Culture

Altruism in Religion's Free Market

tithe

My colleague Walter Hudson recently concluded that altruism has no place in Christian life:

Christian giving promotes life and health. Altruism promotes starvation and death. Altruism redistributes. Christian giving transacts. Christ’s own words assure us of greater blessing in giving than receiving. Christian giving leaves us better off, not worse. Altruism therefore proves atheistic, as Piper declares. We will never give more to others than God will give to us.

Walter’s basic conclusion is capitalist in nature: A Christian should be rewarded in kind (or over and above) for giving of their money, their time, or their talent. On the face of it, his argument makes sense, especially in light of congregational membership. My Christian friends often complain about the concept of “tithing,” a Torah teaching that is grossly abused by the religious establishment. Far too often, “tithing” translates into religious leadership putting pressure on church members to “donate” up to 10% of their annual income to their church. Synagogue membership, on the other hand, is rather simple: The same flat fee is charged to everyone on a yearly basis. No weekly passing of plates, no feeling ashamed; most synagogues have provision to assist members who may not be able to meet the annual sum. Programming fees are charged for additional events, like holiday services and Hebrew school. This model best fits Walter’s description of being rewarded in kind for monies given.

In the era where religious establishments have become places to fulfill business networking and social needs, it makes sense that you’d pay a fee for the religious service as you would any other mode through which these things would be accomplished. You pay for drinks at bars, JDate and Christian Mingle memberships, and head hunters; someone’s got to pay the electric bill so the lights are on when you’re shaking hands. The only question is, where is God in all of this? If the Bible is right, and we were put on earth to walk with Him in a personal relationship, what is He getting for His services rendered? That is, besides a corrupt priesthood on both sides of the aisle, pressuring congregants for cash and willing to let God take the back seat to a business deal?

altruisticpersonality

Altruism has been studied extensively in relation to the Holocaust. Those gentiles who were brave enough to commit the altruistic act of rescuing Jews came from a variety of backgrounds:

“Those who helped Jews during the Holocaust were clearly not the saints or heroes some have suggested, but rather ordinary people, capable of making a moral decision and acting on it at a critical moment in time. Academics who have studied altruism during the Holocaust have not been able to establish a clear set of determinants or personality characteristics that we can associate with helpers and rescuers. …Their altruistic behaviour does not appear linked to any overt factors such as age, sex, class, education or religion.”

Yet, in comparing rescuers Corrie ten Boom and Oskar Schindler, researchers concluded that while altruism does not require religious belief, it does not stand apart from it. Ten Boom prayed, “”Lord Jesus, I offer myself for Your people. In any way. Any place. Any time.” Based on her testimony and actions, researchers concluded that “Corrie had a deep religious conviction of how people should be treated and her faith defined her values. When she saw people in need of her help, she gave it.”

The question of whether or not altruism holds a place in religious life is dependent upon how one defines the structure of their faith: as a business arrangement or a personal relationship. The argument Walter poses is a good one in terms of the welfare state in America. I agree with him that socialist policies should not be promoted as altruistic acts of a benevolent big government. As far as altruism goes in relation to faith, I also agree that God prepares an individual for His purpose in their life and rewards them for their faith. I do, however, question Walter’s contextualizing our personal relationship with God into a business transaction. Before we hasten to view our personal faith in that light, we should bear in mind that the failure of the welfare state was preceded by the transformation of our houses of worship into social halls dedicated to fulfilling our own very non-altruistic needs.