The Philanthropic Principle
The Rt Reverend David Thomson, Bishop of Huntingdon
Commemoration of Benefactors, 3rd November, 2013
This is the day when each year we remember and give thanks for the vision and generosity of Sir David Robinson, the founding benefactor of this college, and all those who with and after him have blessed it with their gifts. I want, therefore, to take philanthropy as my theme; to show how it is at the heart of our Christian understanding of God and of the good human life; and - given the Science and Religion theme of your chapel addresses this term - to also and more boldly claim that it offers a powerful insight into how those two great disciplines of our approach to truth can act as complements not competitors.
I hardly need to remind a congregation like this that philanthropy as a word derives from the Greek for the love of humankind. It is used for those times when one human being shows altruistic generosity and kindness to others, especially to society as a whole and with few if any strings attached. But - and here is my first major point - isn't that exactly how the Bible describes God, the God who so loved the world that he sent his only Son that we might not perish but have eternal life; the God whose love for us defines what love is, prior to any love of our own. When we speak of grace in Christian theology we mean precisely the loving, gifting, unmerited and unconditional acts of God towards humankind: philanthropy.
We can in fact claim this not just as an action of God but as the essence of his being. For him, if we dare so speculate, to be is to give, to give away his life and his love and all that is good for and into the creation that by nature he will always be calling into being. He does this profligately and unconditionally in that creation; he does it personally and sacrificially in the life and death of his Son Jesus Christ, his other self; he does it in the heart of our own being as humans through the giving of the Spirit.
And this leads to my second key claim: that all that is given to us in creation, in redemption, in the sanctification of the Spirit, is given to us so that we, sharing in the character of Christ, can in our own turn give it away - knowing and trusting that the more we give the more we will in our own turn receive from the inexhaustible riches of God. Philanthropy is not an optional extra in the Christian life, something we can do or not do: it is the natural and essential expression of that life, to the point where stinginess of spirit can call into question just how much of that life is there anyway.
Because this is just going with the flow of God's life and love you could call it LILO theology, after the make of air bed that was around in my youth. Just as GIGO means garbage in - garbage out in information technology, so LILO here means love in - love out. If we go with the flow there are blessings all round. If we don't, then things go off. Like the time when our children had been playing in our caravan in the autumn, and we forgot to check the fridge when we locked it up for the winter. When we opened it up in the spring, the milk walked out... Even good things go off if they are left locked in our fridges and not put to use.
Two points down, and now I want to boldly go for a Star Trek of a third, and suggest that this philanthropic principle - and science and religion specialists are allowed to groan at the pun - has something important to say about how those two great disciplines relate. Our scientific understanding of the cosmos mirrors in many ways the profligate potentiality I have been attributing to God. It speaks of a singularity beyond our measuring generating all that we observe; of particles emerging unbidden from fields of potential; of a universe one the one hand just right for life like ours to emerge and on the other open to the emergence of life in amazing abundance.
Science observes the 'what' of this, but by definition is not in business to speculate as to its 'why'. It can note an anthropic principle, weakly conceived, that as a matter of fact the constants of the universe as we know it are finely balanced in such a way as to allow life to be possible. It may well resile from the stronger position that they are so balanced in order for life to emerge, just as I would caution care in speaking of species adapting in order to survive, not just surviving because they proved well-adapted.
So - that final point - I want to propose that what science demonstrably observes in terms of potentiality, of the values of constants consistent with the emergence of the complex and ordered systems we call life, of the consciousness and culture that reflects on life and starts to shape it: that all that asks anthropic questions of us that only philanthropic answers can satisfy. Within the domain of theology and philosophy, and within the practice of religion if I may dare say so, we can talk properly, and with some rigour, together about what it means to find ourselves living in such a world, what these crucial but scientifically soft categories such as love and compassion, sacrifice and generosity, our personal identities and our purposes all mean; and we can talk too about what we should then do about them.
And if you want a challenge as to what that "do about them" might be, look no further than the challenging words of Christ at the end of our Gospel reading tonight:
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."