Listening in on a recent conversation with public radio’s Krista Tippett helped me make a new connection between philanthropy and theology -- how we engage in God talk and God’s work.
What is philanthropy? The word literally means “love for humanity.” Think about it; it is in our charitable giving and volunteering that many of us express our love for humanity as we witness to our faith, passions and spiritual values through the causes we support.
Tippett, a broadcast journalist with a weekly radio show, “On Being,” describes her work as dedicated to “tracing the intersection … between theology and real life.” She describes public theology as what happens behind the scenes, away from the cameras and microphones, in local communities where faithful people live life “deeply.”
Public theology is what ordinary people do as they live out their faith in unpretentious ways beyond the confines of their religious congregations, on the public squares of their world. In many religious traditions, giving to others is a central way to do this.
Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century Carmelite lay brother, wrote a small but classic treatise in which he described the “little things [we do] for the love of God” as the practice of the presence of God.
Alan Slifka, who spent his life building relationships between Jews and Arabs, said, “Doing philanthropy is the reason I exist. I believe in tikkun olam, that we are put on this earth to repair the earth.”
The Hindu poet Tulsidas wrote, “This and this alone is true religion: to serve [others].” The Quran describes the pious person as one “who believes in God and … who for the love of God gives his wealth” to the orphan, the needy, the wayfarer and the beggars (Quran 2:177).
A 2012 Bank of America Study of the charitable giving practices of high-net-worth households noted that approximately 40 percent of all donors described their giving as shaped by their religious beliefs. And about 36 percent gave their largest gifts to religious organizations. Yet the average amount given by those households to religious institutions was less than half what it was in 2005.
What is happening? One question is whether “religious giving” means giving to specific religious causes and organizations or charitable giving driven by religious and spiritual values.
I suspect it is both -- when you consider the growth in volunteering (up 10 percent since 2009) and the fact that 71 percent report having an intentional “giving strategy” rather than giving spontaneously in response to a need. This supports Tippett’s observation that people of faith are working across boundaries in pursuit of the common good, with ordinary people becoming “change makers” in their local communities.
Rather than only giving to religious organizations, people motivated by faith share their resources of money and time, their skills and professional expertise, their ideas and faith perspectives. As they do, something transformative happens; the old religious stereotypes are replaced by plural bridges of cooperation constructed for the common good.
The expanding horizon of what we call religious giving is a witness to what can happen when philanthropy dances with a public theology.