Wealth and the Will of God: Discerning the Use of Riches in the Service of Ultimate Purpose

Wealth and the Will of God: Discerning the Use of Riches in the Service of Ultimate Purpose


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Wealth and the Will of God looks at some of the spiritual resources of the Christian tradition that can aid serious reflection on wealth and giving. Beginning with Aristotle—who is crucial for understanding later Christian thought—the book discusses Aquinas, Ignatius, Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. Though the ideas vary greatly, the chapters are organized to facilitate comparisons among these thinkers on issues of ultimate purposes or aspirations of human life; on the penultimate purposes of love, charity, friendship, and care; on the resources available to human beings in this life; and finally on ways to connect and implement in practice our identified resources with our ultimate ends.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253221483
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/22/2010
Series: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Paul G. Schervish is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. He is author of Gospels of Wealth: How the Rich Portray Their Lives.

Keith Whitaker is a research fellow at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy and Managing Director, Family Dynamics, at Wells Fargo Family Wealth. His work has appeared in Philanthropy Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

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Wealth and the Will of God

Discerning the Use of Riches in the Service of Ultimate Purpose

By Paul G. Schervish, Keith Whitaker

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Paul G. Schervish and Keith Whitaker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35407-5



"Being-in-Action" and Discernment

How can thoughtful people connect their wealth to their spiritual aspirations? Indeed, what is wealth, and what is it for? How may we discern its role in the will of God? One means of exploring this complex, challenging issue is to examine what great thinkers have said about it. We chose six as our worthy guides: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius of Loyola, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. In our consideration of the uses of wealth, we focus not on finance, markets, fund scandals, or the estate tax but on these pressing questions of prosperity, which, in turn, lead to other questions: How can people who live in affluent societies care best for others? And even: What constitutes a happy life? Though writing from far-off times and places — maybe even because they are free from today's biases and distractions — our philosopher-theologian guides are ready and willing to answer.

In conversing with each thinker, we will address three main topics: purposes, resources, and discernment. Purposes are ultimate spiritual aspirations, those ends for which we strive and live. Resources include wealth, of course, but also our time and talents and much more. Discernment, this book's special concern, encompasses any process of reflection, thought, deliberation, contemplation, or "mulling over" that seeks to bridge the gap between capacity and aspiration, between here and there, now and the future.

Aristotle (384-322 bc), the first of our interlocutors, was also deeply interested in discernment. But first we should observe that his terms differ from ours. If we were to guess how he might address our stated inquiry in brief, it might be something like this: "What you're searching for, ultimately, is happiness, which is the work of virtuous activity. So you must decide how to use your equipment, the wealth at your disposal, in a virtuous way. To do that, you must engage in practical judgment." Where we speak of purposes, resources, and discernment, Aristotle speaks of happiness, equipment, and practical judgment. Within purposes, Aristotle directs our attention broadly at happiness, the goal of virtue as a whole, and more narrowly at liberality and magnificence, two virtues related to wealth. From these distinctions follow the three sections of this chapter.


For Aristotle, the ultimate purpose of life, and the goal of living virtuously, is happiness. Whatever we are doing, or whomever we do it with, we aspire most of all to happiness. Today we may think of this state as "feeling good" or being contented or satisfied. Passing feelings do play a role in what Aristotle understood as happiness — but only a small one. Nor do other contemporary claims to happiness — owning more stuff, enjoying finer pleasures, or attaining honors — do much to describe Aristotle's meaning. He recognized this. Most people, he wrote in the Ethics, seem to think that happiness consists in such things, or they act as if they do (2002: I.5; references in this chapter will be to the book and chapter of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, unless otherwise noted). But Aristotle also noted that people say as well that happiness should be lasting, and that no one else should be able to take it away. Possessions, pleasures, and honor often do not last, or they are subject to others' whims. Aristotle never denies that the happy life includes possessions, pleasures, and honors. But ultimately it consists of a quality that these things cannot generate.

