The Idolatry of Educational Status

This Sunday, our inaugural Rector’s Forum will tackle the spiritual issues raised by the recent college admissions scandal that has rocked the upper tier of American society. From the Wall Street Journal:

Federal prosecutors charged dozens of wealthy parents—including prominent law and business figures and two Hollywood actresses—with using bribes, bogus entrance-exam scores and faked athletic achievements to get their children admitted to elite colleges

Prosecutors said the college-counseling operation, which played out from 2011 until last month, involved paying admissions-test administrators to help students raise their test scores by either having someone else take the test, or correcting answers before they were submitted. Prosecutors also said some of the people bribed varsity coaches and administrators to admit their children as recruited athletes.

Prosecutors said it appeared the universities themselves weren’t involved in the scheme.

The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2019

There are opinion pieces from the right (here and here), the left (here), and everywhere in between (here). I am interested from my own pastoral perspective: I minister to families and oversee the school that is a mission of our church.

Anxiety, Fear, and Idolatry

Human existence is fraught with anxiety and fear — and always has been. The very first thing Adam and Eve did after eating the forbidden fruit was to hide because they saw that they were naked (Gen. 3:8-10). When people consciously or subconsciously acknowledge their limitations and their mortality and pair that knowledge with the perplexing, fickle, and chaotic nature of reality, it is easier to understand why they chose to hide.

Ancient people were closer to the earth and were more susceptible to natural patterns and anomalies than we are today. They personified and deified the earth and natural phenomena and they sought to appease them — everything from the harvest to weather, war, the sun, the moon, and game animals. These manifestations of mortality and chaotic nature were at the heart of what the Old Testament called “idolatry”. “If I can appease this idol,” the thinking goes, “my life will be better, healthier, and happier.”

Idolatry Modernizes

As the economy transformed from agricultural to industrial, the Enlightenment and its newly found confidence in human reason’s ability to understand and subdue the natural world became dismissive of what it considered to be old superstitions. However, the idols only changed shape and became different representations of what determined happiness and destiny. Today, in the Information Age, the idols have morphed again in form but have remained the same in substance. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!” sang The Who.

The Idolatry of Educational Status

Status in education is one of these idols. Status in education allows me to think that I can become less anxious and fearful of the world and of my future. I deify it and attempt to appease it. Of course, all I am doing is recycling my fear and anxiety — choosing what to give the power to make me fearful and anxious.

At its best, the Christian Gospel points people away from self-defeating propositions like this. The judgments on idolatry — especially in the Old Testament — seem harsh but, for goodness’ sake, our tendency to idolatry is so deep-seated, we need Someone to get our attention! The judgments of the Old Testament fall into the category of Law — they show us what is right and true — and how far short of right and truth we fall. The Christian Gospel is another Word entirely — it points us to a grace-filled and loving God who justifies, forgives, and adopts us in our fallen state. Don’t we all want to know this God?

A Consequence of Loss of Faith

Christianity in the West, though, is quickly receding in influence (in other words, people have lost their faith and have stopped going to church). Not so in other parts of the world — quite the opposite — but that is another article for another time. As Christianity in the West ebbs, many things are left exposed on the beach, and we have lost 1) the awareness of the heavenly Father who transcends all created items, all the lifeless things we are tempted to worship and 2) the awareness of the same Father who gives us peace and rest in His Son, Jesus Christ.

This missing awareness helps us understand the admissions scandal and the fear and anxiety that are at its heart. This anxiety is not just about concern for the future and well-being of the children. It is the fear and anxiety of parents who transfer and project their own wounds of unfulfilled ambitions and broken dreams onto their children. You can read an actual study about this here. Without the Balm of Gilead, wounds fester and spread; they weaken and drive down. This anxiety leads to all sorts of behaviors that are outside the ethical realm which we nonetheless easily justify in our minds.

Who Shall Bear the Burden?

Our children cannot bear our fear and anxiety about the future, our broken dreams, our wounds, or our unfulfilled ambitions. I’m sorry to have to put it this bluntly but this burden will break them. It will break our relationship with them, and with future generations.

Even here at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church and its school, this fear and anxiety for the future can push us in a direction contrary to our mission. Without clear thinking and purposeful Christian leadership, we can easily respond to felt needs spawned by these fears; we could allocate resources there rather than going against the grain and remaining true to our mission. Attendance, giving, enrollment and tuition can be temporal rewards for responding to fear and anxiety and allowing them to drive our decisions, but that would be short-sighted. It would exacerbate the problem rather than offering Something greater and truer.

Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is Our Savior because He can handle it. He can bear the infinite weight of our sin, our fallen nature, our broken dreams, and our unfulfillment. He can bear the infinite weight of our restless and bruised hearts. He is the second Person of the Trinity, very God of very God, begotten not made, perfect in all righteousness. On the cross, He defeated the full weight of our limitedness and our mortality once and for all and He was vindicated by the Father in His Resurrection.

The first Adam, racked with fear, anxiety, and toil has given way to the Second Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:45-49). It is the Second Adam we offer in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:2). We have a long way to go in understanding ourselves, much less understanding the complexity of our cultural context. This admissions scandal shows us one of the symptoms of a deeper issue. Let’s not waste the opportunity this news has given us to become more cognizant of ourselves and our culture as well as to become more committed to the proclamation of the Gospel in all ministries of this church.