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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Philanthropy as Spiritual Exercise: Soul, Relationships and Community


Event Recap

Paul Schervish, professor of sociology and director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College spoke of “philanthropy as spiritual exercise” at the Boisi Center on February 24. Properly understood, he said, giving is a productive and spiritual enterprise, not simply a distributive one. In fact, he argued, a modern spirituality of allocation is available if you listen for it in generations of wealth holders. At root is the “Holy Trinity” of spiritual exercise: the union of soul, relationships and society.

Humans are both receivers and givers, Schervish said. Just as breathing entails both inhaling and exhaling, wealth entails both receiving and giving. Though we begin our lives as receivers, giving develops later. Children receive the gift of life from parents and other caretakers. “Children do not need to learn how to love; they need to learn how to be loved,” Schervish stressed. Inner development leads to care and compassion for others through relationships. In society, there is a moral citizenship of care for others, which creates mutual nourishment rather than a commercial relationship. By giving, individuals pay attention to the person in need, not the medium of expressing this need. Being able to address another’s need builds relationships, and daily life is a way to experience

Sociologist Emile Durkheim said that to be fully human requires a unity of worldly and inner tasks. A healthy inner life is important for entering in community with others. Saint Thomas Aquinas promoted love of self, and we must not forget to give ourselves love as well.

Schervish noted that Americans give five times more to their family and friends than they do to formal charities, when giving is properly understood to include non-financial goods and services. Shoveling a neighbor’s driveway in addition to your own is a form of care-giving because it focuses on the needs of the person, not the ways in which this is achieved. As a result, the act of giving strengthens communal relationships. Generosity is not an end virtue, but wisdom is, according to Professor Schervish. Philanthropic expressions of gratitude such as these foster the individual inner life, communal bonds through societal engagement, and one’s spiritual life with God.