Happiness, in Aristotle's view, is not something that simply happens to us. Nor, as we said, can it be merely a transient affective state. Rather it results from human agency or "activity," which, in Aristotle's lexicon, means any conscious exertion of one's being. When we are happy, we are most at work, most active, most alive.


Aristotle called this combined excellent activity energeia. We may call it agency, or literally, "being-in-action." We can think of it as living out a moral biography — implementing one's inner and material capacities to accomplish the goal of happiness. To know, express, and fulfill one's energeia is to follow the royal road to happiness, according to Aristotle. Happiness is our highest activity, our highest energy, our most comprehensive "being-in-action."

This holds whether something is living, inorganic, or artificial. What makes an acorn an acorn is its ability to grow, in its fullness, into an oak tree rather than an aardvark. In Aristotle's view, we can never truly know things by reducing them simply to their materials or structure, their manner of production, or their producer. A car is more than a bunch of metal and plastic; a dog is more than a bundle of cells. Aristotle would say that we know something's capacity or power precisely by knowing its characteristic activity. "What makes something work," in his view, is not simply its parts or attributes but its energeia. Indeed, Aristotle's great insight is that, if you want to discover what a thing is, you must find its being-in-action.

This approach to understanding or classifying particular things may seem obvious, but it can yield surprising results. What about our own selves? Are we our bodies? Inorganic stuff, like atoms? Are we our parents' children — or our children's parents? Particular instances ("accidents," Aristotle might say) of the species homo sapiens? Animals? Spartans of Greece — or New York or Illinois? Citizens? Thoughts in the mind of God?

Perhaps, in some way, we are each and all of these things. Aristotle would help us answer by adding a critical question: What do you do? What is your being-in-action? Aristotle wrote an entire book, the Nicomachean Ethics, on that question. As people, we desire, think, and choose; we pursue money, honors, and friends; we play and seek justice; we laugh and blush, we struggle; we do right and wrong. Above all, we pursue happiness. All these activities are part of our being-in-action.

Specifically human activity involves both thinking and doing. But though Aristotle speaks of a "theoretical life" and an "active life," he does not treat these as completely separate. Both depend on a uniquely human quality that he calls nous, or "intellect." Intellect is both a capacity and that capacity's work. Intellect, for Aristotle, is our ability to perceive, and our perceiving. It is the mind in action. As we recognize intellect at work, perceiving well the right and the true, we recognize, according to Aristotle, our specifically human "being-in-action," and so we answer that question, "Who are you?" What makes you one person and your life whole is nous. We'll look more closely at nous both in what follows and as we examine practical judgment in the third part of this chapter.

Being-in-action then is a form of self-expression and human expression. It takes the human soul and our capacity for reason, reflection, and speech to achieve that expression. Of all possible human activities, Aristotle concludes that happiness must consist above all not in excellent digestion, or a highly refined nose, but in some sort of excellent being-in-action of the soul.


Happiness is the most excellent being-in-action of the soul, and the "excellent" here belongs to the realm of virtue. Aristotle saw virtues as subordinate ends: we pursue them for the sake of happiness. They resemble musicians' instruments. Guitarists don't play for the guitar; they play the guitar for the sake of the song. Perhaps the virtues most of all resemble a singer's voice: in that case the artist, the instrument (the voice), and the end (the song) almost become one in the activity, the singing.

The virtues have their own characters. They don't belong to the body or to our senses. Some people may have a "strong stomach," but that doesn't make them brave. Others might have a "good nose," but that doesn't make them wise. An oak tree might flourish with vegetative virtue. A fox might do very well with excellent senses. But it takes more, better work, to be an excellent human being.

Looking in more detail, Aristotle saw two main activities in particular as forming the core of human happiness: excellent thinking, the highest form of which is wisdom, and excellent practice, the highest form of which is friendship. Gnawing a bone might form part of a dog's happiness; enjoying sunshine and nectar may do for butterflies. But human beings work at different activities and pursue a different sort of happiness. For us, excellent thinking leading to excellent doing would make for perfect happiness.

