Taking up for the third time – a tritos plous – the topic of the gift (see http://josephsoleary.typepad.com/my_weblog/2005/08/gift_qnd_debt_i.html; http://josephsoleary.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/10/the_gift_a_troj.html), I shall look at it from four perspectives, indicating a pluralism of approaches within each perspective taken on its own, a pluralism all the more irreducible when we take all four perspectives together. A single comprehensive theory that would fully explain what the gift is would have to be a theory that could reduce the four perspectives to a single system. Such a Hegelian ambition is no longer tenable. So let us be content to stand at the crossroads of the gift and use it as a point of departure for exploring and rethinking the various traditions that converge there.
Misgivings about Marion
I begin with the philosophical perspective represented by Jean-Luc Marion, insofar as his thought testifies to the reality of the given. The given is not merely the empirical datum, easily processed by rational categories. It is a phenomenon that intrinsically exceeds the grasp of our concepts and propositions. The beauty of a great work of art is such a phenomenon, as is the presence of God in joy-filled religious experience. This raises the question whether such a daring leap of philosophical insight is at all feasible.
The authors of Givenness and God (ed. Leask and Cassidy, Fordham UP) have well expressed the misgivings of the Anglophone world toward Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenological stance. The stumbling-blocks in our reception of Marion keep surfacing despite our admiration for his achievements. My own dealings with Marion began when I beheld “L’idole et la distance” in the PUF bookstore window on Boulevard Saint-Michel in the winter of 1977, at a time when, thanks to Richard Kearney who had introduced me to the circle of Jean Beaufret, I was rediscovering Heidegger and thinking for the first time about a possible “overcoming of metaphysics in Christian tradition” on the model of Heidegger’s “history of being”. I told Marion that someone in University College Dublin had praised his first book, L’ontologie grise de Descartes, as simply the best book on Descartes. Never one for false modesty, Marion replied “Il a raison d’ailleurs!”
When Richard and I organized our seminar at the Irish College on June 24, 1979, later published as Heidegger et la question de Dieu (Grasset, 1980), Marion was unable to attend for health reasons – as was Derrida, whom it was my strange lot in the end never to have met at all. But Marion sent a paper “La double idolâtrie” which was at the antipodes of the immanentist contributions of Beaufret and Fédier; its attack on Heidegger’s alleged idolatry of being drew a spirited response from Maria Villela-Petit. This paper was a stumbling-block for me. I could make little sense of its declarations that love was not merely beyond being but without being, that God himself was without being, and that as love he had no need of being.
A disconnect seemed to be opening up between an ultra-pure phenomenality on the one hand and the discredited realm of being and metaphysics on the other. This unilateralism was hard to stomach. In my own writing on overcoming metaphysics I wanted to do justice to the truth and power of metaphysics, even within the precincts of theology, while accepting with Heidegger that it should no longer be cultivated as the primary or dominant mode of thinking (including the thinking of faith). Following Heidegger, I thought of metaphysics as the Greek tradition of thinking of beings in terms of being, most powerfully exhibited in the onto-theo-logy of Aristotle. But Marion and his disciples reject Heidegger on this point, for they generally present onto-theo-logy as beginning with Scotus, or Suarez, or Descartes, so that Thomas Aquinas and a fortiori Augustine would no longer be “tainted” by ontotheology. (I would see the ontotheological framework clashing – in Origen, Augustine and Aquinas – with the biblical phenomenon of a personal “God who comes”, creating a dynamic site in which a partial overcoming of metaphysics within Christian tradition coexists with a metaphysical take on the Bible that limits its sense in way that we now need to overcome.) The seeds of the rejection of Heidegger’s radical vision of the history of metaphysics were already present in Marion’s 1979 paper, in its tendency to caricature metaphysics on the model of Cartesian rationalism and then to leap beyond metaphysics to a vision of pure self-giving love.
