The virtue of hospitality has enjoyed something of a minor renaissance. Over the last few decades, theologians and ethicists have sought to make a case for its recovery. The renewed interest has not been confined to scholarly quarters. Hospitality has also become a point of emphasis in churches as well as for administrators and student-life offices at church-related universities. The increased attentiveness to hospitality is due, in part, to a heightened concern for underrepresented groups, especially those who have been stigmatized or felt excluded from communities professing to love and welcome strangers. Consideration for these groups has prompted many Christian universities to assess existing policies with the aim of creating an atmosphere that is more inclusive and welcoming of difference.

We should be grateful to those institutions for attempting to restore a practice that has been routinely neglected and trivialized in the developed West. Hospitality was once considered a salient feature of Christian living. In the premodern church especially, hospitality was considered a matter of profound charity; its practice was essential for the flourishing and even survival of wayfarers as well as the poor and infirm. Given the number of students choosing to attend religious institutions of higher learning, we might reasonably suppose those institutions are well-positioned to model hospitality and demonstrate its centrality to the moral life.

On the other hand, we should be cautious about institutionally-sponsored efforts to improve our collective moral fiber. Even in religious universities (where I happen to work), moral invocations can become platitudinous or deteriorate into virtue-signaling rituals. Moral invocations may also be informed by an incorrect understanding of what goodness prescribes. After all, we sometimes err when commending certain acts as virtuous, and we wrongly judge ourselves to be good for having performed them. Moreover, our behavior may be a function of interests that are not especially moral even if we have a sound grasp of what goodness requires. In short, ostensibly moral actions and self-assessments are sometimes distorted by conceptual errors and concealed motives. I want to suggest that recent portrayals of and appeals to hospitality are often distorted in these ways.

Hospitality as almsgiving

As a point of departure, consider what Thomas Aquinas says in his commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. He not only describes hospitality as a work of mercy but insists all works of mercy—or almsgiving—are contained within the practice of hospitality.1 We show hospitality whenever we shelter strangers, nourish the hungry, or care for the sick. We also show hospitality through consolation, counsel, forgiveness, and instruction. So viewed, hospitality can be physically or spiritually palliative. Its scope includes not only the displaced or those with physical afflictions but those suffering from anxiety, discouragement, and moral listlessness.

The idea that hospitality comprises all acts of almsgiving is not Aquinas’s own; it represents and remains the generally accepted position of the Christian tradition. If this account is even nearly right, then we can distinguish hospitality from its distorted variants more easily. For example, we often think hospitality operates in the morally anemic realm of dinner parties and church welcoming committees. Yet hospitality is not synonymous with being convivial. Nor is it identical to any act of apparent beneficence. In fact, acts that are materially similar to almsgiving may not be instances of hospitality at all. To employ philosophical parlance: the proper specification of an act depends not only on what is done but on its governing motive. Almsgiving is the outward expression of mercy; it proceeds from a heartfelt desire to relieve another’s affliction. Thus Aquinas describes almsgiving as “an act of charity through the medium of mercy.”2 So conceived, it would be a mistake to construe every act of beneficence as an instance of hospitality even if the recipient were to benefit from it. The act may in fact be an expression of vice or a mistaken belief about our reasons for acting.

How could a presumably virtuous act be an expression of vice (or at least a morally substandard intention)? Acts of this sort are actually not uncommon. Indulgent parents believe they are kind and understanding when refusing to discipline a misbehaving child. Judges consider themselves just when imposing punishment that is excessive or cruel. People who appear generous may in fact be profligate or sycophantic. These and other examples corroborate what social psychology believes more-or-less settled: presumably good acts and assessments are sometimes governed by self-interest or mistaken beliefs about the ends or purposes we’re trying to achieve.

St. Augustine was familiar with this kind of deception. Even with respect to our own actions, those we believe morally commendable are often expressions of darker impulses. After all, works of love appear no different from those generated by pride. Both feed the hungry, clothe the naked, fast, exercise chastity, and bury the dead.3 How then can we discriminate between charitable acts and those of pride? According to Augustine, we must strenuously interrogate ourselves in order to determine whether our allegedly virtuous behaviors are expressions of some unacknowledged vice.4 On this same point, Nietzsche observed that moral practices and invocations are often governed by desires that are “slavish or vain or self-interested or gloomingly enthusiastic or despair[ing].”5 Who would deny that we behave well in order to curry favor, outshine our rivals, shame our enemies, or assuage our guilt? Motivations of this sort are ubiquitous yet often hidden even to ourselves; it is precisely for this reason we should resist shielding our actions and self-assessments from “the cruel sight of the moral dissecting table [with] its knives and forceps.”6

