Philanthropic Quakerism Stephen Feltham

What is the purpose of Quakerism? What is its essential spirit?

We cherish our testimonies and we endeavour to let our lives speak in accordance with them. We initiate and in some cases, finish enterprises to heal the woes of the world that have moved us to action on many social and political fronts. Many of us are busy, very busy, in the pursuit of our healing or activist initiatives, which we fondly think are in response to our testimonies which are the soul of Quakerism. But why? or is “why” not important?

Few would uphold the notion that the end justifies the means of any endeavour but what of the beginning? Is where we are coming from as important as the means we employ and is it as important as the end we wish to achieve?

The answer lies only within the individual whose goal is to be achieved and may not be perceived by others although it would surely be questioned and perhaps even judged by those with a mind to do so.

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “Life is a journey, not a destination” and Google will identify hundreds more similar sayings so may it be possible that our healing journey is significantly affected not so much by our destination, or by the path we are on, but by the motivation that stimulated the very first step of our odyssey?

I wish to explore the motivation and whilst it may be said that the motivation is unimportant as long as the Quaker goal is accomplished or the journey toward its achievement is advanced, I feel that a motivation that is compromised will not advance a journey and so the goal would be a hollow charade.

A compromised motivation is one; for example, where action or healing is offered with a purely commercial agenda, akin perhaps to the selling of indulgencies by medieval clergy or the offerings of snake oil salesmen for the physical ails of 19th century middle-America. It is one whereby the payback is greater to the giver than the recipient. That payback may not be financial and is more likely to be in terms of self-satisfaction, public acclaim or aggrandisement and other intangible but nonetheless comprise beneficial interests. Even though the 14th Dalai Lama has said that the first beneficiary of compassion is the person that feels it, one should not infer that the first person is the greater beneficiary and so compassion and healing have much in common and are spokes to the same wheel.

People are attracted to testimony related pathways for many reasons; sympathy, pity, empathy, charity, ambition (egocentric and altruistic) or perhaps because these causes provide a means of dissipation for some otherwise pent-up energy. Are these reasons reflective of an emotional state rather than a physical need? Do they represent a flawed baseline for a spiritual pathway insofar that they are felt by individuals and therefore dominated by the inwardly orientated emotions of the person? Should not an outwardly facing thought process directed toward the well-being of humankind be the true motivator? Would not perhaps philanthropy be a more idealistic reason for action?

So what is philanthropy? Without first resorting to dictionaries and references, the responses I have had from colleagues is that ‘charity’ is poor people giving to good causes and philanthropy is very rich people doing the same thing but with grander sums and impressive projects. Whilst the observations may have an element of truth in them I do not believe that philanthropy belongs in the domain of the rich. Philanthropy is about:

· goodwill to fellow members of the human race; especially: active effort to promote human welfare

· from Greek, etymologically it means "love of humanity" in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing "what it is to be human"

· love of humankind in general.

· The desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed sometimes by the generous donation of money to good causes.

Whereas I feel that charity is about alleviating the immediate suffering and indisposition of others, and is no bad thing, philanthropy may well have the same ends but not necessarily have the same beginning. For example, a philanthropic act in bestowing an arts centre may well advance the quality of life of many and provide access to something otherwise not within the reach of some and does not necessarily alleviate hardship, but it does provide the opportunity of progress toward wholeness and enlightenment by broadening the scope of one’s existence.

Some believe that the moment of enlightenment is at the moment of death and one could therefore argue that to delay death is to delay enlightenment or prevent one’s journey toward wholeness. But, as the purpose of life may be described as the alleviation of all suffering then it is reasonable to argue that this may be achieved during life as well as at the end of it. Therefore, to participate in social causes with charitable intent may be an act that thwarts the mission of philanthropy for its first purpose is to address the emotional state of the activist and perhaps the client, and if Divine Will so dictates, a different course will follow. Disappointment will follow; whereas, to participate in good works with philanthropic intent will be to do so for the love of humanity which, as a cause, cannot be compromised, decayed or corrupted and moreover, permits the final stage of the initial process of healing the ailments of humanity which is to let go and let God…….



S A Feltham