Vol. XLI No. 2 — February 1963

The Imperfect Will Pass Away

Conrad Hahn

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away with. — 1 Corinthians 13:10

⁎  ⁎  ⁎

The title of this Short Talk Bulletin is a modern translation of the New Testament verse quoted above from the King James Version.

Tie concept of perfection is as old as the intellect of man. It has been the particular concern of theologians, philosophers, and those who seek to improve the conditions of human life. It is a yardstick, by which men have generally tried to establish values for their activities and aspirations.

Yet if any idea has suffered scorn and derision in modern times, it is the idea of the perfectibility of man. We are passing through a discouraging and disturbing period of confusion. Values are changing. Ultimate or universal values are being laughed at or abandoned.

The American writer, William Faulkner, pointed out that we have been living so long in a state of universal physical fear, that we have become too emotionally exhausted to feel any real concern for the problems of the human spirit.

That fear is the product of a tremendous forward surge in scientific knowledge and in man’s ability to manipulate his physical environment. The terrifying power of nuclear explosion is causing all of us to scurry frantically into our dark little caves of self-interest and false security, where there is no light of human brotherhood or of the challenging hope of the perfectibility of man.

But scientific knowledge, the cause of so much of our fearful frustration, really illustrates the idea that “the imperfect will pass away.” To be sure, man’s moral and spiritual understandings have not caught up with his increased scientific knowledge; but the very acceleration with which that knowledge is accumulating reveals a continuing process of “doing away with that which is in part,” or imperfect.

Think for a moment of the mental and emotional distress of European man about five hundred years ago. The feudal system was breaking up. Life was harsh and difficult and terribly uncertain. The average man had practically no knowledge or education that could help him to understand or to adjust to the tremendous changes taking place around him. Values were changing. Men had to seek new ways to change the imperfect conditions in which they had to live and to fulfill their destinies.

Into the midst of this social and intellectual ferment there exploded a phenomenon that provides one of the aptest comparisons in history with the situation we are experiencing today. That was the stirring drama that is known in the history books as the Age of Exploration and Discovery.

The opening up of new lands and continents certainly extended men’s horizons in a very literal sense; but even more important, all the new exciting possibilities forced people to give up established ways of thinking and acting, because their imperfect values became more and more obvious.

New ideas were born. Without them, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions would have been impossible, as well as the political and social advances of the eighteenth century. Among these, the most important was the establishment of this great nation. That was also the century that gave birth to modern Speculative Freemasonry; but without the Age of Exploration and Discovery, that development would have been impossible at that particular time.

Now, about five centuries later, we see the dawn of a new age of exploration, the Age of Space. A new wave of dissatisfactions, restlessness, and discoveries is forcing men to do away with some of the imperfect, in the light of new knowledge, new technology, and new possibilities.

But this time the effects are being felt in every corner of the globe. Secretary of state Dean Rusk has said,

Older political forms have disintegrated. New international forms are coming into being. We have experienced enormous pressures to achieve economic and social improvements in all parts of the world, because masses of people have come to realize that their miseries are not a part of an ordained environment about which nothing can be done.

What complicates the problems of adjustment to change for us moderns is the tremendous speed with which new knowledge and new applications of that knowledge are being discovered. The history of modern science suggests that it won’t be very long before some of the results of space research will play a shattering role in our lives.

From the rediscovery of classical learning during the Renaissance to a new application of some of the knowledge of ancient mathematics, there was a period of more than a hundred years before John Napier published his epoch-making tables of logarithms, which really made modern science possible.

And from Napier’s discovery to the first great utilitarian application of his knowledge, in Nathaniel Bowditch’s Practical Navigator, another two hundred years had to pass before that by-product of the Age of Discovery transformed a human activity on which man’s commerce and communications so widely depend. The imperfect in scientific knowledge does pass away, but not always swiftly.

Nowadays, however, the interval between basic discoveries and their application to practical uses is diminishing steadily. There was a gap of forty years between Maxwell’s publication of the laws of the electromagnetic field and the first experiments in radio by Marconi. It was ten years between the discovery of the neutron and the first nuclear reaction. It was only six years between the invention of the transistor and the appearance of the first transistorized amplifier on the market. Judging by this record, some of the achievements of space science and exploration should be affecting our daily lives within this decade.

For example, much of meteorology still concerns itself with day to day predictions of the course of the weather by means of observations of the immediately preceding conditions. Weather predictions in Washington, D.C., are based primarily on what happened yesterday or this morning in southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

But weather forecasters are still hampered by large blank areas on the global weather map — the poles, the major deserts, the southern oceans — where storms may brew undetected for days before they pass over inhabited areas.

Space satellites, however, will strengthen the hands of meteorologists tremendously, because they will provide continuous global weather observations. Six Tiros satellites have already been launched by NASA to furnish photographs of cloud covers, an important first step in global weather coverage.

These Tiros satellites also carry a tiny instrument known as an infrared detector, which is only a forerunner of more important achievements than cloud cover photography. This infrared detector measures the heat radiated by the earth’s surface and atmosphere. When that information can be combined with more from other sources, it will indicate the balance of energy in various regions of the atmosphere, which provides the driving forces for weather activity.