Hospitality on the dissecting table

Ascriptions of hospitality are not less prone to the distortions I’ve described here. With this consideration in mind, I want to return to Christian academia’s renewed interest in hospitality and the corresponding desire to welcome and be inclusive of underrepresented groups. The link between hospitality and inclusivity is particularly important here as it indicates a more recent way of portraying hospitable action. Elizabeth Newman corroborates this point. Even in church-related institutions, Christian hospitality is often equated with inclusivity or “welcoming diversity.”7 She writes: “to be hospitable … is to be inclusive. Indeed, [many believe that] inclusivity is identified with the very heart of the gospel.”8 Thus it is unsurprising when institutions promote various inclusion-enhancing measures in order to engineer the sort of ethos hospitality presumably demands. Some institutions may only amend existing mission statements by emphasizing concern for inclusivity and student well-being. Others adopt more strategic measures: developing diversity-enhanced curricula; mandating diversity seminars for faculty and incoming students; requiring prospective faculty to include “diversity statements” with their application materials; making inclusivity and social justice more central to student life and development; and—in some cases—modifying behavioral policies and expectations in response to the convictions of less traditional faculty and students.

If the link between hospitality and inclusivity is as strong as this account supposes, then it would be hard to deny the moral propriety of the aforementioned measures. Yet the concerns Augustine and Nietzsche raise become important here. Because moral practices and valuations are sometimes functions of unacknowledged interests, it would not be unreasonable to question whether efforts to be more inclusive are instantiations of hospitality. Might those efforts be something other than what they are reported to be? Might they be governed by purposes other than—and perhaps even contrary to—mercy? The best way to answer this question is by scrutinizing—“dissecting” if you will—how the language of hospitality functions in institutional contexts. In the interests of such scrutiny, I offer a few observations.

First, institutions have not always availed themselves of resources that might help them develop thoughtful, theologically sound practices. In the case of hospitality especially, its equation with inclusivity is often assumed. There is little patience for reading, discussion, and conceptual accuracy when crafting policies. Besides, deeming certain practices as “hospitable” by fiat will likely ensure compliance with institutional expectations. Practices framed as inhospitable will have less support even if they were deemed acceptable in the recent past. After all, no one wants to be thought of as inhospitable or unwelcoming. Yet without serious reflection on what hospitality means or demands, the ascription inevitably functions as an imprimatur that renders once objectionable ideas respectable and long held teachings or policies heretical.

The next observation is connected to the previous one. Institutions attempting to be more inclusive will sometimes take exception to views and practices that are ostensibly divisive or unwelcoming. While expressing such views is not always prohibited, it is often discouraged. Their advocates can be subject to public shaming and censure. Institutional efforts to engineer a hospitable/inclusive environment can exemplify the sort of exclusionary practices those same institutions claim to resist. In their efforts to build environments of inclusion, institutions can become unwelcoming to those whose views fail to mirror their own. Institutionally engineered hospitality can encourage an ideologically homogeneous environment in which (somewhat ironically) its detractors are the ones who represent alterity or strangeness.

Finally, there is an important dissimilarity between recent hospitality measures and more paradigmatic examples of Christian hospitality. The Benedictines and Cistercians practiced hospitality at great risk to themselves. Yet the perils of welcoming the unknown were not their primary concern. The Rule of St. Benedict reads: “Let all guests that arrive be received as Christ… And let fitting honor be shown to all, especially such as are of the household of the faith and to wayfarers” (chapter 3, rule 53). Their efforts to accommodate guests were also meticulous, and they forfeited extravagance in order to extend generosity to others. In short, hospitality was not without considerable hazard and sacrifice. By contrast, recent hospitality initiatives are comparatively undemanding. They pose little if any risk to those welcoming strangers.9 Whatever differences those strangers possess are incidental, presumably innocuous, and eminently tolerable. The stranger brings no real alterity, no threat, and no ideological risk when coming to the table.10

Hospitality, truth, and mercy

These observations are not intended to suggest that inclusivity is a pernicious idea. While inclusivity is not good simpliciter, its exercise is necessary in order to extend hospitality to others. Moreover, these observations aim only to rouse suspicions about whether our so-called hospitality always serves the interests of mercy. I have no doubt appeals to hospitality sometimes mask ideological ends. In other cases, those appeals may reflect an institution’s desire to satisfy diverse constituencies and accrediting bodies while remaining faithful to its mission. This latter concern is important and difficult to navigate. Yet it remains the case that hospitality, being a matter of almsgiving, cannot be practiced for reasons apart from mercy. And while hospitality may require us to accommodate both persons and beliefs that appear strange or foreign to us, it does not require us to cede moral practices or commitments because others find them objectionable or unfashionable. In fact, hospitality may require us to defend those practices and commitments if we believe them to be true and salutary.

While hospitality may require us to accommodate both persons and beliefs that appear strange or foreign to us, it does not require us to cede moral practices or commitments because others find them objectionable or unfashionable.

