March 3, 2009

Power, Responsibility, and Religion

Academic doctors gather before a graduation pr...Image via Wikipedia

Earlier this week, our graduate program conducted interviews with prospective students applying for our doctoral program. After meeting with applicants, it was time to make some difficult decisions. Who would gain admission, and who would be turned away? How would I rank-order the applicants, and at what point would I draw the line so that nobody below this point would gain admission? As I reflect on the process, I must say that I find something unpleasant about this sort of power - the ability to influence the educational and occupational paths of others. I found myself feeling bad for those who didn't make the cut, even as I rationalized my decisions by telling myself that I would be doing a disservice both to the profession and to the applicants if I admitted people who were not qualified. It puzzles me how some could find pleasure in such an exercise of power, but it is clear that many do.

To some degree, each of us has power. We can influence the course of our lives within limits. When applied to ourselves, we often refer to this sort of power as "freedom." Many of us have another sort of power in that we can influence the lives of others. For example, a parent has power in that he or she can influence the lives of his or her children.

Most of us realize that this sort of power involves tremendous responsibility, and we do not exercise it lightly. Others seem to focus more on the exercise of power itself and much less on any sense of responsibility. For them, power becomes a tool with which to manipulate and control.

Some people even crave this sort of power to the point where they will commit despicable acts to obtain or maintain it. Some become the sort of politicians who work largely to line their own pockets and punish those who disagree with them. They may actually inflict harm on those they are supposed to represent in the interest of strengthening their political power.

Other power-hungry sorts become members of the clergy. Indeed, it is this sort of power at which religion truly excels. I am not sure any example one could find in the political or business worlds can touch religion. For the faithful, what could be a greater power than wielding influence over one's soul?

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