Selling Salvation: How Much is it Worth?

Mercy is calling you, won’t you give heed?
Must the dear Savior still tenderly plead?
Risk not your soul, it is precious indeed;
What would you give in exchange for your soul?
What would you give? What would you give?
What would you give in exchange for your soul?
Oh, if today God should call it away,
What would you give in exchange for your soul?

(Bluegrass standard; lyrics by FJ Berry)

How much is salvation worth? In dollars?

No, really, I’m serious. How much would you pay? And I’m not just addressing those Christians and others who believe in literal salvation; I’m talking about ultimate spiritual fulfillment in whatever belief system you follow.

FireAndWaterAnd I’m talking about hard cold cash here. Imagine you’ve got a dollar bill: you can put it towards a loaf of bread, you can put it towards college, and now you can put it towards Nirvana. Your choice. How many dollars would you be willing to pay?

Does this seem like a crazy question? I guess it’s hard to imagine Jesus setting up a little shop at the corner of Main Street and Maple in downtown Jerusalem. (“Thursday special: Two for the Price of One! Bring a Pal!!!!”)

But really, it’s not so farfetched. More than one religion requires regular payments to advance towards salvation. (Scientology is a prominent example.) And plenty of good, wise folks sell their advice and their spiritual services. Few of them come right out and promise SALVATION with an easy payment plan and no money down… But they’ll sell you information or tools to take you the next step in that direction. Into that category you can lump psychics, mystics, fortunetellers, and even psychologists and personal development coaches.

Now technically these folks are selling information, and information, it might be argued, isn’t quite the same as salvation per se. But new knowledge and experiences are essential parts of growth toward spiritual fulfillment. So if you charge for a piece of that kind of information, you’re charging for a piece of salvation.

So here’s the $64,000 question: is that really ethical? Is that right?

WWJD?

The great spiritual teachers of history, of course, worked for free. Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, and the rest: they taught anyone who would listen, and relied on other means to make their way in the world. Most of them lived on simple charity. (Lao Tzu decided not to quit his day job: he was a librarian.) Many modern teachers, rather than follow this model and take their chances on the generosity of an uncertain world, charge speaker’s fees. And still others adjust their prices up and down depending on demand, as if a chunk of salvation were just like anything else traded in the global marketplace.

Is that how it ought to be?

I’m a libertarian myself, and I generally like free market solutions, especially as opposed to government-controlled solutions. (Here’s a tip, kids: Religion and government don’t mix!) But does the free market really apply here?

Which is Better: Eternal Happiness, or a Ham Sandwich?*

Let’s take a simple example of the canonical free market. Eris, let’s say, has golden apples she’d like to sell; and Helen wants to buy one. Helen gives Eris money, because Helen values the golden apple more than the money. Eris gives Helen the golden apple, because she values the money more than the golden apple. So far this is basic economics. Things get interesting when we ask: how much money does Helen give?

Prices of real-world items are based on the idea of scarcity: that is, the supply of golden apples is limited, so when Eris gives up her golden apple, she expects something in return to make up for the loss. She can demand as much money as she wants, of course — and she’ll get as much as Helen is willing to pay. Depending on how hungry Helen is, that may be quite a lot. But if Eris charges a lot more than it cost her to get that golden apple in the first place, then some other apple-seller — say, Idunn — is likely to come along offer Helen golden apples for cheaper. Then Eris won’t sell any more golden apples until she lowers her prices, too.

Here’s the main point: regardless of how much Helen is willing to pay for golden apples, if there is competition in the marketplace, the price of golden apples will gradually go down until it matches the cost that the sellers paid to get the golden apples in the first place. Any lower than that, and they’ll lose money on each sale. Any higher than that, and some other seller will undercut them.

Now, at first glance, it may seem that the exact same model applies to information (and salvation). Suppose Eris is selling salvation alongside her golden apples. How much does she sell it for? Well, whatever Helen will pay, obviously — just like with the apples. But suppose Idunn starts selling salvation too! They get into a price war, each lowering and lowering the price of salvation until….

Well, there’s the rub. When Eris and Idunn give salvation away, they still have the same supply. It’s not like they’re going to run out! Salvation simply isn’t scarce. So in a situation of competition, the price continues to fall until it hits zero. At that point, it cannot be sold at all. (Of course, it can still be used in promotions and other sorts of marketing. “Buy a bushel of golden apples and get salvation FREE!”). Or maybe Eris will claim that her salvation is better than Idunn’s salvation, or package it differently, or personalize it, or otherwise add value, allowing her an excuse to charge for it.

