Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Intelligence, Academia, and Idolatry

Recently in my community group, we talked about idolatry. Even though I don't bow down to wooden figurines, it made me think about something that may have been an idol of sorts in my own life: my smarts.


One question that was brought up was, how do we know when school has become an idol? I'm pretty sure we've all worried and been anxious about taking tests and seeing what kinds of grades you get. When you're in college, these things are rather important. They, in some way, influence how you advance in the future. Nobody wants to fail a test. It looks bad on the GPA and might deter possible employers. Failing a course is costly in terms of time and money.

I think school might be an idol if we worry too much about it. An idol is something that we give over control of our lives to. We look to our idol for security and fulfillment. The problem is, grades aren't very good at that. God has already established himself to be faithful in giving us security and hope, but grades can't offer that same hope. They're fickle. We might go into a course expecting bad grades, and come out well. Or we could go into the exam room thinking we have it all figured out, only to discover ourselves woefully lacking in the needed knowledge.

When we give control to grades and academia, making it our idol, we give ourselves to an unfaithful master. So we worry whether we will do well. It really feels like a roll of the dice. If it seems like the outcome is pure chance, where can we get hope from that? The proper response, from a Christian perspective, is to realize that our hope should not come from getting good grades, but rather from God. If we are faithful to him, God will see to it that things work out for our best, and his will be done. Even if it means - gasp - getting a few bad grades. It's one thing to be anxious before seeing the numbers. It's another thing to hinge our entire lives on them.

"I am so Smart, S-M-R-T"

From about fifth grade through high school, I was the star student. In high school I was usually near the top of the class, was in the honor society, took college-level courses in junior year, and so on. Even in community college I was rocking the 4.0 GPA four out of five semesters.

As you might imagine, something I've always valued is my intelligence. I was praised for being smart for my age, being ahead of the curve. And I wonder if that's not been an idol in my life at some point. If something is an idol, you put great value into it, especially emotional value. It means a lot to me that I am smart. In fact, it was quite a humbling experience to find out that I really wasn't so smart after all. Oh sure I could handle high school, but what about the real life stuff? Filing taxes, driving a car, those things. Let's not even mention college, where my average test score is simply "passing" - not above average, not stellar, just passing.

I feel like I could handle physical disease better than I could mental ones. I could probably handle going bald or losing motor skills. But things like dementia, amnesia and Alzheimer's - those are the things that really bother me. I've build up a warehouse of knowledge in my brain that is continually being improved upon. The notion of it wasting away, becoming inaccessible to me is the worst kind of punishment. In a way, I would be losing who I am.

Maybe I'm putting my intelligence on an undeserved pedestal. I think maybe it's time I acknowledge it for what is is - a gift from God. Because that's really what it is. I'm smart because God needed someone smart to carry out his plans, and he just happened to decide upon me. Yeah I'm the one who studied and built up that intelligence, but it's God who gave me the ability to learn so readily and keep knowledge for so long. Instead of valuing the intellect, I should value the giver of the intellect. If I am to boast about my smarts, I can only boast about God giving me the smarts. It's his workmanship, after all. Instead of being haughty that I know so much, I could remember that I am just a servant of God's, and the intellect is just one of the tools I've been given to act as that servant. The credit doesn't go to me, it goes to Someone higher than me.

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