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Theological Publications







Economics of Salvation


The more I think about it, the more it seems to me there are three factors underlying the scenario we behold today in most religions' promises of salvation. The first is the archaic notion of admission to paradise as a good held by the god that one must buy or win. The second is the ever-present and inevitable pressing weight of the mundane world that never allows salvation requirements to get too far out. (No religion that makes extravagant, impossible demands is going to succeed in recruiting great numbers.) The third is an extension of the second: one way to make salvation more manageable is to oversimplify, and what Walter Kaufmann called “Bible-gerrymandering” is a product of this urge.


One: Biggest Ticket Item

First, then, the nature of gaining salvation as a transaction for desired goods. An excellent point made in Huston Smith's book Forgotten Truth is the East/West divide (though that's an oversimplification, each tendency being present in both hemispheres) of the ultimate goal of salvation in the East being the attainment of Enlightenment/Reality, whereas in the West it is "pleasures at thy right hand forevermore." Accordingly, two different types of plan of salvation follow. In Western religions (or should we perhaps say, mass religion, the Mahayana or greater vehicle/wider path within each religion), there survives the ancient notion of God as the possessor of heavenly goods, in this case eternal life and paradise. God is jealous of his prerogatives and unwilling to share them with mortals.

The base line myth here is Genesis 2-3, apart from the Christian reinterpretation. That is, Yahve Elohim wants the fledgling humans to tend his garden, which contains two trees from which Yahve Elohim and his fellow deities ("... like one of us") eat. In fact it occurs to me that the Eden myth has much the same logic as the gospel parable of the Wicked Tenants! The gods don't mind if the adam, the man, eats from the tree of eternal life, at least initially, in fact they want him to consume the fruit of eternal life, since they want there to be only one gardener through the ages. All right, two, so he doesn't get lonely. But what they don't want him to have is the fruit of knowledge, which, in combination with the tree of life, would make him into a god. This knowledge manifestly includes that of procreation, and this would be too much of a threat to the dominion of Yahve and his fellows. So they begrudge the man and the woman, the only two humans they want there ever to be, eating from the knowledge tree. Just stick to the ignorance bushes, as Mencken said.

And Yahve lies to them, telling them the fruit is poison. The Serpent sets them straight. Like Prometheus, he is the benefactor of mankind, and a holdover from a rival dynasty of gods. At any rate, once the humans gain divine knowledge, again, including the secret of procreation, they must now forfeit the tree of life. This myth is an etiology to explain the outrage of death. It is due to Yahve's peevishness (as the Marcionites and Gnostics could see, but no other Christians seem to be able to).

Israelite belief apparently did not yet include any doctrine of immortality (except for God's favorites like Enoch and Elijah, whose ascension to heaven is only an apparent exception, since both were originally sun gods who rose into the heavens at noon). Most folks could look forward only to a miserable half-existence in Sheol, the Hebrew/Babylonian version of the Greek Hades. When belief in life after death does enter the stream, it must be a matter of chiseling out of the deity access to his privilege of eternal life. Like all prayer for boons from God, sacrifice or at least flattery is necessary. But this is the big-ticket item. So what's it going to take? And then you have the Rich Young Ruler's question: "What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?" And you have as a result all those discordant stipulations to be found throughout the Bible, which of course does not offer any single answer.

It is significant that even a doctrine of salvation by grace (and various religions, contra the boasts of ignorant apologists, have one) is still but a variation on the theme, a subclassification of salvation by works. The price of salvation merely switches over to the holding of required beliefs. Granted, in the early stages of a religion, when the old persecutes the new, holding to a new belief is a costly price to pay. It always requires a lot of will power and is, as Bultmann and Tillich correctly discerned, a "cognitive work."

But it need not be this way. It need not depend on this metaphor. In Eastern mysticism, the notion is somewhat different. And I don't mean reincarnation, where the economic metaphor is still fundamental, since one is always working off karma, bad debt, before final admittance to one's time-share in Vishnu's paradise or whatever. The really different notion is that of Yoga and Theravada Buddhism: salvation is deliverance from a mire of delusion and frustration. To be delivered from it is a matter of self-effort in the nature of the case, not to buy anything from a grudging god, but simply because one must get one's head on straight. It is like psychoanalysis (which I admit may not in fact work, and perhaps neither do Eastern paths of liberation, but that's beside the point). Your shrink can't "heal" you, but he may be able to help you see your way out of the mess you or others got you into. To stop the suffering, you have to learn to see things differently. No one could do this for you. It's like losing weight. You can't do it for me in the nature of the case. So in these systems, God is superfluous except maybe as a name for the final condition of Sat-chit-ananda (Being-Consciousness-Bliss) that you will occupy once you have done the work. Some systems lack even this.

But the mystical traditions are elitist, aristocratic (as Meister Eckhart said); not snotty or arrogant (mystics are quick to denounce such attitudes as signs one has failed to gain enlightenment), but requiring time and effort few are likely to embrace. Buddhist arhats and the Upanishadic sages were monks and hermits. They knew you could not live in the mundane world, hold down a job, provide for a family if you sought enlightenment. So immediately they had to provide some easier "Plan B" for the masses who were sympathetic to them but just couldn't make the cut, couldn’t see themselves doing it.


