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The hollow meritocracy

  • 08 April 2021
  A side issue in the revelations of the abusive treatment of women in Parliament has been the dichotomy made between quotas and merit. In the Liberal Party many members base their opposition to quotas in a core belief of the party that merit should govern all advancement in society.

The debate about quotas based on gender has been well canvassed. The wider issues raised about merit and meritocracy, however, merit further reflection. Far in the background to both conversations lies a sophisticated body of reflection on merit among Christian theologians.

Theologians drew the metaphor of merit from legal and commercial transactions. It was defined as the quality of actions that as a matter of justice entitle one person to a reward from another. With money at stake and lawyers involved, distinctions between different kinds of actions and theories about the kinds of merit they possessed multiplied from antiquity on.

Christian theologians adapted the metaphor of merit to describe the relationship between God and human actions. They asked whether good actions entitled us to a reward from God. Augustine argued, and his position proved normative in the Western Church, that salvation was God’s gift (grace) and was mediated by Christ’s life and death. In the relationship between God and human beings there was no space for any merit based in human entitlement. The exclusion of merit raised a then led theologians to ask whether there was space left for human freedom and about what value obedience to God’s law, life within the church and moral striving had in Christian life. 

Western Catholic theologians argued that although human beings had no merit of their own, they received it by God’s promise, with the result that a good, prayerful life lived in the church could contribute to their salvation. Salvation was still by God’s gift, but that gift was mediated to involve human activity. This insight was reflected in the rich texture of medieval religious life with its sacraments, indulgences, penances and prayers. These, however, could easily be seen without reference to God’s gift, as machinery whose mastery could guarantee salvation.

Luther and the Protestant Reformers saw the transactional metaphor of merit and the tissue of practices that it engendered as a corruption of Christian faith. They sought to abolish them. They focused on the metaphor of gift within which salvation was entirely unearned. It was to be received with gratitude, not calculation. This gift