by Will McDavid
“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’s coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him….”
We hate bad news; we always have. When our failures or fears or impending impasses become tangible, we do all we can to resist. If we can just make the indicators of our failures go away, we will be free of them, living in a bubble of affirmation and flattery, in ignorance of the facts.
Tigranes was a great Armenian king in the first century BC, who cobbled together a huge empire and received praise throughout Asia. He eventually came into conflict with the Roman Republic, which sent an invasion force rapidly to besiege his capital city in Armenia. Unable to believe, after all his conquests, that he was facing a genuine threat, Tigranes simply removed the messenger, perhaps with a subconscious fallacy which suggested that would be dealing with the problem itself. It wasn’t, and, after a devastating loss to the Romans, he ended up losing the majority of all he had conquered.
Plutarch isn’t strictly historical; as a writer to Romans, part of his message in this episode must have been to highlight the audacity of Lucullus, a Roman hero. And part of his message may have been to imply the total superiority of the Romans to what were then regarded as uncivilized Eastern kingdoms. Tigranes may have mastered numerous Eastern armies and battles, but the Romans were something else altogether—so fearsome, so above and beyond his ability to account for, that Tigranes’s only response could be shutting his eyes.
It may be too tidy a metaphor, but perhaps we all have our own little kingdoms, domains in which we feel in control and at home, “masters of our domains,” as Jerry Seinfeld once put it. We feel like everything is under control and going our way, ticking neatly on our metronomes—the kids are doing well in school; earnings reports are going up; the retirement fund is looking good; the marriage has never felt better. And then the Romans come—something beyond our reckoning, something abrupt and offensive; things go south with remarkable rapidity. Our control mechanisms are overwhelmed, and what once seemed so secure is now all but dead as the enemy bears down upon us. ‘News from across the sea’—which is often bad news, initially—threatens to undo us.
Everyone responds differently, but some form of burying our heads in the sand is pretty typical. I haven’t killed a messenger over a Roman army’s advance anytime recently, but try telling your friend that her boyfriend’s bad for her, or that his career is turning him into someone impossible to be around. Try telling a mother that her kids need reigning in. In practice, we do tend to remove the bearers of bad news from our lives, usually to surround ourselves with voices telling us everything’s fine.
“Killing the messenger,” of course, is a misguided form of control. It is the belief that if we can change the signals we’re receiving, we can change the reality those signals are expressing. This is a problem for everyone, but especially, it seems, for the religious. Omens, prophecies, rituals of control – they can all serve to mitigate or manipulate those signals that are constantly coming in, signals we will filter and skew and spin. As for Plutarch, he may have seen Tigranes’s panicked attempts to maintain control as barbaric, but the Romans were just more sophisticated with their signal-management. Niccolò Machiavelli says of the Romans: “All the rest of their ceremonies, sacrifices and rites depended on [oracles and soothsayers], for it was easy to believe that the god who can predict your future, be it good or evil, could also bring it about.” Just like Tigranes and his messenger, the Romans took it out on the soothsayers when the hoped-for future did not come to pass.
Why is this still apparent today, that we ‘kill the messenger’ or believe that, in envisioning the future, we can change it? Again, perhaps it is—and always has been—our psychological tendency to assert control in cases in which we have very little of it. Although we moderns have rejected oracles and divination, we certainly have not lost the fundamental element of pagan religion, which is the desire to have control, even at the expense of ignoring the facts in the process.
Those oracles of antiquity promised a way of measuring the success or failure of a military campaign; their influence upon human religion consisted largely in providing a way—albeit an imperfect one—to control those measures artificially. And we moderns implicitly control our own religious measures, perhaps confusing, or better conflating, habits and behaviors with interior states of holiness. As the Romans began believing that they could alter the future by altering the oracle’s prediction so, too, do we implicitly believe in the achievability of our states of grace. We over-identify with our own measures of virtue. Certain changes in behavior—which are properly results of being graced —sometimes mistakenly seem like lights along the path to holiness.
Why do we believe this, though? Why do we often confuse the measure with the target? One starting-point for examining this is through the lens of economics, which offers an emotionally objective window into the problem. It cuts through our tendency to blame the messenger, by revealing the idea of control to be misplaced from the start. In the case of actions and personal virtue, there is no “mediation” per se—it’s just an inner relationship between actions, choice, and character—so blaming it on the oracles won’t work. We have only our pretensions of control to blame, and economics offers a unique lens into that problem.
