Contrary to general expectations, the center of faith at this University lies not in Rockefeller Chapel, the Divinity School, or Bond Chapel, but rather the Saieh Hall for Economics. Formerly the location of Chicago Theological Seminary, the so-called “Money Church” represents not only the University’s most significant accomplishments, but also the lives of nearly one-fifth of our undergraduate population. Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In many ways, Saieh, as that treasure, encapsulates the wealth, success, and status sought by our undergraduate community, economics majors or not. Consequently, our hearts tie themselves to the high fantasies of joining the legendary ranks of our university’s greatest alumni—from socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (BA ‘64) to the founder of consulting behemoth McKinsey and Company, James O. McKinsey, (B.Phil ‘17). On faith, we trust in the promise and the hope that comes with admittance to a school consistently ranked in the top 10 by that auspicious secular scripture, the U.S. News and World Report. Subconsciously, we think, “I am one of the elected leaders of America, and must work hard to live up to my potential.” Hence, regarding the question of “faith and work,” the University replies, “faith in work,” faith that the work we do studying, writing, and networking will reap us a success that grants us notoriety beyond ourselves.
Naturally, this faith goes beyond the University of Chicago. This faith is shared by the other prestigious universities that we attend for graduate school, the prestigious firms we join as analysts, and the prestigious political institutions we “exit” to. For this reason, Pastor Rand Tucker of Hyde Park’s Vineyard Church likens the undergraduate experience to an extended “hazing process,”— it stresses us out and breaks us down mentally, emotionally, and physically in order to induct us into this storied fraternity of great and “important” people. We strive desperately to be among those who write our laws, shape the business world, and leave our impact on the society we live in. The University radicalizes us with a “faith in work” meant to keep us desperately running from failure the rest of our lives.
However, the promises of this relatively “modern” university system appropiates the Ancient Greek system of honor and shame. Social anthropologist of Ancient Greek society Julian Pitt-Rivers helpfully defines honor as not only “the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society.” In Greek society, honor provides the worth of the person as seen by himself and his society. It is a person’s claim to pride and also the acknowledgment of that claim by society. The claim to pride exists on a scale as a person may have more honor compared to others depending on his or her actions or heridatary status. The claim to honor is thus a claim of excellence over others in society. Society, as the interpreter of the words and actions of a person, functions as a “court of reputation” that ascribes honor or shame to the person. Thus, the quest for honor in Ancient Greece likens itself to a combative affair in the public arena, each person acting like a soldier fighting for victory.
For the university, this affair does not employ physical weapons but instead intangible benchmarks—grades, leadership positions, research and internship opportunities among others. While these “weapons”, these measures of honor and shame may not be as publicly perceivable as in Ancient Greece, we internalize these measures to the point that our consciences embody the hypothetical “university court of reputation”. When we attain an esteemed leadership position or land a coveted internship, we tend to assert ourselves: we let everyone know about our accomplishments, and ‘feel large’. By contrast, when we fail to achieve an accomplishment, we shrink and remain quiet about our shortcomings, lest we become exposed. The desire to gain honor, like any endeavor, requires sacrifice, and because this endeavor ascribes worth to the whole of our existence, it ultimately requires that we devote our lives toward its fulfillment. By spending our time and energy writing papers, attending networking events, participating in case competitions, or perhaps volunteering for political campaigns, we make our emotional lives subject to our achievements. On a given day we may feel ecstatic in the morning about earning an A- on an exam when the class average was a B-, only to despair in the evening after learning we’ve been denied a summer analyst position at yet another top firm when our peers have already signed offer letters for their dream jobs. These mercurial emotional swings are understandably linked to our perceived change in performance-based social status that the “faith in work” system instills in us.
