Serious Christians have to struggle continually against the temptation to view “merit” uncritically. To begin with, any gifts that you have are just that — gifts. Your ability to score 800 on the math section of the SAT is something for which you can personally take no credit whatever. It’s like a pretty face or perfect pitch: it’s very nice to have, but it’s God’s sovereign choice, not your sublime inner nature, that is responsible for this. And of course, he doesn’t give his gifts without a purpose.
And guess what: the reason God made you smart wasn’t to make you rich and to make you special and to allow you to swank around in the White House or at Davos. He made you smart so that you could serve — and the people he wants you to serve are exactly all those people you feel so arrogantly superior to. At the end of the day, they aren’t going to be judged on how much they deferred to you, respected you, and handed over to you all those rewards you felt you deserved. God isn’t particularly interested in what the Paul Krugmans of this world think though he wants us all to do our best to get things right; he’s interested in how much Paul Krugman and the rest of us loved and sought to serve one another.
You are going to be judged on how much you did for the “ordinary folks.” Were those Downs’ syndrome kids any better off because of the way you used your mathematical and reasoning gifts? Were the poor better fed and better housed because of the use you made of the talents God trusted to your care? Did you use your power and the freedom that came with it to help others live freer and more dignified lives, or did you parade your superiority around like a pompous and egotistical ass, oppressing and alienating the world when you should have been enlightening it?Folks, what he's talking about here is humility.
And while I don't begrudge Mead for seeing it Christian terms, I disagree that it's necessarily experienced as the result of a religious outlook. It should be the result of a thinking, contemplative outlook, one that atheists, agnostics (like myself), and religious people of all stripes can share in.
One doesn't have to be Christian to realize that one's life is shaped by factors beyond our control. Where we're born--what country, what region of a country,the particular wealth and education of our parents, even the genes they pass on to us--none of these things are in our individual control, but all can make a significant difference in our lifetime prospects. When all those factors align favorably, they're the foundation upon which hard work can be used to create a stunning success, or offer a safety net that allows the taking of risks. Sometimes, they're even enough to guarantee a comfortable life without any hard work or risk-taking.
From a non-religious viewpoint, then, all of that stuff is a crapshoot. For those of us who have attained any measure of success, that knowledge can and should be humbling, something that causes one to look around at one's fellow humans and resolve to do better--and yes, maybe even to serve them.
Mead is correct, I think, in that our society currently train people to believe that what what they've attained, they've attained almost solely through their own efforts. He lays this at the feet of non-religious "progressive meritocrats," but that's (at the very least) an incomplete answer. The enduring faddishness of Ayn Rand-style "I Am The Master of My Destiny, And All You Puny Pukes Merely Hold Me Down" thinking hasn't restricted itself to Objectivists and their God-denying ilk; it's spread more broadly into the half of the country that thinks of itself conservative, to a great many self-professed Christians who seem, these days, to think that to give a man a fish and to teach a man to fish are both contemptible acts.
So what we need is a revival of humility, I think; if religiosity is a necessary component for some people to achieve that, good for them, but I don't see that as necessary overall. And we need to find a way to help people think about "public service" in such a way that the term doesn't drip with irony when heard by the great mass of Americans. The basis for all of this is recognizing the fragility of our good fortune, seeing it (at least partly) as a blessing instead of a boast. Even if they might squirm at the term "blessing," there's no reason atheists and agnostics shouldn't help lead that project.