Imagine that you’re in a meeting among economic advisors in post-World War II Soviet Russia. Your economy is lagging behind everyone else’s, and your committee is wringing its collective hands over how to fix it. Suddenly, an idea comes to the person sitting across the table from you: most developed, relatively healthy economies have lots of factories. If you just build up to the same number of factories, you’ll have as strong an industrial economy as everyone else.
Soviet Russia attempted a project similar to this, with similar reasoning, and most people think they failed. Factories were years behind schedule or, once built, sat empty. Whatever the problem with the economy was, it was more than just a lack of physical production facilities.
There is a strong distinction to be made between correlation and causation. Like the scenario above, a principle of statistics is that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. That is, just because economic success and lots of factories tend to go together naturally, artificially increasing factories will not necessarily increase your GDP. Whatever makes other countries successful needs to be found, and it may not be a new fleet of factories.
Goodhart’s Law, first stated by Charles Goodhart, an economist and advisor to the Bank of England, described the problem with the factory example above. It can be paraphrased,
“As soon as any measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
So, for our example, if “Factories” is a measure of “Successful Economy,” we can say that an immeasurable good has been measured by how many “Factories” they have. But once Russia tries to up the number of Factories so they can be successful, too, it’s no longer a good measure, since it’s just an artificial manipulation. The measure, the correlation, breaks down.
I think Goodhart’s Law works apart from economics, too. Psychologically and spiritually, it seems that human agency, or intentionality, somehow muddies the water when it comes to “gaining information”. We’ve been talking in terms of gaining information by measurement, but perhaps a stronger thesis is possible: the attempt to control something not only ruins it as a measure, but also it subverts the very thing it is trying to achieve. In other words, control can be actively counter-productive.
Donald Campbell is a social psychologist with interest in evaluating measures of social progress. In a 1976 paper, he said something that’s come to be known as Campbell’s Law:
“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
Campbell illustrates this with an example from criminal justice. “Clearance rates”—the percentage of crimes solved by police departments—are a major performance indicator in many precincts. But as viewers of HBO’s The Wire will know, there are “artificial” ways to tamper with the clearance rate once it has become a target rather than a measure. In that show, murders which are difficult to solve will sometimes be passed off to other jurisdictions or, worse, declared accidental deaths or suicides or “missing” runaways. These actions may raise the clearance rate, but they no longer reflect a better performance from the police department—if anything, the police department is doing worse.
Returning (admittedly absurdly) to our Roman siege of the Armenians, policymakers incentivize ways to make the messenger say something different, to give a better prognosis. It doesn’t change the fact, though, that the Roman legions are still outside the gates, moving in untouched. Campbell provides a scenario of his own, citing other social scientists who have found the same result:
A burglar who is caught in the act can end up getting a lighter sentence the more prior unsolved burglaries he is willing to confess to. In the bargaining, he is doing the police a great favor by improving the clearance rate, and in return, they provide reduced punishment. Skolnick believes that in many cases the burglar is confessing to crimes he did not in fact commit. Crime rates are in general very corruptible indicators. For many crimes, changes in rates are a reflection of changes in the activity of the police rather than changes in the number of criminal acts (Gardiner, 1969; Zeisel, 1971). It seems to be well-documented that a well-publicized, deliberate effort at social change—Nixon’s crackdown on crime—had as its main effect the corruption of crime-rate indicators…achieved through underrecording and by downgrading the crimes to less serious classifications.
Here we see human optimism, specifically a faith in our ability to improve, running up against the actual constraints of reality. As police shows like The Wire illustrate, the problem isn’t so much the theoretical impossibility of detectives doing better work; they theoretically could. But it’s more a deficiency of willpower and motivation, a proclivity to cut corners; in other words, the actual impossibility of coercing progress. Practically speaking, tampering with the indicators is all they can do.
