You won’t find many points of similarity between Charles Darwin and me, but recent events have me once again pondering one common attribute: an acute sense of wonder.
I have never investigated precisely what led Darwin to conduct the research that produced his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, but I imagine him taking particular delight in the amazing variety of plant and animal life and resolving to gain new insights into the mechanisms responsible for so many species. Wonder at nature’s diversity prompted the scientific labors of the Darwin of my imagination.
I have often been gripped by the same powerful appreciation of diversity, although it is the diversity of human activity that enthralls me. Nothing against hummingbirds, tortoises and finches, but I have always marveled at the varied motivations that prompt human behavior in all its richness.
As a child observing commuters rushing off to work, it struck me as amazing that all these people had found meaning in a staggering number of different professions and work experiences. Even if each Dashing Dan or Danielle did not consider his or her current job a satisfying endpoint of a quest for the perfect career, they found sufficient motivation and interest to take up and sustain that type of work, at least in the short run. The proliferation of majors and fields of study on any university campus is a similar testimony to the dizzying diversity of interests among people, as if God planted in us the seeds of a bewildering array of inclinations, abilities and tastes.
Anybody who observes the hundreds of hobbies, thousands of magazines, even the stunning array of niche cable channels available today, might be struck by the same impression. There is someone drawn to every imaginable activity.
Lately I have been experiencing this sense of wonder anew. This summer I took up a position (as dean of a graduate school of theology and ministry) that prompted me to study up, for the first time in my life, on the world of philanthropy. No institution in our country seems to be able to make ends meet teaching theology at the graduate level, since our alumni are highly unlikely to earn enough to contribute substantially. So leaders of seminaries and theology centers will forever be on the lookout for potential donors.
Thank goodness, then, for the human proclivity for diverse interests! It seems that God has planted in some affluent and generous souls an ardent desire to make substantial sacrifices to support schools of theology and ministry. Of course, it is still a challenge to identify enough of these donors to keep such schools afloat; but my point here is that this is not altogether impossible. Despite all the odds, somebody out there feels drawn to care.
When I am not thinking about the challenge of my own mission to keep my institution solvent, I ponder the plight of needy organizations and individuals who struggle to eke out an existence even farther down the food chain of philanthropy. Sure, God created a remarkable number of people with commendable interest in funding the arts and prominent social causes, throwing some money toward their alma mater or fighting a specific disease that may have claimed a loved one, but what about the remaining urgent causes that fall through the cracks?
In moments of dramatic crisis, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Asian tsunami of 2004 or the Haitian earthquake of 2010 (to cite some crises of the past decade), generous giving for emergency relief efforts is deeply encouraging. But ordinary grinding poverty is rightly characterized as “a natural disaster in slow motion.” Unmet human needs for adequate food, shelter and health care are unlikely ever to present a broad enough appeal to prevent the human tragedies of homeless families and lives ruined by preventable disease and malnourishment, here and abroad. Just ask the heroes who run Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, who struggle every day with the grim arithmetic of rising needs and diminishing resources.
It would be great if God graced the world with another Einstein or Picasso or even another Darwin, but I most ardently hope that God will fashion a few more people of means with an innate proclivity to care for the poor.