But all other things being equal, the natural cost of information in a free market always tends towards zero. You can see this most obviously on the internet, where an unbelievable amount of extremely valuable information is available for the minimal cost of an internet connection.

It’s important to distinguish between the cost of the information itself versus the cost of transmitting the information, i.e. the transaction cost. The transaction cost is the expense involved in actually making the exchange. All exchanges in a market have a transaction cost — even if it’s just the time and gasoline required to go to the store to buy something. When you buy information, most of what you pay is transaction cost. The salary of a school teacher is basically a transaction cost: the information is not transmitted effectively without the teacher’s performance, coaching, and grading. (Otherwise, schools would just pass out textbooks.) The marvel of the internet is that the transaction costs are reduced to almost nothing.

Notice also that it’s competition that drives down the cost of information. If you’re the only one who knows how to build a cold fusion reactor, that information is worth untold billions. But just a few other people who are also willing to sell the information is all it takes to drive the cost down to negligibility, despite the incredible value of the information to the buyer.

So: according to the unbreakable laws of the free market, salvation (and pieces thereof) should be free (except for transaction costs). This is good news for those of us interested in getting some salvation for ourselves. However, this is bad news for people who provide salvation. It means that they are stuck in a business in which they absolutely cannot make a profit — or perhaps even make a living– despite the fact that they’re providing something extremely valuable.

There Ain’t No Money In It

So why would anyone go into the business of saving folks?

Most obviously, the work itself is its own reward. Giving a piece of salvation, freely, is wonderful for both the recipient and the giver. Compassionate charity is a powerful motivating force, especially among those who know enough about spiritual fulfillment to have something worthwhile to share. So in a real sense, the spiritual seller is paid in satisfaction, if not dollars.

It goes beyond simple satisfaction, though. Giving something freely — the true Gift — is, in almost all spiritual traditions, a deeply holy act. It is something that advances your own spiritual development. You can call it “good works”, you can call it “karma”, whatever: when you give a true gift, expecting and wanting nothing in return, your spiritual gain is huge.

NOW How Much Would You Pay??

Now we return to the original question: how much would you pay for salvation?

Well, I’ve argued that it should be (perhaps, in the long term, MUST be) offered for free. But that doesn’t mean you should pay nothing for it.

Jesus famously related the parable of the Pearl of Great Price — of the merchant who sells all his valuable wares to purchase one single pearl. But suppose the merchant found that the pearl was, in fact, being sold by an old woman in rags living down by the docks; and suppose he found that this old woman was giving the pearl away freely to anyone who asked — so that all his competitors, neighbors, and friends could easily have it, too; and yet, strangely enough, it was no less valuable for being so common! Should he simply take the pearl from the old woman and pay nothing?

He certainly could. He could take his pearl and no one would be the worse off. But imagine if he offered something regardless — a warm meal, perhaps, or a cloak against the cold, or even a place to rest her head in the evenings. He would find, I think, that the pearl shone more brightly — that its surface was smoother and its sheen more silvery.

In this way, the old woman and the merchant have created a very strange situation: an exchange of goods and payment, just like a trip to the corner store; but instead of being a true purchase, both sides are really making a gift. Neither one has to give anything: this is not a contractual trade, a quid pro quo. Instead, this is two acts of parallel charity, each side giving to the other. The physical-world effect of the situation is just the same as if it had been a purchase, but the spiritual-world ramifications are completely different. Instead of each side acting in their own interest, each side is acting in the other’s interest. It isn’t capitalism, and it isn’t communism; it’s pure charity, given freely without coercion, in the highest traditions of the world’s great spiritual leaders.

The pearl of great price can’t be bought. It has to be given to you. But it’s even more valuable if you give something back.

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

And this is why, effective immediately, I’m reducing all my prices for everything on this site to zero.

This is already the situation for my Name Analysis readings. I have always given these in exchange for a donation of whatever you felt was fair, and you could comfortably pay. People have donated everything from $2 to $40, and I have always provided the same service. And in the past year, I have made more money from the Name Analysis readings than all other sources put together!

So if you have hesitated to buy something here because the price was too high: please, have it now, and consider it a gift. If you feel moved to give something also — fantastic! I would be very grateful. But there is no obligation.

Also: anyone who has bought something from me and paid more than they were comfortable with, please contact me and I will refund to you whatever amount you need.