In a word, since we all care about happiness, and since happiness depends on virtue, we must look more closely at virtue. There are many virtues that move us toward happiness, such as courage, temperance, honor, wit, and justice, and each of these has the two forms of doing and thinking. But Aristotle found that two grand virtues encompass all the subordinate ones: wisdom and friendship. Achieving them is the most worthy penultimate goal — the earthly activity that best corresponds to and brings us to happiness. Understanding wisdom and friendship is necessary if we are to understand anything else, including the contribution of giving to a happy life.


Wisdom, in Aristotle's view, is the greatest of the virtues; next to the goal of happiness, it is the ultimate object of aspiration. Wisdom is required for happiness, for if, as we shall see below, you do not activate the highest part of your soul, you cannot be happy. Like all the other virtues and happiness too, wisdom is an activity, a "being-in-action." That work, of course, may be wholly internal. Wise people may not look like they are doing much, but the highest parts of their soul are fully energized. That said, wisdom underlies all excellent activities. For example, as we shall see in another part of this chapter, magnificence, the virtue of making large gifts or expenditures, closely depends upon wisdom.

Aristotle teaches that wisdom activates the highest part of the human soul, that which knows things. Aristotle divides the soul into a hierarchy of four parts. The first three are the vegetative part that keeps us growing and digesting, the desiring part, through which we feel bodily sensations (including pleasure and pain), and the "reckoning" or "opining" part, by which we number and keep track of all the things in the world. "Reckoning" governs our actions in this ever-changing world. The fourth, the knowing part, stands above all. It perceives and makes true deductions about things that never change, about enduring principles. Wisdom perfects the activity of this knowing part, allowing us to see these true principles most clearly and to deduce conclusions about them most ably.

From these distinctions, one can see that wisdom truly relies on two elements: it perceives enduring principles and it deduces truths from or about them. The part of wisdom that deduces truths Aristotle calls "knowledge." All knowledge for Aristotle is deductive, similar to the proofs used in geometry. But what about the part that perceives principles? We come back to nous, intellect. Intellect not only allows two friends to perceive their shared "being-in-action," it allows the solitary wise person to perceive the highest principles of the universe. Intellect plus knowledge equals wisdom. Or, as Aristotle puts it, "Wisdom is knowledge with its head on" (VI.7).

Wisdom is the highest human virtue, and contributes most powerfully to happiness, because it activates the highest part of the soul and brings us closest to the divine. If we are looking for the most satisfying, penultimate goal for our aspirations, we will find it above all in wisdom.

To make this point clearer, in his Metaphysics (1995: XII.6-8) Aristotle argues that even God, the most perfect being in all the cosmos, spends his entire existence contemplating his wisdom. Aristotle's God is not a creator; he does not "make" the world out of nothing. Instead, the universe in Aristotle's view has existed for all time, and for all time this most perfect being, God, has engaged and will engage in the most perfect activity: being wise and contemplating his own perfection. Indeed, Aristotle suggests, all the world's motions — the movement of the stars, sun, moon, and earth, and maybe we could add the universe's cycles of contraction and expansion — move in imitation of God's perfect self-reflection. So too, when human beings pursue wisdom, we do the best we can do, imitating God and thereby participating in God's own perfect existence. This imitation does not just mimic God but actively aligns us with the metaphysical activity that is God. In this way, our happiness encompasses a union with the divine.

Intellect underlies wisdom, friendship, and the subordinate virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and practical judgment. Intellect guides the liberal giving of liberal people, and it allows them to perceive the liberal quality of the gift and its friendly consequences. Intellect allows brave people to see the moment to act or to appreciate bravery when others perform it. And so on for the others. Thus our every deed, our every action, provides a possible starting point for wisdom and contemplation. Because intellect is at work in every human act, and every human act takes place within this cosmic whole, every moment opens a door to happiness through the pursuit of wisdom and the imitation of God.

