Receiving the Gift, Absolutely

At about 3:00 AM this past Tuesday morning, approximately nine hours into the fourteen hour drive home from Black Mountain, North Carolina, I was reflecting on some of the things that tend to preoccupy me when I have the time to be preoccupied. In order to keep myself awake, I was reflecting aloud, and in order to keep my children asleep, I was reflecting in a sort of muttered whisper that my mother-in-law was probably interpreting as yet another sign that her daughter’s husband is not altogether stable. I feel a great deal of sympathy for those who have to live with me.

The subject of my reflection was the nature of giving in a theological sense, specifically the question of how it is possible for God to receive a gift. Now, I do not have the time or space here to introduce the philosophical and theological idea of the gift in even a rudimentary way. The weight that this word bears in philosophy and theology is immense, and even a very inadequate contextualization would require me to write at length on the role of gift and givenness in an extensive list of phenomenological, deconstructive, and poststructuralist thinkers. Even to make a list of the relevant authors would take too much time and explanation for this medium, but by way of beginning such a list, I would recommend Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida (especially La Carte Postale, where he responds to Heidegger directly, and The Gift of Death), and Jean Luc Marion (especially Being Given and in John D, Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon’s God the Gift and Postmodernism, where he and Derrida discuss the idea of gift together).

Recognizing, then, that I can only gesture in the direction that this topic requires, let me summarize as succinctly as I can the problem of God as a recipient of the gift.  The problem begins not with God but with me, in the fact that it is never possible for me truly to give a gift because I always stand to gain in some way from what I give, even if it is only the satisfaction of having given without having anything to gain. To give a gift, therefore, is always to open an exchange of gifts, to participate in an economy of gifts, and is not truly to give a gift at all. Similarly, I can never truly receive a gift because, to the degree that it is really a gift to me, it will always require me to return a gift, even if it is just the gift of gratitude. To receive a gift, therefore, is also to enter into an economy of gifts, and is not truly to receive a gift at all.

Now, God, insofar as God is absolute, is usually regarded as the only one who can truly and absolutely give, because God can give without standing to gain anything. Since nothing can add anything to God that God does not have already, not even the satisfaction of having given, then God can give without receiving anything in return, can give truly and absolutely. If God gives, therefore, God gives as a part of God’s nature, not with any expectation or possibility of return. The gift of God would be a gift that disrupts absolutely the economy of the gift.

However, the problem with this idea is that it prevents God, by definition, from ever receiving a gift. Though God has given to me absolutely, I am always unable to give to God in any way, because nothing that I give to God can add anything that God does not already have. In fact, if God condescends to accept my gift, though God has no need of it, than even this acceptance becomes another gift to me. Because God gives absolutely, apart from any economy of the gift, God can only give to me, cannot actually receive a gift from me. Even when God graciously accepts the gifts that I give, it is only in the guise of giving another gift to me.

At 3:00 AM, however, somewhere in Virginia, it occurred to me suddenly that Christian theology potentially accounts for this difficulty through the doctrine of incarnation. By insisting that God can be both absolutely God and absolutely human simultaneously, it may be that the doctrine of incarnation opens the possibility that God can both give absolutely and receive absolutely, can both give to me and receive from me truly. As absolutely God, lacking nothing, God can only give to me,  but as absolutely human, lacking everything that I lack, perhaps God can also receive from me.

Even more, because the incarnate Christ, God as absolutely human, claims to do nothing of himself but only the will of his father in heaven, he gives nothing of himself but only what his father in heaven wills.  To this degree at least, then, God as human does not give at all, but only receives, and does so absolutely, so that God as God can give through him, and do so absolutely.  God as God would thus be the God who gives, absolutely, and God as human would be the God who receives, absolutely.  As both God and human, as incarnate, it would therefore be possible for God both to give truly and to receive truly and still to escape the necessity of an economy of the gift.  God, incarnate, would  enact the gift perfectly and essentially, would incarnate the gift as such.

Admittedly, this is a very rough sketch of an argument that would need to be articulated with greater specificity and greater rigour.  Admittedly also, it is an argument that, despite incarnational elements in other faith systems, is possible only within a certain tradition of Christian theology.  Even so, the direction of this logic appeals to me, and I am interested to see how it might develop with further thought and discussion.


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