There has been quite a lot of talk in the last few months about school exams, and possible changes to these (as a teacher, I try to keep abreast of these things, not least because they usually mean a lot of extra work is coming my way - but that's by the by).
Anyway, much of late has concerned the GCSE exams of summer 2012 (the principal public exams in England and Wales, taken at the end of secondary schooling) where the requirements were suddenly made more strict, resulting in fewer pupils passing with the grades they had expected - needless to say, there has been something of a furore about this (still ongoing), and, as a result, much discussion about the way in which exams are marked and graded.
In essence, there are three ways that you can assess pass/fail and grades in an exam:
- The candidate must be able to demonstrate specific knowledge or skills in order to pass or make a certain grade, if they cannot do this they fail (the approach used, for example in driving tests, where the inability to do certain things would make the driver unsafe to be on the road)
- The candidate must obtain a certain number of marks to pass or make a grade: these can be derived from anywhere on the paper, so it is theoretically possible to know nothing about certain topics, provided one is very strong in all or most of the others
- Use statistics alone and always have a certain proportion of candidates passing / meeting each grade. This means that if nearly everyone performs badly, it is possible to pass with very few marks (and hence very little knowledge), whereas on other occasions a candidate may have to demonstrate outstanding knowledge to obtain even a mediocre grade
There has also been rather a lot of discussion about how many times candidates should be allowed to resit their exams: should they be able to keep trying and hopefully gradually improve their marks, with consequent financial and time costs for their schools, or should they wait until they are really ready and properly prepared for their exams (this could, indeed should, of course, include opportunities to practice answering exam-style questions, followed up by targetted tuition by their teacher to address weaknesses)?
It strikes me that there is something perhaps more than a little perverse that our society is quick to criticise weakenesses in a school examination system, but stubbornly refuses to even consider applying a similar set of values to its own moralilty.
The concept of absolute values is now pretty much alien in all but the most extreme cases (which involve actual crimiality), so morals are rarely assessed in a way resembling method 1 (this is the expected way to behave, and if you don't do so, you aren't living your life properly). Instead, the default approach would appear to be method 3 (nearly everybody is now living to a lower moral standard than in the past, so this standard is now o.k.).
God doesn't work like this. He doesn't accept this position of relativism: He has his rules and standards and expects them to be met. He also only allows us to 'take the exam' once (it's called death and judgement). He does allow us some time to practice, learn and prepare (it's called our earthly life), and He does provide us with plenty of guidance, teaching and help (it's called the Magisterium of the Church, Prayer and the Sacraments). This is important to bear in mind, or there might be some nasty shocks awaiting.
There is, of course, an additional strand to this - the mercy of God. Just as passing an exam demonstrates a general level of competence in a subject, but not necessarily a perfect, flawless knowledge, so a good death and positive judgement (a soul being saved) do not necessarily mean that the soul is at a state of perfection, as would be required to face the Beatific Vision of God. This is what Purgatory is about. The knowledge and skills we use to pass an exam can become more embedded in our minds if we continue to be reminded of them, and so our souls can become perfected by gradual approach towards God, accompanied by gradual detachment from the effects of our sins. Here, of course, the analogy begins to break down - we can perfect our knowledge of exam topics both passively (by being told things) and actively (by practice); the souls in Purgatory can do nothing actively for themselves, but must be perfected passively, enduring whatever pace this may occur at. That is why the prayers of those still here on earth are so important to them. and that is why the Chuirch encourages us to pray for the dead and sets this month aside to specifically emphasise the point.
Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescatnt in pace. Amen.