That said, pursuing wisdom and doing the courageous deed are not the same; nor are pursuing wisdom and eating or sleeping well. Every moment offers the opportunity to pursue wisdom, but once you pass through, you may leave other activities temporarily behind.

That's why, Aristotle recognizes, no person, no matter how wise, can spend all day every day pursuing wisdom. Unlike God (see VII.14-15), even wise people need to eat, and they need money to buy food. Likewise, unless they want to live as a hermit — something that would take a lot of time away from contemplating — wise people need to rely upon other people to live. Wise people need to be able to get along with others. Thus wisdom and friendship go hand in hand.

In short, Aristotle would say that our penultimate aspiration should be wisdom. But because life is not simple, happiness depends on more than being wise. We cannot pursue only wisdom: we need all the other virtues and especially friendship to provide wisdom a daily home.


"A friend is another self." "Friends share one soul in two bodies." "One friend loves the other for the other's own sake." Aristotle coined these well-known phrases, making it easy to see that friendship (or, in Greek, philia) forms one of the most important virtues to him.

Aristotle observes that there are several different types of friends. Philia, or friendship, begins in the family, in the bonds between parents and children and between siblings. Among our other friends, Aristotle first identifies the category that includes what we call our "acquaintances" or "professional contacts." We get along with such people and probably would say, "I'm friendly with so and so." But when one comes down to it, our "friendship" with them is built on use: I use him and he uses me. There's nothing wrong with mutual use; it makes living and working together possible. But it's hardly complete friendship. Friends through mutual use hardly value each other "for the friend's own sake."

Besides friendships of use, there are friendships of pleasure. Aristotle observes that these friendships crop up readily among young people. They have a good time together. Maybe they tell jokes, or enjoy the same music, or play the same sports. They may not share the same "values," as we would say today, about important things. But those opinions don't get in the way of their enjoying each other's company. Again, there is nothing wrong with such friendship. A good life should involve some pleasure. Who wants to be around dour, boring people? But such friends can come and go easily, and they can be "friends" without really knowing each other. Friendship for pleasure is then not the most complete.

The best friendship, in Aristotle's view, is one that inspires the friends to live well, to be most "in action," to develop and exercise all their virtues. Such friends will be useful and pleasant but they also reveal to each other that which is most worth striving for, and they help each other get there.

Friends who use each other share little: for example, one friend covers the other's shift on Tuesday and the other reciprocates on Wednesday. They needn't even work around each other to be "friends." Friends for pleasure share a certain activity — being pleased — but it's notoriously fleeting. Just look at how unstable friendships among young people can be. Friends for virtue share the most, the best, and for the longest time. Whether they are inciting each other on to honor, justice, or wisdom, their activity may encompass a lifetime. It involves them in seeing and doing the same things. They set their eyes on a truly unified goal. They may even begin to think the same thoughts. They partake in mutual nourishment. It is this kind of friendship that is captured in the saying, "Friends share one soul in two bodies." As we shall see at more length soon, when we examine the virtue of liberality, such friends get the great pleasure of perceiving their own "being-in-action" in one another. That's why a true friend is "another self."


Excerpted from Wealth and the Will of God by Paul G. Schervish, Keith Whitaker. Copyright © 2010 Paul G. Schervish and Keith Whitaker. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Moral Biography 1

1 Aristotle: "Being-in-Action" and Discernment 15

2 Aquinas: "Distinguish Ends and Means" 39

3 Ignatius: All Things Ordered to Service of God 75

4 Luther: Receiving and Sharing God's Gift 97

5 Calvin: Giving Gratitude to God 123

6 Jonathan Edwards: Awakenings to Benevolence 147

Conclusion: Classical Wisdom and Contemporary Decisions 169

The Contribution of Western Christianity to Discernment about Wealth

Selected Readings 181

Index 185

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ARNOVA - Thomas H. Jeavons

Ideas of major importance to the practice of philanthropy. The volume brings a philosophical and theological perspective to questions about motives for and practices of giving that is little evident in the extant contemporary literature on philanthropy.

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