Arguably, this pricing change makes no business sense whatsoever. But I have a feeling that in the business of spiritual growth, business sense isn’t quite as sensible.

sellingsalvation

*A ham sandwich. This is easily proven with logic. Of course nothing is better than eternal happiness; but then, it must be said, a ham sandwich is certainly better than nothing. Hence a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness. (Credit/blame goes to Raymond Smullyan for that proof.)

Comments

  1. Dear Jeff

    That is beautiful. Well done.

  2. Oh, Jeff, I am pleased.

    I’ve wanted to listen to some of your guided meditations for ages now, but, you know, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to pay for them, not because they are without worth, but because I know I can do good work of a similar sort myself. So I’m not really interested in listening to them as a product, because I can make that particular product in my own home, but as a relationship, an experience with my online friend and colleague, Jeff.

    I don’t need any salvation. But I do need companions along the way.

    I’m not saying that it’s wrong to sell books or recordings or whatever we produce at a market rate–and, by the by, could you perhaps produce your lovely planner in a month-at-a-glance version? (I figured out this year that’s really the only kind of planner that works for me, and I do want to buy your planner again next year, because I liked it so well this year.)

    But there’s a kind of buying and selling that cuts us off from a more relational way of exchanging things with our peers, our friends, and our communities. I like the idea of being part of that with you.

    Long-winded way of saying, great! Now I’m gonna get to listen to how Jeff does a guided meditation! How cool is that?

  3. Hey Jeff,

    That’s a really cool initiative! I was thinking of getting the meditations as I enjoy “meet a guide” every time.

    Regarding your intentions behind this, I’ve had thought among similar lines. However, I think there are certain areas where this principle applies more than in others.

    I remember what my mom always says about Reiki: You’re not charging for the energy (“salvation” in your example), but for your training, time, professionalism and space.

  4. Interesting example, Vitor.

    I never charge for Reiki, either attunements or healings. But then, I only ever give either of them to members of my community. It’s not that I give Reiki away… it’s that I charge the highest coin available for it: relationship, trust, love.

    Clearly, if things were only available at that price, there would be many who would go without, perhaps at crucial times in their lives. There may be room for both points of view.

  5. Jeff Lilly says:

    Hey Cat, awesome! Thanks for all the kind words and great feedback. Something I really like about this model is the flexibility it allows the consumer. Take it now for free, donate later or not at all, whatever you need/want/are moved to do… Make it a part of your life on your terms.

    I’m so glad you liked the almanac! I’ll definitely see about putting together a month-at-a-glance version. I’m going to try to get it out by Samhain this year, since that’s the REAL new year… And that means I gotta get started! 🙂

  6. Jeff Lilly says:

    Vitor, Cat — regarding reiki —
    From a strict economic point of view, a reiki session is a service, not a pure information product. You’re giving up your time and resources every time, and your time and resources are not unlimited. They are “scarce” in the economic sense. So, just as I am not offering the physical almanac completely free, I think you’re perfectly justified in charging for a personal service.

    That said: there’s nothing wrong with doing services reiki on the donation model. Most people, I venture to guess, will still pay you about the same, or even more. Those who can’t afford it will pay less than a fair market price; but really, wouldn’t you rather charge them less anyway?

    In fact, I would probably go with the donation model for the physical almanac, too — and take a chance on losing money on some sales — but lulu.com won’t let me set up the pricing that way.

  7. The answer to “Which provides more value: eternal salvation or a ham sandwich?” depends partly on some factors that your (truly excellent) essay unfortunately had no room to cover.

    Factor 1:
    How long does it take to get either one?

    Imagine a sidewalk shore advertising: “Today: Two $1 specials – HAM SANDWICH or ETERNAL SALVATION.” You have only $1, and a great hunger for both items. The store-owner has a counter full of sandwiches ready to eat … but when you ask for a plateful of salvation, he tells you that this will take ten years months to prepare and administer: in ten separate stages, taking months or years per stage (and involving much time and effort on your part to complete each stage). You probably buy a ham sandwich, even if the store-owner reduces the price of salvation to zero. In other words: complicated religions that require long-term investments of time and effort may sell best to those who have no urgent physical and/or economic needs. (Once you have enough ham sandwiches, and a way to buy or make more as you need them, THEN you may come back another day to get involved in a long-term eternal salvation process.)

    Factor 2:
    Does anything make the ham sandwich unusually undesirable?