When such space satellites can measure the atmospheric energy balance they will give us much more exact knowledge of the global causes of weather. We may then make the breakthrough from twenty-four hour predictions to accurate forecasts of a week or longer. The imperfect in weather-forecasting is passing away.

Yet that achievement will probably be one of the least spectacular results of the age of exploration in space. There will undoubtedly be many other journeys and discoveries that will be reflected back into our lives and change our global society. Much of the imperfect in scientific knowledge is passing away; much of what we now know only in part is being done away with.

Why, then, does this new age of exploration and discovery fail to lift the moral imaginations of men, particularly to arouse the spiritual daring of mankind? In spite of our increasing ability to do away with the imperfect in scientific knowledge and in man’s ability to control the processes of nature, so many people are fearful and discouraged, so quick to surrender a belief in the perfectibility of man.

Can it be that modern man is responding too slowly to the accelerated tempo of new knowledge and new discoveries? Knowledge can be a dangerous tool if we fail to grasp its far-reaching truths and implications.

If a man might know for certain that one week from today the nearby mountain passes will be exceedingly dangerous because of a terrible snowstorm, but he insists at that time on driving a truckload of merchandise through the mountains to market, would he not be lacking intelligent imagination in his use of more perfect weather knowledge?

When researchers develop a new drug that eases pain and discomfort without the habit-forming properties of morphine and barbiturates, is it not a shameful lack of constructive imagination to sell such a product as thalidomide before it has been completely tested for every possible dangerous after-effect? Harsher words might be used to describe the purveyors of such a drug, whose desire for quick profits is permitted to be more decisive than a concern for human health and safety. But questions should also be asked about the lack of intelligent imagination in the users of such a drug, who are willing to subject their bodies to unknown risks in their desire for quick and easy remedies.

Thousands of malformed children bear horrible testimony to the fact that not all new knowledge will cause the imperfect to pass away. In our own country, thousands of children, the born and the yet unborn, have been spared such a fate because one woman in the Federal Food and Drug Administration had the imagination to believe that a drug is imperfect until it has been completely tested, no matter how much time it requires.

But Dr. Frances O. Kelsey’s real achievement was not her revelation of the harmful effects of thalidomide on unborn babies; it was her steadfast refusal to license the sale of that drug so long as she was not completely convinced of its harmlessness.

In spite of harassing pressures and vicious threats against her professional reputation, she stood firm in her refusal to permit the sale of a drug that was being widely acclaimed as “the perfect sleeping pill.” Dr. Kelsey insisted that the perfect may still be imperfect, and that it too must pass away. That took not only spiritual imagination; that required moral courage of the highest order.

For that she has been honored publicly, by the President of the United States. For that she ought to be honored by a society like ours, which proclaims as its highest purpose the moral improvement of men. When Masonic bodies seek to improve their public relations, let them never forget their most fundamental objectives. If they must pass resolutions to convince the rest of the world of Freemasonry’s laudable purposes, let them resolve to honor such outstanding exemplifications of moral courage — like Dr. Kelsey’s — which stand up to and defeat organized greed and willful ignorance. Such heroes of the spirit will help the imperfect to pass away.

In spite of the pessimistic conclusions about imperfect human nature that might be drawn from such illustrations, a thoughtful Freemason must refuse to make them. After all, what is Freemasonry for? If it is not a continuing search for truth and knowledge that enables men to do away with the imperfect, in human nature as well as in scientific knowledge, then what is a lodge of perfection for?

One of the most positive assertions in modern times of the idea of the perfectibility of man was made recently by a famous American novelist, John Steinbeck. He certainly left no doubt about his literary credo when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm, Sweden, in December 1962. He said:

The writer must declare and celebrate man’s proven capacity for courage and compassion and love, for gallantry in defeat, for greatness of heart and of spirit. These must be flown like a rallying banner of hope and of imitation.

I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication and no membership in Literature.

To which a serious Freemason must say “Amen.” But if our gentle Craft seems to lack effectiveness and power in these bewildering days, may it not be partially due to the fact that too many have too easily adopted that spiritless slogan and excuse: “You can’t change human nature”? Perhaps we have forgotten the spiritual means by which real human progress has been achieved. Perhaps we need to remember that scientific knowledge alone cannot make the imperfect pass away.

Many of those who say that they believe in the perfectibility of man too often fail to make it apparent, because, in Steinbecks words, they do not believe it passionately, they have no dedication to its necessary consequences.

Those consequences are implicit in Freemasonry’s greatest tenet, brotherly love. Those necessary consequences were described by the Apostle Paul in the famous thirteenth chapter of his epistle to the Corinthians:

Love suffereth long, and is kind. Love envieth not; Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.
Love rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices always in the truth. Love beareth all things; Love hopeth all things; Love endureth all things.
Love never faileth. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

Is not this the spiritual means by which each individual Mason has obligated himself to labor for the perfectibility of man? So long as brotherly love, relief, and truth fail not, the imperfect must pass away.

The Masonic Service Association of North America