the same substance as the Father]; they want to be in love with the Father’s ousia [being/substance]. The perfecting that emerges in the Church Fathers originates in this desire, and develops in stages, as the fathers generate a vocabulary capable of defining creation as that dependent being which receives God without destroying itself. This is the end of all things, ‘the rest of the loving heart in eternal motion around the beloved’ (Maximus; Quaest. ad Thal. 59)”[vii]
How does this help me go an extra mile with the daily challenges of parenting, rather than too quickly saying ‘never mind, that’s good enough’? Baker’s diagonal resolution is about incorporation of the human into the Trinity by the bestowal of a divine gift, received by human loving desire for God. Maybe seeing the tasks to which we are called as gifts through which we can know God’s love could transform our attitude and help us avoid getting caught on either side of a Promethean dichotomy?
[i] See for example D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin, 1973), and his earlier term of the ‘Ordinary Devoted Mother’ in Babies and Their Mothers (Free Association Books, 1988), pp. 1-14.
[ii] Naomi Starkey, Good Enough Mother: God at Work in the Challenge of Parenting (BRF, 2009), p.102.
[iii] Colossians 1: 10, my italics added
[iv] Baker cites Bruno Bettelheim, A Good Enough Parent: A Book on Child Rearing (Random House, 1987), in Anthony D. Baker, Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology (Wipf and Stock 2011), pp.14-18. Bettelheim draws on Winnicott’s earlier work.
[v] ibid., p.14.
[vi] ibid., pp.14-15.
[vii] ibid., p.194