Heidegger talks of the phenomenon of Being, something to which Marion seems strangely averse, perhaps even allergic. When Marion talks of Being he tends to reduce it to the mere presence of entities, often placed under the rubric of “vanity” and “boredom”. Much of what he then discovers on the level of givenness, before or beyond Being, is in fact close to what Heidegger apprehends as Being. His first example of givenness beyond being is the painting, which has no need to exist in order to be given. Does this really go beyond Heidegger? Recall that in his commentary on the Trakl line, “Wenn der Schnee ans Fenster fällt” (in Unterwegs zur Sprache), Heidegger suggests that the snow in that line more really “is” than if real snow were falling on the window of the lecture-hall. Marion’s tendency to vault over Being toward givenness seems to me to threaten the persuasiveness of his testimony to givenness itself. If he wished to opposition between mere empirical datum and phenomenal givenness more consistently and explicitly, he could build on the work of Heidegger, which on one level is a sustained polemic against empiricist reductionism.
Marion is also close to Heidegger in his demonstration that the role of thinking – and also of faith, as he stresses elsewhere – is to recognize and receive a gift. Denken is Danken. But again the resources of Heidegger’s thought are not drawn on, and one is left with the sense that a strained preoccupation with the pure essence of gift and givenness is getting in the way of full phenomenological attention to the texture of the real.
A second ground of misgiving arose on hearing Marion lecture on “Le phénomène saturé” in Tokyo in 1992. I asked after the lecture whether his account of the saturated phenomenon could do justice to the cultural pluralism and linguistic embeddedness of the kinds of phenomena he was referring to. He replied that he saw no insuperable difficulty there. Perhaps he was right: the quality of ultimacy attaching to such experiences as the joy a Christian finds in the risen Christ or the joy a Shin Buddhist finds in Amida’s benevolence is what Marion is articulating. The problem of pluralism need not concern him.
Reduction and Reductiveness
Marion speaks a lot about “reduction”. What he means by this term is a leading-back of the phenomenonological gaze to the essential mode of givenness of being and beings. This is at the opposite pole from the “reductiveness” of a materialistic and technological civilization, which would recall all thought to the positivity of empirical data. Mark Dooley seems to me to represent such reductiveness in his critique of Marion’s vision of reality. He points to a long string of failures to “get at such an unconditioned and irreducible phenomenon” that would be a “mind or language-independent reality” (Leask/Cassidy, 190-1). Let us note, however, that Marion is a phenomenologist – the given for him is not a brute empirical datum, a naked particular, nor is it, of course, a Kantian thing-in-itself, nor the “eternal and nonlocal truth” of Thomas Nagel. Dooley seems to be misreading Marion though a positivist lens.
When Marion says that the ego does not constitute the phenomenon but is constituted by it, he is not attacking Kantian epistemology. Rather he is making a phenomenological point that becomes quite clear if we consider the encounter with a work of art: a great symphony for example is not constituted by its listeners but constitutes them as its “dative” subjects. True, the interlocuted self, the dative subject to whom givenness is revealed troubles Marion’s reduction of being to pure givenness (as Ian Leask and Shane Mackinlay note). In his effort to unite all the traits of phenomenality under the rubric of givenness, Marion often sounds like a Quietist or Jansenist theologian so enamoured of the gratuity of grace that he can give no realistic account of the role of free human creativity in the life of grace. Beauty, as Yeats reminds us, is not a pure given; “we must labour to be beautiful”, and even if the end-result imposes itself as a pure gift and a saturated phenomenon there is an ongoing complex creative process in which the subject may be constituted by the goal of beauty toward which he or she strives rather than by the sudden and sovereign donation of the pure form of beauty. Even Plotinus is not simply dazzled or interloqué by beauty but speaks of a creative labour: “we must be constantly sculpting our own statue” (Enneads I 6).
The “dative” character of the ego does not imply an overriding of the subjective perspective, with its culture-bound conceptuality and language, as Dooley suspects. Rather this is set at the service of a receptive thinking and thanking, or naming, of what is given. Thus Rorty’s point that “we shall never be able to step outside of language, never be able to grasp reality unmediated by a linguistic description” is not an argument against Marion. (I not that it is a Rortyesque distortion to see Heidegger as saying that “all matters of authority or privilege, in particular epistemic authority, are matters of social practice, and not of objective fact” (Leask/Cassidy, 198); that is how phenomenology appears through the lens of people who remain fixated on epistemological objectivity.)
