At first blush, “gifts” do not seem likely to create as many problems as they have in contemporary theology. To think of gifts, after all, generally calls to mind largely pleasant images—wrapped Christmas packages, unexpected surprises from loved ones tucked into our bags, or surprise parties celebrating an achievement. In fact, the act of giving and receiving gifts depends on these pleasant associations as a constitutive element. A statement such as “that was a gift” depends for its rhetorical effect on our believing that gifts are precisely the opposite of compensation, or payback, or some other comparatively mercenary mode of transaction.
However, a closer look at our own experiences reveal that gift-giving is caught up in a web of complex economies, often unspoken but nonetheless powerful. Suppose I am invited to a friend’s house for dinner, where I am lavished with lovely and relatively expensive hospitality—homecooked food, well-aged wine, and hours of stimulating conversation. Such hospitality is a gift to be celebrated; however, once the glow of the evening has subsided, pressing questions emerge. Am I not expected to reciprocate? If I do, then custom dictates that I wait an appropriate amount of time before doing so, lest it look like my reciprocal gesture is perfunctory payback and not a genuine expression of gratitude. Do I also send a thank-you card, or is that excessive? If I do invite these friends over, am I obliged to spend as much money on them as they did on me, even if my household makes less money?
Navigating the unspoken social mores of the informal “gift economies” into which we are drawn is, upon reflection, a significant part of contemporary social interaction. But it is difficult to opt out: were I simply to present my friends with a check in the amount of the money spent on the meal, I would be insulting their hospitality (not least by implying that the intangibles surrounding the gift could be quantified and monetized). If I were simply to eschew any return gesture, feelings could be hurt and the relationship damaged. The problematics of the gift are seemingly inescapable.
Study of the dynamics of literal gift economies were stimulated by the work of the sociologist Marcel Mauss, whose 1925 essay “On the Gift” examined (by way of others’ ethnographic reports) the economic practices of so-called archaic “gift economies” among tribes in Melanesia and Polynesia. Mauss’s description of the incredibly complex yet deadly serious dynamics surrounding gift exchange in these “primitive” economies initiated a sustained inquiry among anthropologists, historians, philosophers, and (eventually) theologians about the ways in which such dynamics persist even after the advent of monetary exchange. Mauss’s work not only helped scholars understand the hidden complexities of gift economies, but also gave them a rubric for investigating how the unspoken rules of gift exchange continue to sustain (and occasionally subvert) forms of social domination and hierarchy.
This link between gift economies and social structures drew the attention of the deconstructionist strand of continental philosophy, particularly that of Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s work on the gift (and its close corollary, hospitality) hinges on the impossibility of a true “gift,” a gift understood as a sheer act of grace free from entanglement with the aforementioned social economies. As with much of Derrida’s work, his view of the gift oscillates between a deep cynicism as to whether such a gift could ever come into being and an intense longing for a kind of “impossible possibility” of such a gift, a gift that is never reciprocated because the giver is so removed from economy as to be functionally anonymous. The “pure gift” is a kind of seductive will-o’-the wisp.
This tension between impossibility and the longing for purity in gifting has set the stage within theology for an extended consideration of how God’s “grace”—surely a gift if there ever was one—does and does not conform to the same problematics as human gifting. On one hand, much religious language portrays the gift of grace as having significant strings attached. In such a vision, God gives grace freely, but humans must respond with worship, moral living, service to neighbors, etc. (Calvinist/Lockean modes of “covenant theory” make this exchange a central feature of Christian life). On the other hand, theologians have also been at pains to extricate God’s grace from such schemes for fear that portraying God as one more participant in the larger web of obligations surrounding the gift does a disservice to God’s nature and ways of relating to the world.
Theological strategies for addressing this topic have varied throughout the last several decades. Kathryn Tanner has argued that God’s absolute transcendence rules out God’s gifting being enough akin to human gifting to be caught up in the problematic elements of economy. Jean-Luc Marion, in conversation with Derrida, has theorized God’s gifting as a kind of “saturated phenomenon” that does not so much evade as overwhelm human gift economies so as to remake them. Meanwhile, John Milbank has questioned whether seeking to absolve God’s gifts of participation in economy misses an opportunity for us to recognize that gift economies are, after all, relationships, and that such relationships properly construed can be life-giving rather than oppressive. What is striking about all of these otherwise diverse strategies is that they tend to pose God’s gift as somehow transcendent, bedazzling, transformative, or overwhelming enough—in other words, “strong” enough—to break free of encumbrance in the negative aspects of human gift economies.