T.S. Eliot, in his The Hollow Men, wrote, “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.” It’s an accurate diagnosis of theory being stifled by reality. This “shadow” is perhaps something Luther described as the “bondage of the will,” something that’s also been termed original sin. It’s obvious that Eliot’s “reality” of human failing is a component of original sin, but if the Eden story is to be trusted, the overconfident “idea” arising from pride—the desire to deny our limitations as humans—is the flipside of the “shadow.” Sin, in other words, is not merely our failures, but also our own self-justifying ideas, too often implicitly denying our tendency to fail over and over and over again.
How do you reconcile the expectation (a better clearance rate) with the reality (the inability or unwillingness to improve)? Well, if the indicator (the clearance rate) serves as a symbol and illustration of the “shadow,” you twist the indicator; you corrupt it. The theological word for this is “casuistry” —mentally manipulating the demands of God’s Law so you can pretend you come closer to fulfilling it than you actually do—but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When the idea of improvement, in the prison example, runs up against the reality of un-improvement, two things may happen. First, the indicator itself may just be twisted, giving inaccurate information or measurement (Goodhart’s Law) but nothing worse.
Second, as Campbell points out, use of a social indicator as a target may not only corrupt the indicator’s usefulness as a measurement of success, but may even sabotage the success itself.Thus efforts to increase the clearance rate not only fail and muddle the statistics; they may even actively contribute to injustice. The program designed to increase success in fact reduces it.
As a second example, think about education and standardized testing. In order to increase performance, you must first have a reliable way to measure performance, so you can have a way to judge whether or not your program is successful. Standardized tests have naturally presented themselves over the years as a common-sense answer to this problem. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. But there are downsides. First, teachers will begin to measure their own success by their students’ standardized test scores, especially if those scores are being used to evaluate the teacher’s performance (they often are). The measure then becomes a target, and teachers intentionally focus on raising scores because they must to keep their supervisors happy. But teaching to maximize test scores is necessarily different from teaching to maximize learning. Campbell provides a summary of the problem:
From my own point of view, achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.
The more a student is “generally competent,” the higher she’ll score on a standardized test, all else equal, and so this method of evaluation probably worked well initially. But to the extent that teaching the test skills is the goal, the scores will no longer be a reliable indicator—maybe the students spent a full two months taking practice tests when they could have been learning math and history. Those students will do better on the test, but perhaps not for reasons of increased competence. And so, again, our attachment to raising our tangible, quantifiable measures of our own value and others’ value will lead us to raise those measures artificially, in a way that ruins them as metrics (Goodhart’s Law) and perhaps even sabotages our performance unintentionally (Campbell). Even words can serve as measures of interior emotional states, measures we perhaps corrupt; the problem is endemic not only to our over-attachment to social progress—education and criminal justice—but also and especially endemic to the most optimistic movements of personal transformation.
There’s a now-classic short story by Raymond Carver, called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” What makes the story so quintessentially modern is that the characters, two couples drinking gin around a table, spend the entire conversation trying to define “love,” but their conversation serves to muddle the word’s meaning rather than clarify it. Each person has his or her own emotional baggage, which motivates each character to define love differently. Each couple struggles to define love in such a way that their relationship exemplifies it, and it’s precisely this attachment to the idea of “love” that tinges each attempt to define love with self-justification. The characters continually tell each other, “I love you,” trying to hold onto this attachment—but none of them know what love is.
“Love,” in Raymond Carver’s story, has become a target rather than a description and, as a target, it’s become undefinable; it has lost its descriptive power. Each attempt to define love is actually trying to effect it, trying to bring it into being, and the dissociation between their ideas of love and the now-muddled reality of their relationships forms the tension which drives the story forward. The ineffectual attempt to create love by defining it in a certain way lends Carver’s conversation a dimension of semi-tragic resignation. Every word is a messenger of a reality, and though we may not kill the messenger (as did our poor Armenian king, Tigranes), we force him to speak differently, to put words into his mouth. Again, the Romans remain at the gates—and the siege is worsening.
The contemporary self-help movement reflects a certain disunion; millions of books or seats at speeches sell each year on the basis of the idea that we can think ourselves into new motivations, personalities, or character traits.