    Suppose that a ham-sandwich-and-nirvana seller sets up for business among people who consider ham disgusting, diseased, unfit for human consumption, or just plain “not even food.” They certainly won’t buy his ham sandwiches … and they probably won’t buy his nirvana either, because (EWWW! GROSSS!) they can’t get it without doing business with a guy who also (YUCK! GASP! HORRORS!) sells ham. So, to sell any of his nirvana at all (even if he reduces the price to zero), he may have to get rid of his ham-sandwich stock and switch to golden apples.

  8. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, that was brilliant! 🙂

  9. The physical-world effect of the situation is just the same as if it had been a purchase, but the spiritual-world ramifications are completely different.

    Just like aligning oneself with the universe! 😀

    Seriously, this is a great post; I’m very happy to see you posting a bit more often again. I’ve missed your unique voice in the ongoing discussion.

  10. A corollary to: “complicated religions that require long-term investments of time and effort may sell best to those who have no urgent physical and/or economic needs” …

    Folks who sell a complicated, demanding religion MAY therefore decide they have a vested interest in freeing their current/potential customers from urgent physical/economic needs.

    So the salvation-seller may offer:
    “Because it takes ten years to master and perform our nirvana-attainment rituals, for the next ten years I’ll give you three ham sandwiches a day — or help you find and keep a job in one of our sandwich-shops — every day that you complete your daily homework for the ritual study course.”

    (The above may provide a working definition-by-example of either:
    /a/the phrase “monastic order,”
    /b/ the phrase “separatist religious sect,”
    or
    /c/the commonest late-20th-/early-21st-century sense of the word “cult.”)

    Or, if the salvation-seller doesn’t want the headaches of running an enterprise that will keep his clients alive for long enough to finish their rituals/study courses/whatever, he may simply decide to limit his salvation-and-sandwich shops to high-income neighborhoods … and openly or subtly discourage any poor folks who happen to stop by.

    Such subtle discouragements can take many forms: the most common one, perhaps, involves requiring customers to acquire and regularly use special — and expensive — clothing/artwork/foods/etc. in order to keep their salvation “plugged in” and working properly … or simply in order to get permission to keep coming back to the sandwich shop. (The sandwich seller may display a sign offering ham sandwiches for five cents, get people to sign up for a lifetime of rituals, study, and more ham sandwiches … and then, after the new customers have sworn upon their honor to fulfill all requirements lifelong, the sandwich seller casually mentions that these requirements include eating all meals in the sandwich-shop [which charges $15 for a glass of water], drinking holy sandwich-shop tap-water with all meals, wearing formal attire to all meals, and sitting in the members’ section of the shop: where one must pay a $35-dollar-per-plate cover charge for all meals …

  11. Hi Jeff

    I’m not entirely sure how I came across your blog, but somehow I did, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve really enjoyed reading the couple of articles that my RSS feeder has downloaded so far (includign this one, which made me smile), and look forward to reading more in the future.

    I’m also a fan of using guided meditation and/or hypnosis audios to support my meditation practice (such as it current is – one of my aims in blogging is to get myself back into regular practice), and have collected quite a few over the years. After reading this article, I felt drawn to download your relaxation package, and I’m looking forward to trying out the audios in it over the next while.

    Thank you so much for making those available – I’ll try to blog how I go with them.

    Blessings

    Starfire

  12. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Starfire. I look forward to reading about your exploits! You’ve got a great blog, by the way.

  13. Jeff,

    An excellent post and a very well put together site, both in presentation and more importantly, content. I’ll most certainly be stopping by for future articles!

    I often see Scientologists during my lunctime strolls through the city, and more recently, the protesters that have began hanging around the same corners. It’s an interesting and entertaining dynamic that goes on between the two as they both attmept to persuade/dissuade the unsuspecting lunchtime crowd to their cause.

    I thought your article was an nice parallel to similar real situations like that.

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  8. […] happiness.  (Credit/blame goes toRaymond Smullyan for that proof.) Where did I find this? Here: http://druidjournal.net/2008/07/03/selling-salvation-how-much-is-it-worth/ btw: the post from that link is good, too! : ) GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

  9. […] happiness.  (Credit/blame goes toRaymond Smullyan for that proof.) Where did I find this? Here: http://druidjournal.net/2008/07/03/selling-salvation-how-much-is-it-worth/ btw: the post from that link is good, too! : ) […]

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