The Nobility of Christian Generosity

A famous Canadian historian of Christianity said recently that, whereas in the past people came to the Church in order to have their sins forgiven, in our contemporary society people come to the Church in order to have a place to exercise their generosity. The hint seems to be that the Church ought not remind people of their sins too much (we don’t have sins anymore, I suppose), lest the people go elsewhere with their money and leave the Church flat broke!

I can think of a number of ways to respond to such a claim. I’m quite tempted to say that a church which can no longer preach the gospel of divine forgiveness of sins simply deserves to go broke. However “generous” one may be (and we can tend to overrate this in ourselves, can’t we?), Christianity isn’t first of all about simply “being generous.” We offer ourselves in thanksgiving for what we have received: the priceless treasure of salvation through adoption by the Father in the Son. Is it really the case, as that historian has implied, that most who go by the name of Christian in our society no longer believe they need forgiveness of their sins, no longer act from this motivation, but instead imagine themselves to have achieved peak generosity by personal moral effort, or innate excellence ("I'm a good soul"), or product of natural evolutionary selection? I don’t know. But let it never be said of us.

The word ‘generous’, incidentally, means at its root “one who is of noble birth.” To be a member of a noble family is to have the duty of generosity precisely because nobility brings privilege and the wealth that comes with it. The nobleman therefore has a social debt, an obligation to provide for those who otherwise must fend for themselves in the cold world, with no guarantee of livelihood except through what can be extracted from nature by skill and energy. Pure skill and energy are rarely enough, however, and so the worker depends on the generosity of the nobility to ensure a just social order.

The apostle Paul, citing the primitive Christian hymn to Christ in Ephesians chapter 1, speaks of God in the language of the nobility, in terms of generosity:

In him and through his blood we have been redeemed,
and our sins forgiven,
so immeasurably generous is God’s favor to us.
— Ephesians 1:7

On the analogy of the notion of kingship, with God as the great nobleman, we are the recipients of his divine largesse, which is not capricious but rather an expression of the infinite, interpersonal, self-outpouring love which is God's being. It is God's life we are "saved" to lead, and this means imitating his generosity.

In our time, privilege and the economic prosperity that come with it have been greatly extended such that the proportion of those in our society who are doing fairly well is greater than at any time in human history. We should not take this for granted, and we must always ask ourselves if our generosity has grown with our wealth and privilege, or if it has receded. Traditionally in our society the Christian churches have provided the bulk of the social safety-net through the generosity of Christians, who have by means of the institutional churches acted as both collection agencies and distributers of all manner of social goods, material and spiritual, necessary for human flourishing. We have seen over the last eighty years or so the secularization of charity such that the word “charity” increasingly no longer applies—everything will be handled by the All-Mighty Nanny State.

Is there room left for Christian generosity? Always. For the State is not my mother. Neither is the State God. The State cannot love anyone and so cannot be truly generous. Only human beings can be generous, and Christianity gives us the best reason to act generously. And also, the grace to do so. We are Sons of the King, the truly noble, the truly privileged, the ones truly capable of generosity. Let us be what we are.

-          Fr. Hagan