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.
And 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?
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.
*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.)