(For those wanting my commentary and not the summary, skip to the bottom)
“There is God. And there are images of God. And some people don’t see any difference between the two.” In Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Miroslav Volf attempts to separate out the difference between God in reality from our images and idols. And he does this principally around the themes of giving and forgiving. Proceeding by way of summary, paraphrase, and quoting, I’ll run through Chapters 1 and 4, offering a bit of reflection at the end. Chapter 1 now; Chapter 4 later.
God the GiverTwo particularly false images of God are God the negotiator and God the Santa Claus. When we view God as the negotiate we see God as one to whom we can pitch a deal, make an arrangement. If God will do this for us, we will give God that. All of us have lived this way, and know many more who do also, but Volf draws our attention to the fact that even if God were a negotiator, it would still make no sense to make deals with Him. He always has the advantage, the upper hand. There is nothing that God could need we could give him. Everything is already his. Volf makes clear that God is emphatically not a negotiator: “God’s goods are not for sale; you can’t buy them with money or good deeds. God doesn’t make deals. God gives” (26).
But if God is the God of the gift and not of the deal, is he then like Santa Claus? Does he give to all the little girls and boys gifts what they don’t need (or deserve)? Does he give without expectation or obligation? Does he demand nothing from us, giving indiscriminately and inexhaustibly? No! While God is the inexhaustible source of all gifts, he does also make demands. “Unlike Santa, God doesn’t just scatter gifts, smiling in blissful affirmation of who we are and what we do no matter who we happen to be and what we happen to do. God also urges us to do this or not to do that…God generously gives, so God is not a negotiator of absolute dimensions. God demands, so God is not an infinite Santa Clause. So, what is the relationship between God’s giving and God’s demand?” (28).
The answer is that while God gives, he also demands that we would give also; the obligation is to continue the giving. But of course we can’t gift a gift to God, for two reasons. He is already totally fulfilled, needing nothing from creatures, but gives and receives counter-gifts from each member of the Trinity. And everything that might be given to God is already God’s because he makes and sustains all things. So, “if we cannot return benefits to God, then how can obligations to God be attached to God’s gifts to us?” (42). Or, basing the question according to Romans 12:1-2, “what then is this sacrifice that is neither a gift nor a counter-gift to God?”
First, God’s gifts oblige us to a posture of receptivity, a posture where we “see ourselves as who we truly are, namely, receivers and receivers only. We do that by relating to God in faith. "The first thing to which God’s gifts oblige us is faith” (43). In reality we are all beggars. Our very existence and preservation are gifts from God of which we have not right. But this beggarly position is not full of humility, but rather is the apex of our humanity. “To receive from God in faith is the height of human dignity” (44).
Second, God’s gifts oblige us to gratitude. While when we give thanks we are not actually giving back anything, we are still honoring God and expressing our appreciation for the gifts given. Gratitude and faith cohere in that faith affirms that I am a recipient and gratitude affirms that God is the giver. “Faith receives God’s gifts as gifts; gratitude receives them well.” In neither faith nor gratitude is humanity diminished, but rather they complete us and acknowledge that life is not a self-achievement of independence, which leads to pride and sin.
Third, God’s gifts oblige us to be available to the Giver, available in the sense of being instruments and conduits of God’s gifts to others. Not only does God want to give us gifts, but He desires to impart within us the divine life of giving. The image of God in us is that we would be more than receivers, but also givers.
And in light of this, fourth, God’s gifts oblige us to participate in God’s gift giving. Not only are we conduits, potentially consumed by the task, or lose as the instrument, but we, through Christ dwelling in us, participate in Christ’s giving to the world. In this sense, we enter into the mission of God’s giving as we participate in Christ. But in the process we don’t lose ourselves, our identity as individuals. If we seek our own and a stance of pure receptivity, we will lose ourselves into the void of narcissism, but the paradox of love as gift is that when we give we find ourselves.
Here ends the summary; here begins the brief commentary.
A general and a specific observation. First it is of great merit that Volf has brought the discourse of the gift to a popular audience, allowing for an understand of God that is not strictly juridical, but rather based in the reciprocity and mutual recognition of giving gifts. The following chapters in part one of course spell out what this means for us. For those looking for a more scholarly/academic presentation of the ‘gift’ in its anthropological, phenomenological, and theological aspects, read John Milbank’s ‘Can a Gift Be Given?: Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic’ in Modern Theology 11 (1995): 119-137.
Second, of Volf’s four obligations, the first is striking in regard to something I recently recently read in Jeffery Stout’s Democracy and Tradtion. In chapter 9 he outlines the rise of the discourse of ‘rights’. Against the authoritarian rule of feudal lords comes the a discourse of rights, a claiming to have certain rights that for which one ought not need to beg. The discourse on human right rises from the desire not to beg, but rather as something demanded.
In light of faith, which is receptivity of God’s gifts, which is to acknowledge ourselves as essentially beggars, what does this means for a Christians understanding of ‘human rights’? And also, what does that mean for our entire understanding of our relation to democracy, the discourse of right?
I think there are good and bad aspects of the discourse on right, but how do you think they relate?