“Serenity now!” (Seinfeld). “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” (Saturday Night Live). These mantras, parodied as self-consolation, are trying to engineer emotional spaces by forcing them with denuded words, which inherently express nothing simply because their utterance is predicated on the internal, psychological absence of what they aim to express. They are words divorced from the meaning. I am reminded of M.C. Escher’s drawing of hands drawing each other into existence, an edifice built only on itself. We cannot think or will our way out of our selves; it’s a paradox to imagine a broken thing trying to repair itself. “Serenity Now!” expresses an inner state of peace that is missing, and yet the words have meaning only if spoken by someone who truly has access to serenity. This is a linguistic corollary of Goodhart’s Law: we think we can build emotional realities out the words intended to express them.
Tigranes seemed absurd for surrounding himself with flatterers, but at least those flatterers were real people, not phrases or ideas, projections from within. The idea that I have peace in my life cannot effect the reality, nor ideas about emotional states effect their realities. All that happens when we try to force such manipulations, as Campbell saw, is that the words gradually lose their meaning; their power is used up. Who can define words like “redeem,” “transformational,” “intentional”? Christianity has milked them dry; our concepts are desiccated by abstract application.
The linguistic corollary to Goodhart leads into psychological territory: we fasten onto expressions of non-existent realities because we desire them so much. Of course we desire progress, for ourselves and the cultures we’re in, and the most ideological of us—the hyper-conservatives, blue dog liberals, religious fundamentalists and rationalistic humanists—use the most abstract words, and often do the most harm to their original meanings. We are left with a vocabulary incapable of describing these realities at all, and so we lose our sense of them. Perhaps the modern crisis of relativism and multiplicity of meanings is due not only to “secularization,” but also to misuse and projection by those most attached to the concepts’ reality.
In these ideological circles, it is no surprise the vocabulary must be recycled every several years or so. New words must be created to bear meaning after the old ones have disintegrated into meaningless abstractions. And yet, everywhere these emotional expressions are turned to a constructive end and gradually lose their ability to express reality, new ones are created. Even in Christian circles, phrases like “becoming image-bearers,” “tending the garden,” and “shalom-makers” don’t sound all that different than the mantras parodied by Seinfeld and SNL, or even from trendy corporate abstractions like “stakeholder” or “strategic dynamism.” Perhaps the test of any religious phrase’s groundedness in reality is its ability to endure throughout time, resist our projections and manipulations.
But how do we define God or love or spirituality or sanctity? Good or bad? The most meaningful words are also the ripest for our projections. We can say with accuracy that God is like a father, but “negative” theology would warn that God is still more unlike than like any human father we’ve known. Such a warning does not sap the description of God as father, but protects it. To over-identify the metaphor with the reality does violence both to the meanings of divinity and of fatherhood. In a similar way, post-modernism has deconstructed much of our religious vocabulary, and the faithful feel threatened by that. But, if Goodhart’s Law holds with linguistic measures, our fragmented and synecdochal attempts to recapture these meanings may denude the words every bit as much as deconstruction has.
The breakdown in meaning is not simply linguistic, but semiotic as well, applying to a broad range of symbols that function like words, but more broadly. In the Genesis story, the apple signified an exalted, divine status to Adam. Claiming this status for himself stripped bare the concepts of both divinity and humanity; confusing the two, Adam’s quest to be super-human made him sub-human, and we participate in this mistake.
How do you measure holiness in a person, in yourself? The problem is almost impossible to solve. “As soon as a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” I would say that Goodhart’s Law is amplified in church. Where are we, as human beings, more invested than in the righteousness offered by our own religions? And whether it’s the church, the synagogue, the family, the gym, what occupies our minds more than freedom from guilt, moral satisfaction, even the desire to be good people? And if this is true, then we will tend to make spiritualmeasures into targets to an almost absurd extent.
A no-brainer spiritual measure, at least in the church, is improved behavior, which is quite a natural response to the Gospel. I remember going to college and encountering Christians who didn’t drink before age 21. Some of these people were perfectly all right, abstaining from alcohol out of an earnest desire to honor God in the way that seemed best to them. Others—perhaps the majority—were abstaining because they thought that’s what Someone Who Wants to Honor God does. In the second case, a measure had become a target, something defining.
The measures are legion in life: it may be marital fidelity; temperance with alcohol, tobacco, or drugs; sexual orientation; career and family success; salary; prestige; education; race; political affiliation; physical health; societal approval—the list goes on. Whatever the field, it seems we cannot help but make the measure into a target, at least to some extent. It is a fundamental human impulse. We will fixate on and obsess over tangible signs, ways of showing who we are inside.
