How many tickets do I need to get into heaven?

The problem of American Pelagianism

For my last day of elementary school, my entire class went to Chuck E. Cheese for a pizza party. I remember saving up $20 to use in the arcade. Early in the afternoon, a red and blue light-up yo-yo caught my eye at the prize booth. By 3 p.m., after a great deal of effort, I had earned the 250 tickets necessary to secure my desired reward. Like many Americans, I enjoy the process of earning my rewards by the sweat of my brow. The pride I had in earning my yo-yo was a fruit of my work ethic and skee-ball talent.

Systems of quantified merit, like winning tickets to exchange for prizes, are quintessentially American. The American dream is hard earned, self-made, with sleeves rolled up, pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, etc. There is nothing we cannot accomplish so long as we set our minds to it. These attitudes are easily identified in the grades we earn in school and the salaries we are paid at our jobs. Through self-determination, we create our own luck.

The problem with systems of quantified merit is that they create some unfortunate side effects. What about those who are at a disadvantage to participate? Are they less worthy to thrive or be happy? Plenty of people have been trampled over or used as others pursue and achieve their dreams. On the other hand, nobody is impervious to hard luck. The cracks through which many people fall are everywhere. The vicious side effects of the American dream create casualties, e.g., the unborn child who is discarded, the single parent working three jobs to make ends meet, the minimum wage worker who can’t afford to live in the same town where he works, etc.

Quantified merit bleeds into our relationships as well. We tend to make people earn our love, which is most damaging within families where love should come first and the response to difficulty should be mercy. Too often, love has a cost; a merited quantity of “tickets.” Like everything else, it must be earned. ⊲

Grace vs. Reward

While this is causing a lot of heartache and damage on a horizontal horizon, it is also causing a great deal of damage on a vertical horizon, in our relationship with God. We tend to see God in the same light as we see authority figures who operate in our earthly systems of quantified merit. A flawed or broken understanding of God is devastating, wrecking how we live out our faith and the relationships we have with other people.

The classic error we make is to treat God like Santa Claus. Yes, he is jolly and benevolent, but he is also keeping tabs on all of us. If we are naughty, he knows it, and we will not be rewarded. We need to be on our best behavior to earn our reward. When God is nothing more than this, we fall into the mindset that we must earn his love. The error here is to think that the God of the universe — the infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing, Trinity of persons — is subject to me; he is waiting for me to act, then he is going to respond accordingly. If I “do” all the right things, I can earn his love and merit a reward from him. It starts to sound silly when we examine it more closely, but if we are honest, we recognize something rotten in our American Christian ethos, i.e., that we are trying to merit the attention and rewards of a mostly benevolent God who is annoyed with our sinful behavior.

Going Down to Gethsemane, Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1898 

We treat God like he is the operator of a Chuck E. Cheese franchise. He offers us a great reward, i.e., heaven. Life here on earth is a complex system of quantified merit. When we die, the tickets are counted. If we have enough tickets, we get the prize, if not, we go to hell. While this is a crude example, it is easy to see it play out in our own attitudes. God is understood as transactional and cold, something like a vending machine.

With a little effort, we can spot the errors in this approach. The truth is that God is the prime mover; he acts and we react, not the other way around. He loves us first and we are called to respond. God loves us with an unconditional love, which means that our actions do not, cannot and will not change who he is or how he acts. When there is change, we are the ones that move, not God. The degree with which we receive and reciprocate his gift of love is dependent on a variety of factors, beginning with grace, which is the very thing that allows us to know God, enjoy friendship with him and love him.

American Pelagianism

Historically, the error we are dealing with is called Pelagianism, in reference to the heretical teachings of the fourth century monk, Pelagius, whose erroneous teachings included, among other things, that there was no original sin that makes the world or men fallen, and thus mankind is morally neutral and equally capable of good or evil. Subsequently, to be virtuous is an accomplishment that is fully merited by man, by himself. If heaven is where the virtuous will spend all eternity, achieving heaven is something that must be earned. This mindset denies the necessity of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross to redeem us. For Pelagians, salvation is a reward that we can earn through our own effort without the aid of grace.

God’s plan for human existence is captured well in John 10:10, where Jesus reveals that he has come so that we can have abundant life, which is experienced both here on earth and in heaven. American Pelagianism falls short and ends up selling us fire (of hell) insurance.”

This is where it can get confusing, because we read in scripture several things that seem to point to heaven as a reward that we can merit. Specifically, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:11-12a). To clarify the differences between what Jesus and Pelagius taught, it is important to understand what each meant by “reward.” Jesus taught that we could receive God’s grace and cooperate with it. In this sense, we can act from our own free will in a meritorious manner, but only because we are cooperating with God’s grace. The blessed person who perseveres through persecution is believing and acting in response to God’s gift of grace. This manner of believing and acting is meritorious for salvation. In this sense, “your reward will be great in heaven.” Or put another way, the sanctity that I merit comes through my cooperation with God’s grace and would not have existed without it.

This is different than the errors that Pelagius taught, and what we tend to believe as Americans, i.e., that we can act spontaneously from our own will, unaffected or inspired by grace, in a manner that will earn for us a reward from God who ambivalently waits upon our action.

The pioneer spirit of the American dream, where we can accomplish anything we put our minds to, doesn’t work out as well as we think. It creates collateral damage and casualties, and it also creates cracks that people can fall through. The reality of authentic thriving on earth is reliance on a community, which requires charity and mercy. In seeking after salvation, the prevalent American attitude has become what I like to call an individualistic enlightenment mentality, i.e., “I will work on my spiritual life, you work on yours, we are not in this together (by the way, my way is the right way).” In this mindset, our neighbor becomes at best neutral and often an adversary. ⊲

An Unearned Gift

God’s plan for human existence is captured well in John 10:10, where Jesus reveals that he has come so that we can have abundant life, which is experienced both here on earth and in heaven. American Pelagianism falls short and ends up selling us fire (of hell) insurance. We are encouraged to roll up our sleeves and bootstrap our way through life, because heaven will be worth it, but we first have to earn it.

Baptism of Christ, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 18th century

The truth of our faith is that salvation is an unearned gift that God bestows upon us as part of his unconditional love. God is not transactional; he is relational, and, in his plan, life doesn’t have to be a drudgery. It can certainly be challenging, but through cooperation with grace, every life can be abundant.

When we leave behind our understanding of salvation as a system of quantified merit, we can begin to experience authentic holiness, which is, at its core, love of God and love of neighbor. We love God in response to his unconditional love for us, then we model his love in the way we approach our neighbor, loving first and not counting the cost or keeping the score. Too often, we resemble the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) who felt slighted by the generosity the owner showed to those who came late in the day and, in (our) their eyes, merited less.

When we cooperate with grace and grow in holiness, we are not offended by mercy shown to others, because we know that we would be lost without the mercy that is shown to us. My neighbor is not my adversary, or a random person finding their own path, but a coheir and fellow pilgrim. Both the journey and the destination of our earthly pilgrimage is made better when we cooperate with God’s grace. 

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”