Reclaiming Purpose by Scaling Down
by Amir Pasic
In this issue of Insights, we invited Amir Pasic, Eugene R. Tempel Dean of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, to reflect on the theme of the 2022 Thomas H. Lake Lecture, Revival or Decline? American Faith and Philanthropy Face the Future, to be given by David Brooks and Anne Snyder.
There is promise in communal approaches to rebuilding common purpose, but there is fierce competition from the global commercialization of purpose at scale that also challenges the great legacy of religious traditions and the communities they help anchor.
Most traditional religions warn us that what is “scaling” in the world right now may not be the same as what is important. So too, Brooks and Snyder point us to the intimate sphere, where we build purpose with those close to us, where we “weave” in common spaces, re-enchanting our communities as places to craft our purpose. I see this as a return to basics, to reconnect communal life, in some ways to build religion anew. In Latin, re-ligare means to bind or connect, again. It is a grand ambition, but one that happens in small spaces, with small groups, and with initially small consequences. But all great journeys begin with modest first steps. The project to re-weave the riven fabric of our communities is more than laudable – it is necessary.
We do see trouble for organized religion precisely at the communal level. For decades now, giving to religious congregations in the U.S. has been declining, and smaller congregations are often having a harder time serving the numbers of congregants they need to keep their doors open. Most traditional religions have a strong communal basis, which is less important for the new scaling spiritualties that float atop global commercial and media networks. It is the communal basis of purpose that I look forward to learning more about with Brooks and Snyder.
The great civilizational religions face strong competition in leading the enchantment of our world. And, at the same time, communities are buffeted by powerful brands as they try to navigate changes in commerce, technology, and inequality.
Spiritual revival obsessed with scale
In her lively book, Strange Rights, Tara Burton illustrates the many ways the growing number of religiously unaffiliated people seek spirituality outside the congregations where a god reigns. She shows us how “companies and brands do battle with one another for our souls.” Superheroes with supernatural powers dominate film around the world, and a wizard guides the early reading habits of many adolescents. The globally consumed Star Wars franchise, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s syntheses of themes common to the great legacy religions, taps into the commercialization of purpose. ‘Shareholders’ give way to more expansive ‘stakeholders’ in corporate rhetoric, as employees and customers are encouraged to bring purpose to their jobs and commercial transactions.
In this context, we can see our period as one of spiritual revival. It is one, however, that is obsessed with scale. There is a ferocious battle for who can own and deploy the purpose and enchantment that was once more confined to the domain of formal religion. We also see this battle in the political sphere, as strongmen across the globe revive narratives of national ambition and resentment toward outsiders, sometimes seeking to connect with themes and concepts that echo traditional religions. Scale also dominates prevalent notions in philanthropy, where big bets and ideas for scaling up are vetted based on how much impact they can deliver for humanity.
It is easy to plug into national and global networks that promise to provide meaning in our lives or to connect us to highly impactful philanthropy. But being a consumer of purpose and philanthropy at this scale is problematic. Scale diminishes the power of community by downplaying how it is unique and different, and by sidelining what a community wants to create for itself rather than adopt from an external system, especially one whose primary goal is not to guide the discovery of purpose. Purpose for our digital platforms is not the end; it is a means toward something else, often the growth of the enterprise or its profits.
Scale also taunts our youth. They are often made to feel that only at scale do things matter – an arena where by definition only a few can have a creative role. For example, manufacturing the illusion that cryptocurrency can give everyone an impact at a grand historic level reinforces an acquisitive ethos that feeds the scale of what is ultimately a commercial movement.
So how does one resist the pull of industries that seeks to manufacture ready-made purposes for all? Arthur Brooks writes how the “pursuit of more” that usually comes with ambitions in the world is ultimately self-defeating and deprives life of satisfaction. His prescription is to focus on wanting less, a kind of personal confessional ownership of purpose that looks inward to the power of the individual. It includes an important dose of devotion to one’s faith as well.