The attempt to correlate hospitality with truth may seem strange. In their own treatment of this issue, both Newman and Reinhold Hütter acknowledge that the fractious pursuit of truth will appear to conflict with hospitality. For some, hospitality should prohibit practices that can produce disagreement or involve criticizing views held by guests. Yet the mercy of hospitality is sometimes severe; it cannot function within what Hütter calls an “economy of nicety.”11 Newman explains: “[g]iving and receiving truth can be disruptive and frightening. But … we need each other to be able to name the false ideologies that deform, domesticate, and distort education, the Church, and our very lives.”12 In order for hospitality to achieve its ends, host and guest alike must be willing to engage beliefs and practices that appear threatening or strange.13 The purpose of doing so, however, is not to facilitate the guest’s comfort but to create an environment that challenges our ill-formed judgments and inflated self-estimations. Deception and conceit are afflictions, too. Apart from the good of truth, hospitality has little to offer by way of a remedy.

This account of hospitable practice is admittedly abstract. Are there practical suggestions we can derive from it? I think so, although those suggestions will themselves be somewhat general; how one implements them will depend on the teaching environment, student needs, and other contextual factors. Regardless of setting, however, I’m persuaded that church-related institutions would do well to familiarize themselves with a traditional account of mercy and the spiritual works associated with it. That account might inspire a more compelling image of the hospitable university, one where almsgiving is practiced primarily through teaching and instruction. While the hospitable university will make room for a diversity of people, “making room” will not be the goal of hospitable practice; nor can it be a matter of welcoming others without condition or expectations. If instruction is to bear good fruit, guests should be willing to respect the religiously identifying beliefs and practices of the host. Moreover, the host must understand the importance of clarifying those beliefs and practices rather than minimizing their importance.

On this last point, Aurelie Hagstrom reminds us that, in religious institutions especially, the host sets the banquet table. Religious practices and commitments “are not abandoned in the interchange of hospitality.”14 While the host must exercise charity and flexibility when interacting with others, she must not veil her religious identity. To do so would “let hospitality give way to the relativist banalities of mere tolerance, denying guest and host alike the honest opportunity to judge, instruct, and learn from the other.”15 Of course, instruction, inquiry, and the assessment of opposing views involve great risk, especially in a milieu of heightened ideological sensitivities and fear of alienating others. Yet as we previously noted, hospitality cannot honor truth while avoiding conflict or insulating ourselves from the discomfort that sometimes results from engaging unfamiliar or controversial views. Nor can it honor truth without sustained efforts to help students shun habits that intensify their anxieties and forestall their moral and intellectual development. After all, instruction, counsel, and (when needed) admonishment are all acts of mercy. Here the practice of hospitality can shine.

As a work of mercy, then, hospitality can be as severe as it is lovely. It may require us to instruct or be receptive to hard truths, to judge or have one’s views judged, and so forth. By eschewing questions of truth in an effort to be inclusive or welcoming, hospitality becomes pusillanimous, enabling, and deceitful. Its distorted nature may remain hidden even from its practitioners. Might our own hospitable efforts be distorted in this way? Perhaps not. Yet without a willingness to dissect our moral practices and assessments, we have no right to be so morally self-assured. Our so-called hospitality may be something other than what it appears to be, and that worry seems serious enough.


  1. Commentary on the Romans, trans. Fabian Larcher (The Aquinas Institute, 2012), Lecture 21, ch.1, n.993.
  2. Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1981), II-II, 32.1.
  3. Homilies of the Epistle of John, from The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Shaff (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmanns,1956), 8.9.
  4. City of God, from The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 1.28.
  5. Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press, 1982), ¶97.
  6. Human All too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press, 1982), section 37. Merold Westphal’s account of Nietzsche’s critique of moral valuation is instructive and has helped frame this essay’s central concern. See his Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Fordham University Press, 1998), especially chapters 35-39.
  7. Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers (Brazos Press, 2007), 30.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jeffery Bilbro also points out that “being hospitable” will likely produce more benefits than costs for the host. From a marketing perspective, hospitality is good business.
  10. I’m grateful to Jeff Polet for reminding me of this point.
  11. Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmanns Publishing, 2004), 75.
  12. Newman, 144.
  13. Hütter, 66.
  14. “Christian Hospitality in the Intellectual Community,” in Christianity and the Soul of the University, eds. Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2006), 125.
  15. Ibid.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great piece by an incredibly attractive man. Here’s my question: “Almsgiving is the outward expression of mercy; it proceeds from a heartfelt desire to relieve another’s affliction.” How do Christian institutions concerned with developing the virtue of hospitality in members nurture this “heartfelt desire to relieve” suffering? We can do the act repeatedly to form a habit, but you are contending that the act may not always be accompanied by the proper motive. Opening oneself to what is uncomfortable may prompt self-evaluation, but that doesn’t really equate with a desire to relieve the suffering of others. How do we come about this desire?

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