As I was reading Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (which I hailed as 2020’s Book of the Year in an earlier post) I was also reading Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross. The latter is a study of Martin Luther’s 1518 “Heidelberg Disputation,” which resulted in Luther’s ex-communication from the Roman Catholic Church.
What a weird juxtaposition of books! What could the two, one focused on the twenty-first century, the other on the sixteenth, have to do with one another?
Quite a lot really.
Forde (pronounced For – day) is working to illuminate Luther’s classic distinction between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. Sandel, without ever using the word “theology,” is shining a bright light on the currently reigning theology of glory, meritocracy. He brings it into especially sharp focus in his chapter on college admissions, “The Sorting Machine.”
Here’s a crack at differentiating a theology of glory and a theology of the cross, and why it still matters.
A theology of glory is about all the things that we can and must do in order to demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are on the right side, among the good people, and thus acceptable, or winners in the language of the world or “saved” in religious language.
Such things, these days, would include going to the right college (more on that in a minute), success in a career, making or having money, living in the right neighborhood, in a beautiful home, being fit and youthful (no matter how old you are), being on the right side in various causes, doing good works in community and society, and having the right people as friends. Should you believe in God, a theology of glory is also the unceasing effort to demonstrate to others and to God, that you are on God’s side and God is on your side.
The problems with a theology of glory are 1) it’s exhausting, as you can never stop striving, never cease earning merit badges and 2) it makes you judgmental. Beyond that, it’s not the gospel.
A theology of the cross is God’s way of saying to our unceasing efforts to show that we are good or acceptable, or “on God’s side” — “STOP IT!” — “Stop it right now.” “You are only building walls between us, and separating yourself from others and from your self. Listen, in Jesus Christ, I have taken your side. Forever. I will never leave it. Trust this and LIVE!” Salvation, as I like to put it, is “all about grace.” It’s a gift. “Ethics is all about gratitude.”
So back to Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit. He devotes a chapter, “The Sorting Machine,” to just how crazy the competition to get into the right college has become ($1000 an hour for college prep exam tutoring in NYC, the recent college admissions cheating scandal). There are implications of the “sorting machine” both for the 2/3’s of Americans who don’t have college degrees (the great unwashed), but also to those who are the “winners” in the great sort.
“Those who prevail on the battlefield of merit emerge triumphant but wounded. I see this in my students (he teaches at Harvard). The habit of hoop-jumping is hard to break. Many still feel so driven to strive that they find it difficult to use their college years as a time to think, to explore, and critically reflect on who they are and what is worth caring about. An alarming number struggle with mental health issues. The psychic toll of navigating the meritocratic gauntlet is not restricted to the Ivy League.”
After describing high levels of depression and suicide, Sandel continues, “Beyond these clinical conditions, psychologists have found a subtler affliction bearing down on a generation of college students: a ‘hidden epidemic of perfectionism.’ Years of anxious striving leave young people with a fragile sense of self-worth, contingent on achievement and vulnerable to the exacting judgment of parents, teachers, admissions committees, and ultimately themselves.”
Even though there may be nothing explicitly religious about all this, it is really idolatry, the worship of a false god. Getting into the right college has become a god (one who requires great and constant sacrifice). A harsh and judgmental god at that. As Calvin put it, “The human heart is an unceasing factory of idols.”
In many respects Sandel’s critique of meritocracy gone overboard, with disastrous consequences for our common life, is quite parallel to Luther’s critique of the way Christianity in his day had become a harsh system of works righteousness and buying “indulgences.” Such a religion promised that human beings have it in their power to attain “glory” by our achievements, by being perfect (or if that doesn’t work, paying off the church with special offering, i.e. “indulgences.”
No, said Luther, we shall not be saved, put right, by any such system, but only by its negation, its death, by the cross of Christ and our complete reliance on him. The cross is, as Paul said, “the foolishness of God that is wiser than human wisdom.” Or as Will Campbell put it, “We’re all S.O.B.’s, but God loves us anyhow.”
Perhaps this is one reason that so many young people (and not only young people) are filling the churches that are truly evangelical, that is, churches that are proclaiming the grace of God in Jesus Christ (not right-wing politics). There they hear a word of grace: Christ died for you, Christ has been raised for you, and Christ is coming back for you. Christ is the way-maker, the miracle-worker, the light in the darkness (as one popular song puts it). It’s not about your relentless, fevered striving. It’s all about God and God’s grace.