The measures, whatever they are, are the messengers of our “closeness to God”—our state of holiness. We can keep surrounding ourselves with good habits and actions which, like Tigranes’s flatterers, convince us we’re OK. When our moral kingdoms are under threat, these metaphorical fig leaves really do help us feel better. But we need good messengers, good measures, good intelligence. Knowing the facts on the ground (namely, that the Romans are sieging) runs absolutely against the grain of our own affirming measures. The optimistic Tigranes, surrounded by flatterers and about to be looted, presents an excellent picture of being “curved in” on oneself: the world can no longer speak truth, because our projections color the world in such a way that it speaks only what we want to hear. The measures condemn us, so we push them away. Achievement is a great way to do this—to stay absorbed in one’s own, self-justified reality.
I’m reminded of Cain, who found God’s preference for his brother Abel’s sacrifice to be an accurate measure of his standing before God. But he rejected the measure, thinking he could self-justify by simply removing Abel from the picture. He didn’t make the measure into a target, but he certainly decided to obliterate it.
I also think of the Pharisees, the only group with whom Christ was consistently indignant, who lived their whole lives by taking the “measures” of the Law and targeting them for the sake of their own righteousness, ignoring the real problem in doing so. “Whitewashed tombs,” indeed. The same terminology could apply, though perhaps less harshly, to a school teaching testing skills four months a year or to a police department which has engineered an astoundingly impressive clearance rate by savvily manipulating their cases.
And of course it applies to the laws of “spiritual disciplines” in Evangelical churches, the laws of intense spiritual experiences in Pentecostal churches, the laws of social justice in liberal churches. All are accurate measures of spiritual health in an ideal world, but none are accurate measures in actuality—because we’ve made them into targets.
Doing so, they also become subversive. We tend to lose sight of the interior life of the church because of these measures; we tend to lose the real love and gratitude that ideally lies at the root of all these “fruits.” Worse, we honestly convince ourselves we’re doing well by these measures, and we become self-righteous by them. On the other hand, sometimes we fall flat, and cannot convince ourselves we’re ever going to hit the mark, and become burned out, depressed, paralyzed and self-hating (if not church-hating). It is a central reason why few people are joining churches today and why so many are leaving.
All of that deconstruction of our self-measures can seem hopeless, but it’s not. To be sure, it can serve to point out that any Christianity or other religion which hopes to actually save us must have as its chief object the removal of our need to live up to spiritual measures. It perhaps even suggests that forgiveness, atonement, and the end of the Law are the only objects of spiritual attention which can prove salutary to a believer. And yet, there’s the problem of the here and now. In a cosmic, metaphysical sense Christ removed all measures approximately two thousand years ago. But how do we get them out of our heads? Life on the other side of those evaluating voices would look unimaginably free and spontaneous and genuine and, yes, much like we imagine a ‘spiritual’ life would look. But how do we get there?
* * *
Perhaps faith is a posture of trusting that once our measures have been removed, there will be something underneath, something good. “What we will be has not yet been revealed” (1 Jn 3.2), but we will know love without measure, and perhaps the moments in which we feel loved in our weakness on earth—loved unconditionally—are foretokens of that. There are moments of freedom from measures in relationships, hobbies, and careers, an unselfconscious and surprising enjoyment of trivial and everyday things.
Perhaps, on the other side of measures are freedom, love, spontaneity, and genuine enjoyment of things, mere things, without reference to how they reflect on our identities or values or stories about ourselves. This is not a freedom that comes from neglecting those questions of value, but one which must come from addressing them head-on. Christianity claims that they do have that value, but how does this happen?
Perhaps letting a measure be a measure, even if it’s one that condemns us, is the first step. Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization which has done more firsthand research on real progress than any other, would say the first step is admitting “we were powerless…our lives had become unmanageable.” Christ makes a similar move in his Sermon on the Mount, stripping us of our attachment to external measures and the corresponding neglect of our inward lives: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother or sister is subject to judgment” (Matt 5.22-23).