Two: “Most Protestants Go Coach”

This is a way of expressing my second point, that the mundane world extends such a powerful pull of gravity that few can ever attain escape velocity. (The crazy courage of Heavens Gate and Jonestown are examples of attaining escape velocity, too, less healthy ones.) So what's to be done for the masses? John Q. Public? Sally Housecoat? This accursed multitude that knoweth not the law? The weaker brethren? The psuchikoi? We construct the Mahayana, a wide path that leads not to damnation but to salvation after all! Or at least pretty close to it!

Despite the Two Ways saying in the Sermon on the Mount, the gospels have the same two-track scheme. The elite are those who heed the call of Jesus to surrender all and leave home and family. But what of the run of mankind? Jesus tells them to give generously to the poor (i.e., to himself and his disciples, mendicants like the Cynics and the Franciscans), and of course to repent. Conventional morality ought to do it. He tells the Rich Young Ruler (before the latter's earnest questions reveal him as a candidate for the elite, someone who knows there is more to be had, farther to go) to observe the Ten Commandments. Buddhists say the laity must keep the Five Commandments (no killing, stealing, lying, adultery, intoxicating drink). There are lower heavens or lesser rewards for the Plan B types, but who's complaining?

We see this dynamic in the life/evolution of sects. They begin with social radicalism and heightened zeal, because if they don't have a militant core of zealots to carry the thing, to get out and witness, to fast and deny self, to give the needed funds, to do the hard believing and acting, even to die, then the enterprise is not going to get off the ground. You need an initial generation of flower-selling Moonies who are quite willing to sleep in the van. You espouse egalitarianism and glorify ignorance ("We don't go to theological cemetery!"), comforting yourself with the assurance that God has chosen the poor and ignorant of this world to bring to naught the worldly wise and powerful. He has revealed the truth to simpletons and babies, not to the wise and intelligent. Such platitudes are the gloating of the ignorant who are pleased to let go by a world which has rejected them anyway.

But what do you know? The very thrift and industry that fed the sectarian fires eventually bring a measure of worldly success. And/or the sectarian pioneer generation begins having children. Either way, they are forced to reintegrate into society and thus cannot devote 99% to God anymore. As Max Scheler (Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge) saw, this is the turning point when the one originally regarded as a prophet and example (Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad, Mahavira) becomes a god and savior. You first imagined you could heroically take up your cross and follow him on the path. And you had to. But now you "realize" that he did what he did, lived so perfectly and admirably, only because he was no mere mortal like us, but a god on earth! In fact he must have lived so righteously in order to make it unnecessary for you to have to try! And it would be positively blasphemous, an affront to Christ, to think you could do it! So he did it for you, and you can settle back and become a Methodist. Or a Catholic or a Pure Land Buddhist. No wonder Evangelical Pietism is the most popular form of Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism is the most populous form of Buddhism, and Bhakti mysticism (sheer emotional focus on the beloved deity) is so popular in India. All say, "Love the god who saved you without your effort! Your good works? They're no good here, friend! It's on the house!"


Three: Justification by Simplification

We have arrived at the third point: simplification is a crucial part of making it easy for the masses/yourself. Winston Davis (Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan) puts it this way: every religion boils down human troubles to the "capital P problem" (desire, original sin, ignorance, etc.) so as to be able to offer a "capital S solution" to it. It has to be simple so as to be graspable, just as a life preserver must be graspable. (In a related but perhaps not self-serving way, Tillich admits a certain selective simplification is needful to create a "mythic symbol" of religious language or imagery to grasp onto to vitalize religion, though ideally one knows it is a symbol, not a literal reality and thus an idol. But I digress). You see this best when people with terribly sloppy dysfunctional lives "get saved" and their lives become manageable. I'm not knocking this. Sometimes some folks need a lobotomy as a last resort. (I don't mean to be cruel or facetious saying so.) But such a sanctified life is like Singapore--there's no crime because you'll get caned for chewing gum! Everything's locked down.

So the Evangelical "plan of salvation," the royal road through Romans, etc., is all a classic case of the Problem and the Solution. The medicine simply wouldn't be palatable if one had to swallow several different pills, not knowing which would take care of what, if anything. So we see that scripture contains not only a smorgasbord of conceptions of afterlife or the lack of it, but also a variety of prescriptions as to how to attain it (Doing rightly and walking humbly before your God? Faith alone? Faith plus works? Receiving your reward, literally "wage," from your heavenly Father? Keeping the Torah? Renouncing the Torah?). But ironically it is just the one who piously boasts of "believing the Bible" who remains willfully ignorant of these exegetical realities. For him, the texts must be run through the sausage grinder to produce one synthetic gospel.

And an easy one at that. One will never see them reducing soteriology to "It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." They always reduce it to Ephesians 2:8-9: “By grace are ye saved, through faith, and not by yourselves; it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.”). Never vice versa. Because the whole instinct toward simplification is part of the urge to make it easy, to minimize the distance one is going to have to stray from the material world, what Mark calls the "cares of this age."

Over against all this, I see two alternatives: John Lennon's "Imagine"-ary scenario of just rejoicing in this life, making the most of it, and savoring the bitter-sweetness that comes precisely from its precious brevity. Or that of the Yogis and Theravadins, those who, for this life or a dubious but possible next one, are busy getting their heads clear. I guess the former is Kierkegaard's "aesthetic" choice, the later his "ethical" choice. Take your pick.


 By Robert M. Price



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