Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Limits of Competence

I have been raised and reared under the Gospel of Excellence. If everything we do is supposed to be "to the glory of God", then (the assumption goes) everything we do must be excellent, because only excellent things are worthy of the glory of God. However, having lived under that burden for many years now, I'm beginning to see that the assumption entailed in it are incorrect.

Anyone under the burden of "perfectionism" knows that ultimately perfection is unattainable, but the drive to grasp it shoulders guilt upon us. So we try harder, and fail -- maybe a little, maybe epically -- and we try again to get it just right. I wonder, though, if this call to perfection might be part of Adamic pride, the desire to be as God without reference to God. If so, then it is a peculiar sin, since even God did not make all things perfect: ask any farmer about their marginal land, ask any carpenter about marginal wood, ask a coffee roaster about 'defect' beans, etc.

Instead, I would like to proffer the idea of competence: we work not for perfection, but for fit. To return to a bit of agriculture (or gardening, if you prefer), marginal land is not rendered useless by its status as marginal. Instead, special care and consideration is needed to make proper and sustainable use of that land (sustainable being understood as use that preserves or improves the fertility and integral structure of the land). Sometimes its best use, its most competent use, is being marginal: a barrier between the rows of crops and the 'wild'. However, if our agriculture standard is 'perfection' (and that usually is defined in an industrial economy as 'efficiency'), then marginal land qua marginal land is useless. It must be (incompetently) turned into row land, which makes it unsustainable and is deeply damaging to the structure of the land and the humans who are to care for it, as Wendell Berry might point out.

Competence, then, involves a few neccessary things that distinguish it from 'perfection': humility to see and know the work, land, idea, people as they really are; care to get into the marginal parts of life along with the 'better' elements and to understand them; place, since no thing is ultimately disconnected from where it grows, whether we are speaking of plants or ideas or factories. 'Perfection' or 'excellence' are, in the end, Platonic ideas, ideas beyond the reach of man that make us feel trapped in our creatureliness; competence embraces creatureliness, yet mourns sinfulness (not the same thing!), and makes the best of its created circumstances. Competence is thrifty -- even apple peels can have copious amounts of canning pectin rendered from them. Excellence ends up being wasteful, as apple peels cannot contribute to a larger goal (pectin is never the goal in perfection). The idea of scale really does hit home here: competence can be content with the small, with excellence is always striving for the 'big' solution to the 'big' problem.

Developing competence, of course, is no easy thing. Especially since competence is so wide ranging: one can be 'excellent' in only a few things; one can be competent in many. Consider just the duties of a house husbandman: carpentry, plumbing, painting, mechanical maintenance, care for animals, care for wife and children, etc. Competence in these things is developed over long periods of time and in conjunction with community (we observe and help others to build these skills). Excellence in any of these things, apart from a conscious disciplined career choice, is impossible for us -- I certainly will never understand the full inner workings of my car, but that doesn't mean that I cannot use and maintain it properly.

Excellence, however, is still needed. I strive for excellence in my theology and in my coffee roasting -- however, excellence must itself come by way of competence. Only when I have learned to care for these things as concrete entities, as placed things, can I develop them to their greatest potential.

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