For some time now I have been questioning if philanthropy is one of those words that has either lost its traditional definition (love of mankind) or should never have been used to describe giving in the first place.
In fact, I wonder if our using “love of mankind” is possible or even desirable. Yes, there are numerous examples where giving springs from sincere feelings about the poor or a genuine desire to alleviate suffering, spread the Gospel, deliver health care, rescue young girls and boys from the bondage of trafficking, and restore dignity to people. No doubt these are good things – but are they really philanthropy? Or, are they charity? Are those actually two different things? C.S. Lewis would say they are different.
In “The Four Loves” C.S. Lewis defines the root word “phileo” as a particular kind of love. It happens when “two or more companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which till that moment each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like ” “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Friends (those who experience phileo love) are absorbed in an interest outside themselves. It is not the love of the other person (and certainly not mankind in general) but a love of what they share in common.
That is why I believe we have lost the true meaning of what we call philanthropy. We have been caught up in a love that is not phileo at all. It is something else entirely. For some, it is “love of solutions” or “love of fixing intractable problems” or even “love of feeling love” but it is not true phileo. There is little sense of being companions and sharing a common interest. There is scant surprise in finding another with similar interests. Instead, it is making investments in solutions. It is fixing the broken parts of the world. All of that needs doing but it is not phileo.
At the same time, we have distorted the meaning of charity (agape) from its original divine “loving the unlovable” to a mere feeling that too often resembles a dole or something done to relieve us of our own discomfort. Unfortunately, like phileo, charity has become something it is not. It now describes purely emotional and ineffective giving with little regard for what happens. It resembles pity more than love. Sadly, it is considered by many to be the least reflective way of giving and even most likely to be harmful. Charity does not solve problems. Charity cannot be measured and evaluated. Charity creates dependency.
But, I would argue that true charity is the highest form of giving because it is selfless and most reflects the nature of God. Charity is the one form of love that is completely supernatural and can only be done through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Charity is the love we cannot create – no matter how hard we try. It is the cement that holds the Church together and why Christ left us with just this command: “Love one another as I have loved you.” It is the love that lays down its life for a brother; the love that seeks the good of the other person over its own; and the love that is the first fruit of the Spirit and the last to remain when all else has passed away.
Of all the loves described by Lewis, it is the only one we cannot produce on our own. That is why I believe we should restore the heart of Christian giving – charity – in what we do.
Maybe we can leave “love of solutions” to others and restore the true meaning of friendship and charity in our giving. The world has far more resources than the Christian community for today’s philanthropy. Only Christians have charity – agape – because it is supernatural and unique. It is fine to become more disciplined and mature in our giving but we should not do it at the expense of our one distinctive – charity.