Sitting back, relaxing to some 13th century polyphonic chant, trying to meditate on the big picture, an insight came to me.
We weren’t only concerned with helping a few people handsomely back in the old days. We made sure to do what we could to help the spiritual and material needs of others too. Investing heavily in the wellbeing of close friends is not necessarily to the exclusion of helping strangers and working through institutions; that’s a false dichotomy.
I have a church now that I belong to (the baptism has been rescheduled due to an illness in the congregation but it’s still on). And I think highly enough of this church that I want to see good things done in its name. A new sanctuary, a well-organized charitable wing, and the land and facilities for an abbey are all things I have felt out and there’s a favorable attitude toward all of them among our congregation. If blessed by a large amount of money, why not divvy it up the way I used to back in the old days, some to the church and some to close personal friends who have been very helpful to me?
Motives are another matter, of course; back then I was very concerned with buying my way into heaven and avoiding hell or purgatory. My personal theology in this life (which is harmonious with the church I attend which is non-dogmatic on the matter) is that this world is some kind of hell or purgatory. Can’t buy your way out of that, can you?
Doing good things just because they are good is such a simple idea, and yet it’s perhaps the most subversive idea there is because it undermines so much of what history has supposedly taught us about human nature. I suppose that’s where the post-enlightenment ethos of philanthropy for its own sake becomes useful. It is a social construct, but it is a useful construct and if it’s useful toward the goal of getting human beings to function harmoniously, that’s a good reason to keep it. A dichotomy between the ancient and modern impulses represents a lack of imagination but a synthesis of the two positions represents the creation of a practical code of personal ethics.