I’ve been thinking about ancient heresies (as you do), and especially Pelagianism. This is the idea, posited by some Christians back in the fifth century, that human beings could earn their own salvation by working hard and choosing to do the right thing (rather than salvation being a free gift from God). Pelagianism has sometimes been called “the British heresy” because of our national tendency to believe that there’s nothing we can’t sort out, if only we work hard enough. It’s a tempting idea, because it gives us the illusion that we are in control – but in reality there are all kinds of reasons why we might not be able to work as well or as hard as we think we ought to, and in the end a philosophy like this creates a kind of hierarchy of human beings, where those who for whatever reason are less “successful” are seen to have brought their misfortunes upon themselves.
I think Pelagianism is dying in Britain though – and whilst in some ways that’s a good thing, I have started to notice that although on the one hand our nation seems as hell bent on killing itself with overwork as it ever did, on the other hand we seem to have lost a sense of the value and potential satisfaction of work. We have thrown out, with the Pelagian bathwater, a respect for work for its own sake.
For example, my eldest son, recently out of university, has spent some time working in a call centre. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but – hey, it’s a job. It is pretty basic pay, but he tells me that if you turn up on time, you get a bonus!!!!
That thing we were paying you for, well we know that’s not enough incentive, so we’ll give you a present if you do what you are actually contracted to do.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. For several years, secondary schools have been offering cinema tickets or cash prizes for those with good attendance records – I heard about one the other day that enters its high attendance pupils into a raffle at the end of each year to win a bike!!! If my 5 year old gets ten house points, the school gives her a treat – I suppose the “we’ll give you a bike if you turn up” idea is just a logical extension of this.
Well, what sort of mean mother would object to their children getting sweets when they’ve done well? And I’m not even consistent. I, along with most of the parents in the country, have used sticker charts, with the promise of significant reward, as a desperate measure to try to get my kids to do what’s right, even if I have to bribe them to do it, so I’m not exactly whiter than white here.
And yet… I desperately want my children to be proud that they have earned house points without needing a treat to make the point. I would like them to want to read because reading is satisfying, rather than read because of some other reward, and when they are older I want them turn up on time for work, not because they get a cash bonus but because it is satisfying to feel as if you are doing your job as well as you can and important to keep your promises.
Call me an idealist if you want, but the truth is, we all know that consumerism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The more we get, the more we want and the more dissatisfied we get. C. S. Lewis talked about “artificial rewards” and “natural rewards”. If we stuff our kids full of the junk food of artificial rewards, might we be actually depriving them of feeling the more fulfilling joy that comes from doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do?
I don’t believe that working yourself into the ground earns you your salvation. But I do believe that the right amount of work, done in the right spirit, feeds the soul and enriches society. I wonder if we can help the next generation to believe that too?