An intriguing recent—and distinctively Lutheran—intervention into this debate is Gregory Walter’s Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice (Eerdmans 2013). Walter, who teaches theology at St. Olaf College, addresses the question of the involvement of God’s grace in the gift economy by framing the gift in terms of God’s promise. This is, among other things, a quintessentially Lutheran move. As scholars such as Oswald Bayer and Reinhard Hüter have pointed out in recent decades, promissio is a central category in Luther’s own thought. For Luther, God’s way of interacting with the world is constituted by the mode of promise: God creating out of nothing and justifying humanity while we are still sinners. This has important implications for how we think about God. For instance, Luther’s defense of the classical “omni” attributes of God (i.e. God’s omniscience, God’s omnipotence, etc.) has less to do with any allegiance to medieval dissections of divine attributes and more to do with his insistence that the Gospel depends upon God being powerful and trustworthy enough to fulfill God’s promises.
For Walter, promise is a unique mode of gift in that it is “doubled and extended”—the promise consists of both pledge and fulfillment (that is, the initial gift of the promise itself, as well as the gift of its later fulfillment), with a necessary interim gap between the two. The recipient’s trust in this promise is an important element in, for example, the relation of the believer to God; moreover, transmittal of the promise from one believer to another (that is, the preaching of the Gospel) is at the core of Christian mission. Thus, questions of economy arise immediately.
To his great credit, however, Walter does not follow the aforementioned strategy of exempting divine promise from the problematics of gift economy by portraying it as too “strong,” too forcefully overwhelming of the human experience, to be caught up in such dynamics. Rather, through a series of intriguing exegetical maneuvers centered on such texts as the Genesis 18:1–15 narrative of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, the Pentecost narrative, and the Eucharistic liturgy, Walter makes the case that the divine promise exerts a “weak” power, which he defines as “a power that is open to the other, welcomes the new, and does not attempt to preserve the present in the face of the past or future” (49). Envisioning God’s providence (including promise) as a “weak” force recalls the work of such philosophers of religion as John Caputo, who stresses the “weakness of God” as a force that lures humanity toward imaginative and non-coercive responsibility. Unlike Caputo, however, Walter situates the weak force of promise specifically in the Christian liturgy. He follows the Pentecost narrative in tracing how the work of God’s spirit, in the mode of promise, creates spaces where the problematic aspects of human gift economy are not sidestepped but rather taken up in the broader economy of the concrete practices by which God’s promises are embodied: proclamation, baptism, and Eucharist. The Eucharist, indeed, is the paradigmatic site of promise that is “doubled and extended” across time, but in interrupted and irruptive fashion. Only faith, and more importantly God’s faithfulness, can make the meal the gift that it is.
This Eucharistic sensibility allows for one of Walter’s most intriguing moves, wherein, taking up the Derridean simultaneous longing for and skepticism about “pure” gift, he embraces instead the “impurity” of the gift as Eucharistically conceived. Here Walter can speak of the “dangerous character of the meal,” and indeed the practices that the meal calls forth:
To enter into [the meal’s] place is to risk betraying the one who offers his very self. Likewise, to presume to offer it in Christ’s behalf is to assume the place of host. To put the Verba in another form: there is no host who is not betrayed, no community that gathers that does not itself desert Jesus, and no exchange or action taken that is pure. The Lord’s Supper is the place where promise is offered and therefore the feast in which one dwells, where one eats and drinks the very body and blood of Jesus to discover the possibility that the Spirit brings, an orientation to the other place of promise: the neighbor. And so, while we do not repeat the fixtures or architecture of this meal in its historical situation, we do repeat its place…The repetition of this place comes about by declaration of the promise, the prayer for the Spirit for the anamnesis of Jesus’ sacrifice, and the longing for the fulfillment of the promise. (88–9)
Far from being a situation where a romanticized view of liturgy is marshaled to cleave, like a Gordian-knot, an intractable theological problem, Walter links promise to Christian practice precisely in the impurity of both. In a manner akin to Matthew Myer Boulton’s arguments in his book God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship (2008), Walter frames the Eucharistic act as the concretization of ambiguity: our practices do not save us so much as they continually break us open to show us in need of salvation. The site of the Eucharist is the site of Christ’s betrayal, but also the site whereby the living Spirit gifts the pledge of redemption. The Christian practices of liturgy, and the practices of serving the neighbor that flow from these practices, are thus paradigmatic of the kind of effects brought about by the “weak power” of divine promise. They do not evade the impurities of the gift economy, but they do point toward the day when all economies are taken up in the original “economy” of the Triune life of God.
Walter’s book is thus extremely helpful in showing the potential of theological approaches that do not utilize the Christian tradition as a kind of triumphalist evasion of difficult questions surrounding our failures to love the neighbor as ourselves. Rather, we must take these questions seriously enough to let faith be as difficult as it needs to be in order to bear witness to the elusive but transformative promise that sustains us in the struggle.
Robert Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Programs at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.