Communal work involves generosity
In contrast, David Brooks and Anne Snyder embed their prescription for reclaiming purpose in community. And we see a corresponding trend questioning scale in philanthropy. Giving circles and mutual aid arrangements allow for participatory care and local design with and for those who are close to us. Still, there are constant expressions of frustration with the lack of scaling, or that philanthropy pales in its power to make the big transformations we need – power that is assumed to reside in government or commerce and technology. Whether local philanthropy can be as effective as scalable solutions is an empirical question that can be investigated. Likewise, the value a community places on creating with and for itself is also something that can be usefully interrogated, as can the role of uncompensated caring and generosity. Not enough of these investigations take place, as scale often sweeps community concerns away in its path.
A lot of communal work involves being generous and deploying generosity in face-to-face settings. This is difficult to scale. Perhaps there was a time when we evaluated scaling systems for how useful they were in empowering communities. Now, it seems that the sole recipe for survival is to adopt a template that is offered by the system – a kind of franchise model for purpose. In the political realm we see this in the nationalization of previously local issues as they enter the great chasm of polarization.
Community remains vital as a building block for repairing our larger public sphere. For example, Lake Institute Visiting Scholar Elizabeth Lynn is leading a project called Shifting Ground that seeks to tap into faith traditions as ways of advancing productive face-to-face discussions around issues that are dividing our public square. You might say her project creates resources for “weavers.” It does not seek to homogenize communal engagement on a platform that will take off on a path that is disconnected from the needs and wants of a community. The community stays in control.
A growing community of weavers
I do need to check my enthusiasm for communities. They are not always and everywhere vehicles of light and joy. They can be oppressive and limiting, allergic to change. And community-based programs have experienced ample failures. But when it comes to meaning and purpose it seems like the right level at which to focus – larger than the family but still smaller than the scale at which we are regularly engaging anonymous others.
Many in our school’s community share with Brooks and Snyder, and the growing community of weavers, the conviction that there is important work to be done where spirituality and generosity encounter each other in community. So, as we prepare to welcome Brooks and Snyder to the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, I am gratified that questions of religion and ethics are integral to what the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is about.
It is vital to us that the question of purpose, of why, remain at the foundation of our community. Why do we give, why do we ask others to give? As we seek to do so many things better, we cannot simply assume that why we do this, or should do this, is given. It is something we build and rebuild to make ourselves who we are.
by Kathi Badertscher, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Programs, IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
2022 marks the third year of the global pandemic that will leave its imprint on all of us for years to come. 2022 also marks my tenth year of teaching at IUPUI. My engagement with students as professor, advisor, and community volunteer allows me to witness daily what the Weave Project manifesto has described as David Brooks describes as “hubs – places that help provide coherence, centers of debate, centers of learning, where the common work and the common faith can be hammered out.”
Dean Amir Pasic notes that our quest for scale may undermine face-to-face community building. Christian Madsbjerg’s Sensemaking, a powerful argument for the humanities, also questions our hyperfocus on scale. The book reminds us that human intelligence is “the most effective intelligence for addressing contextual challenges,” while not scalable in the technological sense. Weave celebrates this essence of humanity that Madsbjerg calls for us to celebrate.
Like David Brooks and Anne Snyder and others, I hear sadness and frustration – even despair – amid the isolation that the pandemic has created. But far more often I hear narratives of growth, hope, resilience, and humility. Brooks’ The Road to Character (2015) describes humility as “the awareness that you are not the center of the universe.” Humility, in particular, stands out as an element of character—and one I have come to understand as the common thread among Lilly Family School of Philanthropy students. Whether they want to save the oceans, immigrant peoples, precious artworks, or precious souls, students gather in our “hub” in search of something greater than themselves. Many times, I have described our students, staff, faculty, alumni, and stakeholders as a community that reaches around the globe. If community is made of thick systems of relationships (Brooks, The Second Mountain), then we are a community indeed. Now more than ever, our community members thrive in their efforts to create positive change by acting on what the great Bob Payton called the moral imagination.
Our “hub” abounds with relational people, those who embody what Weave calls “relationalism” as a way of life. Students embed themselves in their personal and professional philanthropy, knowing that their journey to becoming effective givers and receivers will be lifelong. I can witness those relational weavers are among us all. Our challenge is to notice them.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events