I may make “not killing” into a target, but in Christian terms, I’m still a murderer. Christ seems to be saying that intentionality of any sort—defined simply as making something behavioral into a target— presupposes that we fall short of the goal. If I take these words, from the Sermon on the Mount, as instruction to not feel angry or not lust, I miss the entire point, which is that the problem runs deeper than actions or feelings. Christ’s religion was one of “hugging the cactus” —in other words, seeing ourselves as we are and living in reality. Reality alone is curative. I like what Flannery O’Connor once said about one of her stories, and a woman who found it depressing: “I think she would have found it uplifting, if her heart were in the right place.”
By O’Connor’s measure, none of our hearts are in quite the right place. The Sermon on the Mount is deconstructive by attempting to elaborate on this point. The “measure,” at this point, is identical with God’s Law, and God’s Law, if we let it work deconstructively, strips our pretensions and our pride. And it’s precisely our pride, our attachment to moral identities and myths of progress, which makes for bad policy. More importantly, that pride—again, speaking biblically and experientially—is perhaps the primary source of our judgment of other people, our defensiveness, our insecurities and anxieties.
If we allow it to work deconstructively, the Law will do this, and relief and gratitude and freedom are on the other side. But we cannot “try” to allow this because, again, we are consigned to make even this into a target. The 20th-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar describes the movement of making selflessness and freedom into a new law:
When a doctrine (first in the master, then in the disciple) becomes a technique, there is present a self-destroying paradox: intentional effort is exercised to achieve the repression of all intention, which, with or without a teacher, amounts to a self-motivated storming of the realm of grace. (The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form)
We will be relieved from the burden of intentionality and effort in glimpses and flashes, while kneeling into an old pew at dusk, or while driving alone “on wet roads on autumn nights” (Stevens). The relief comes sporadically, and perhaps our attunement to this relief can increase, incrementally, as a constant in our lives over time. In the spiritual context of Goodhart’s Law and Campbell’s observations, two answers to our problem of striving after measures present themselves.
First, we know from human experience that we cannot see “progress” in ourselves, even if—perhaps especially if—it’s really happening. With regard to observing someone’s state of holiness, the French Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion writes, in “The Invisibility of the Saint,”
Even the highest virtues, when people raise them uncritically to an alleged holiness, are debased to the rank of fancies that are often more monstrous than shallow…Through a performative contradiction that is intuitively irrefutable, someone who lays claim to sanctity disproves it in him- or her-self. Why can’t holiness lay claim to itself? Not only because one does not want to fall into massive trap of pride in one’s own satisfaction and self-affirmation, which is involved, but above all because holiness is [indicatively, descriptively] unaware of itself.
Indeed, the original story of idolatry in the Bible—the Golden Calf—wasn’t so much about worshipping another god as about attempting to redefine God on human terms, to render him controllable, to remake reality in a human image. The desire to control God, or control reality, by defining it in human terms, is the continual danger of religion. Marion uses “idolatry” insightfully and incisively; defining the “measure” of holiness at all is not something within the realm of human capability.
We overattach to tangible measures of value like standardized test scores or clearance rates, and this both harms value and produces anxiety, placing us on the hamster wheel of the Law indefinitely. The fact that holiness can never be a perceptible or tangible thing may be immensely comforting; Goodhart’s Law would introduce this problem of measuring value to many other spheres of life. Faith, among other things, is a posture of renouncing our control and self-reliance. Knowing we never had control in the first place may be comforting. Put another way, Goodhart’s Law placed in a spiritual context may free us slightly from evaluating ourselves and our place on the ladder, because such evaluation is simply not possible in many cases, least of all in the case of holiness.
Second, there actually is someone who has removed the criteria, with a love that, in the midst of our failings, “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4.8). “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In terms of spiritual experience, this statement rings utterly true. It deconstructs any form of Christianity that makes self-transformation a target, and it corners the inveterate inner-Pharisees still whiting the tomb. Maybe it even places us in an impossible bind when it comes to self-improvement or identity management—and brings us to the beginning of humility.
Humility is not a virtue we develop so much as an attunement to the facts of reality. Sooner or later, the Law takes us there. The bad news “from across the sea” comes—the Romans are here!—but only as a harbinger of the Good News to follow—provided, that is, the bad is allowed to speak. The paradigm of Christian life is death and resurrection, but “hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom 8.24), and so the starting point—which always must be reality—often involves deconstruction and suffering as the only visible component. The death is predictable; resurrection is not. As T.S. Eliot, student of the shadow, later observed:
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.