Christians sometimes think—or talk as though—any glorification of excellence signals a hostility toward everyone who has failed to achieve it. How can someone genuinely love the “least of these,” it is suggested, while striving to become a better businessman and admiring the greats in his field? Flipping this around leads one to the conclusion that a love for the humble and the downtrodden must necessarily involve the denigration of excellence. Charity means anti-elitism, and conversely anyone who achieves an elite status in some field necessarily lacks charity for those beneath. How else could they have climbed the ladder of success besides stepping on the unfortunates below? At its worst, this yields a kind of Christian Marxism that sees the world divided between the haves and the have-nots, the former the villains, the latter the heroes of the gospel story.
The only issue with this line of thinking is its utter incoherence. The very idea of charity presupposes the goodness of that which is given and the badness of the recipient’s condition. Suppose, for example, that someone genuinely believes wealth to be a bad thing. Would such a person be kind to the poor when he sells everything that he has and gives away the proceeds? No. Since he believes wealth to be an evil, he is simply loving himself at their expense, getting the poison out of his own system by injecting it into theirs.
People involved in real works of charity clearly do not think this way at a fundamental level—although their rhetoric sometimes gives the wrong impression. A person who donates money to the poor does so because he thinks that money is a good thing and the poor person would be better off if he had more of it. Indeed, this generosity is only praiseworthy because he is making a genuine sacrifice of something good. We do not praise people for taking out their trash.
The logic of charity only makes sense if we see that the generous person aims at a higher good (generosity) by sacrificing a lower good (money). Achieving the higher good is only possible if there already exists a real hierarchy of real goods. It is good to have the wealth necessary to supply our material wants. It is bad to be poor and lack that wealth. The wealthy man is in a better position than the poor man (all other things being equal—a very important qualification). Without the framework of this value hierarchy in place, the higher good of generosity makes no sense. The wealthier man reaches a hand down the hierarchy to benefit the poor man and this is an act of love precisely because the benefit is real.
The logic of giving money to charities applies also to less tangible goods. Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. Very good. But this does not argue for the goodness of extortion and prostitution. Jesus lowered himself by becoming incarnate in the form of a slave and suffering death on the cross (Philippians 2:6–8). Very, very good. But this does not argue for the goodness of slavery, torture, and execution. Indeed, the logic of St. Paul’s argument in his letter to the Philippians is quite the reverse. The sacrifice of Christ is a real sacrifice precisely because it is better to be God than man, better to be exalted than mocked, better to live than to die. The end result of his self-sacrifice is that the name of Christ is exalted above every name in heaven and on earth and under the earth—an ultimate cosmic hierarchy if ever there was one (2:9–11).
In other passages, St. Paul makes quite a different argument that is sometimes confused with this one. He argues that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God, and that God has chosen the foolish of this world in order to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). Taken out of context, it might be supposed that this gives us some reason to abandon the pursuit of wisdom and take up the pursuit of folly instead. Let Christians be philomorons instead of philosophers. You might be forgiven for thinking that some Christian communities have wholeheartedly embraced this ideal.
We learn quite quickly in the next chapter, however, that there is a real wisdom of God and this real wisdom is still to be pursued. St. Paul is very far from thinking that wisdom is bad and folly is good or that there is no real hierarchy of excellence between wisdom and folly. His argument is simply that the wisdom of this world is merely apparent wisdom, and he argues this in two ways: First, even the highest genuine wisdom of this world is very low on the scale once we zoom out and include the ultimate wisdom of God. Second, and more importantly, the wisdom of this world is often a false wisdom, teaching things that are really foolish as though they were wise. We can only recognize this folly, however, once we come to know the mystery of God’s true wisdom.
Christian love for the lowly and the downtrodden, therefore, is not only compatible with the pursuit of objective excellence but actively requires it. The teacher who truly wishes to help struggling students must himself seek greater expertise in his subject matter precisely so that he can be more equipped to help them. The coach who works with disabled children must all the more seek proficiency in kinesiology and the demands of his specific sport. The philanthropist who wishes to feed the hungry must discipline himself in the use and generation of wealth.
In all this we must, of course, guard against condescension or belittling those we seek to love. But as we have acknowledged in the other posts in this series, we should not let the presence of such dangers keep us from pursuing excellence.