Moreover, this system serves to bind us as much as to divide us. When we look upon other people with honor or shame, we join with an ensemble of others who do so as well. These people may be our peers or even the great people the University honors as role models. In either case, our individual perceptions of achievement are tethered to judgements proclaimed by “the court of reputation” of the community—one defined by its belief in “faith in work”. As students, we form our own niche communities constituted by our friend groups, major cohorts, and recruiting teams, forming collective bonds through our shared goals. Yet by forming these collectives, we effectively also erect arenas for achievement that pit students against each other as they compete for the same set of internships, positions and accolades. As a result, even the relationships we build with each other are subject to disposal if they threaten our quest for honor. More subtly, our relationships can become tainted with mistrust and lies since the system of “faith in work” incentivizes us to hide our mistakes and failures in the face of our competition. The religion of achievement promises us respect, praise, and acceptance but instead leaves us alone and in fear of our next failure.
St. Paul, writing in the first century Mediterranean, aptly describes this state: “Being deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures, we lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Surprisingly, Paul includes himself under this indictment, despite having been a renowned Pharisee, a position of great honor by the measure of “faith in work” in his Jewish community. In Philippians, he writes, “If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more…as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” (Philippians 3:4-6). Paul describes his honorable position in shameful terms because even within this system, which had the noble goal of achieving honor before God and people, it was one that encouraged him to look upon others with condescension, cultivated pride, and incentivized deceit. Thus, even the most “honorable” conception of the “faith in work” system ends up leading people to “devour each other” (Galatians 5:15).
However, we are not left under this condition. Instead, “when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:4-5). What is this mercy? It is God’s declaration that we are His children and are beloved in His sight. This declaration, given to all people who will receive it, regardless of race, class, or gender gives people honorable status, based not on what they achieve or possess, but on God’s kindness alone. This declaration vanquishes the grasp of our community’s corrupted conscience and restores “the court of reputation” to the truth of God’s judgement. In turn, this new declaration promises God’s guidance and assistance in our lives.
This declaration also fundamentally transforms our perception of work. Regarding our vocation, this declaration of mercy offers freedom from the burden that comes from tethering our identity to our achievements. This truth does not eliminate the need for work but rather restores vocation to its proper place and grounds it in the acknowledgement that we are people first and foremost created and loved by God. As people beloved by God, we have been given talents, abilities, and the opportunity to explore our interests and capacities together. The difference is that these achievements do not lead to the system of pride and despair, honor and shame, but rather a system that conceives of our achievements as our gifts to the world that God enabled us to give. When we achieve good things, the system of God’s love tells us to celebrate with friends at the opportunity we have been given. Likewise, when we fail to meet expectations, while we are allowed to feel disappointed for a time, we do not let our failures define who we are. Instead, because our identity does not depend on our work, we can move on from failure and take that disappointment as an opportunity to explore new avenues or improve our own skills. The truth of God’s love and guidance enables us to be honest with ourselves and with others about our talents and struggles. In turn, God invites us to think about our “work” as an opportunity to explore who we are in the world God created, struggles and all. Still, though we will seek exclusive positions or achievements that we may fail to obtain, the truth of God’s love invites us to persevere, knowing that our failure does not define us and hoping that the same God who created us will lead us into the path we should go.
Communally, this truth promises to turn our communities from acrimonious arenas to life-giving gardens. Since God loves impartially, we should love impartially in our communities. Instead of looking upon each other with envy or pity, we should now look upon each other as true friends in the journey to discover our place in the world. We exist as advocates for one another in achieving success, pushing each other to fulfill the abilities God has given us. Thus, the example of combat transforms into the example of gift-giving—our talents and personalities are gifts given as blessings to each other.
Thus, the Good News of Jesus Christ transforms the system of “faith in work” to “work because of faith”. Because we have faith in God’s love for us, we continue to work, achieving and struggling in the process, to fulfill our God given potential. The pieces in this issue hope to flesh out the realities of this journey, illuminating the times of joy, frustration, anxiety, surprise, and contentment we come across in our work and professional pursuits. Ultimately, this journal invites you to ponder the relationship between our achievement and our identity, hoping that in the process, we are led to embody the transforming love God has for us to each other and this campus—even Saieh Hall.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!” (Ephesians 3:20-21)