Last weekend, I discovered two writings that intrigued and excited me. They did so because they reveal generosity as a point where our scientific and religious worlds intersect. In generosity, these two worlds complement, reinforce, and illuminate one another.
One writing was The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson (Oxford: 2014). The authors explore two parts of the paradox of generosity expressed in philosophical and religious traditions such as ours.
One part involves the paradox itself: that by expending ourselves for the wellbeing of others, we enhance our own. That in letting go of some of what we own, we better secure our own lives.
As we know, this is part of our Judeo-Christian tradition. For example, in Proverbs 11.24 we find, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want” and in Luke 17.33 Jesus says, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”
The other part is that, despite these benefits, relatively few people are particularly generous. Why is this so? Why are more people not especially generous? In investigating this paradox, Smith and Davidson set out not only to document the benefits of living a generous life, but also “to help less generous readers find their way to more generous life practices.”
The empirical data from their social scientific research shows that: 1) the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy; (2) the association between generous practices and personal wellbeing is strong and highly consistent across a variety of kinds of generous practice and measures of wellbeing; (3) there is strong reason to think that generous practices cause enhanced personal wellbeing.
The other writing, The Science of Generosity, a white paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley in May 2018, begins by stating:
Generosity appears in many forms such as: charitable monetary donations, formal volunteering, helping a stranger, caring for a spouse or a child, et cetera. What these and other examples have in common is that they involve “giving good things to others freely and abundantly,” the definition of generosity used by the University of Notre Dame’s the Science of Generosity Initiative. When they are generous, people prioritize the needs of others, often above their own.
But where does this generosity come from?
As noted above, a great deal of research strongly suggests that generosity has deep evolutionary, biological, and developmental roots in humans. This research suggests that far from being frivolous or superfluous, generosity might be deeply embedded in human behavior and play a vital role in our personal wellbeing and survival as a species. But science, by design, only investigates the physical world, not the metaphysical, spiritual, religious world.
I would argue that our Judeo-Christian tradition also provides an answer. For example, Genesis 1.27 says that we are created in the image and likeness of God. One of God’s qualities is generosity. Indeed, God is the preeminent Giver, the Giver par excellence. As bearers of God’s image, we carry within us God’s characteristics. Hence, generosity is an inherent quality in humans. It is in our divine DNA as it comes into us from our divine Parent. We are created to be generous!
In addition to this, God has provided a positive feedback loop: as we become the generous people we were created to be, we are healthier, feel better, live longer, and have more satisfying lives. This in turn incentivizes us to not just continue, but to grow in our generosity. Indeed, do we not feel good when we help others? In our giving, do we not also receive?
Many factors influence one’s degree of generosity including, but not limited to: intrapersonal feelings, personality traits, one’s morals, social, cultural, and contextual factors. One noteworthy factor is parenting. The Science of Generosity states, “Some studies have found that various parenting practices—particularly role-modeling and discussing generosity—may help children grow up to be more generous adults.”
Heather Price, coauthor of American Generosity: Who Gives and Why? (Oxford: 2016) states it more strongly: “Another huge predictor of giving is exposure to generosity as a child. Nothing really beats giving alongside others and talking about it. Indeed, one of the few relatively trustworthy predictors of not giving is not seeing it happen in one’s family when young… Most people who participate in giving as kids, especially as volunteers, continue that habit as adults. It becomes part of their mental makeup in a powerful way.”
One positive result of this horrible COVID-19 situation I see is that our people and churches are increasingly getting in touch with, and drawing upon, the divine generosity DNA that lies within each of us. And in conjunction with our divine compassion DNA, we are “giving good things to others freely and abundantly” and prioritizing the needs of others, often above our own. We are becoming more who we were created to be.
And as I suspect our children and youth are witnessing and/or participating in our generosity, they too are becoming more of who they were created to be. God is at work in all of us, young and old alike, luring us to grow more fully into the stature of Christ.
Thank you all for your generosity to one another, to others, and to your communities! Southern New England is better because of it. I pray that you continue living into your full generosity potential. Please remember that we are here to encourage, support, and assist you and your church in that process. As we all continue living out this potential within us, the realm of God is growing, and God’s love and justice are increasingly actualized.
Rev. Dr. David Cleaver-Bartholomew is the Director of Stewardship and Donor Relations for the SNEUCC.