With Heidegger, Marion would no doubt see language as “the house of being” and the language of faith as a necessary icon of the transcendent – though here again I would find Heidegger more respectful of the open-ended significance of the poems he interrogates; he is more ready to let them lead him into strange pathways rather than have them confirm his prior vision. But both would reject Rorty’s claim that “there is nothing to be known about anything save what is caught in sentences describing it”. I have a knowledge of the green of the tree outside my window though I may never attempt to describe it, and though even a glorious poem about it would not replace the immediate awareness of it. Such immediate awareness is indeed shot through with mediations connected with the texture of my subjective perspective, yet its immediacy is a given that is undeniable. No doubt there is a pluralism in phenomenological experience that Marion underestimates. But recognition of this pluralism should enrich rather than undermine the recognition of givenness.
The only given recognized by Dooley is “causal pressures from the surrounding environment” (195). Between a banal and a phenomenologically attentive description of a tree or a work of art the only difference he sees is “a movement from using one set of terms to describe a piece of space-time to the use or employment of an alternative set” (197). No space here for the emergence of a deeper perception, wherein the phenomenon shows itself and gives itself in a new way, so that we feel we know it for the first time – vera incessu patuit dea. Or rather, the superiority of the materialist description is implicitly asserted. But a work of art is not just a piece of space-time; beauty has a transcendence that cannot be thus reduced, just as truth has (you could not say that the truth of an argument was just a piece of space-time).
Heidegger’s diagnosis of blindness to being (Seinsblindheit) remains totally apposite to an entire philosophical culture that seeks by all means to reduce his thought to an “epistemology” in search of “information” about being (Tom Rockmore) and to the historians of mediaeval philosophy who claim that Neoplatonism already pre-empted the Heideggerian vision (W. Beierwaltes) or that metaphysics as onto-theology begins only with Duns Scotus (Olivier Boulnois, J.-F. Courtine), so that the entire project of a step back from metaphysics (a logic of being) to the phenomenon of being is enfeebled at its base. Marion does not share this blindness entirely, though he, too, subscribes to the idea that Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics applies only to modern metaphysics, so that the question of forgetfulness of being can never be put to the Fathers or to Aquinas. For Marion smuggles back in under the rubric of “givenness” much of the Heideggerian concern with retrieving a phenomenological sense of Being. Marion has never opened up to the full breadth of the Heideggerian question. As regards the question of the limits of metaphysical theology, as posed by Harnack, Marion bypasses this vast problematic by focussing on the phenomenological wealth of the Greek Fathers and ignoring the limits of their metaphysical frameworks. Despite this lamentable narrowing of the scope of philosophical and theological questioning, Marion is a true phenomenologist, for his thought proceeds from fascination with a set of foundational phenomena, which he has united under the title of “the given”. Hence he meets the same incomprehension from positivists as he himself is largely guilty of in his defensive reception of the questions of Heidegger, Luther and Harnack.
What is given, for Husserl, is not merely what is evident; but also what presents itself on the screen of evidence, the non-evident phenomenon. This is a given, but not a brute datum. Husserl enlarges evidence to “general originary self-giving” (Husserliana VI, p. 237).
As a matter of absolute phenomenological necessity, evidence must yield more than a state or a something lived (vécu) of consciousness; it must carry in its clarity the appearing of a non-conscious, non-lived, non-thought. It must be the case that on its screen is projected and arrives something other than itself – namely, the non-evident, the phenomenon as such… If evidence is to be able to discern within itself between a film without depth and the figure of a real, in short, if it is to be able to allow the phenomenon to be seen, or better, to appear, a new term must be introduced – givenness… Evidence, in itself blind, can become the screen of appearing – the place of givenness. Place of givenness, hence not its origin but its point of arrival: the origin of givenness remains the “self” of the phenomenon, without any other principle or origin than itself. The “self-giving”, Selbstgebung, indicates to be sure that the phenomenon gives itself in person, but also and above all that it gives itself of itself and from itself. One this givenness originated in itself can give the self of the phenomenon and invest evidence with the dignity of watchman of phenomenality. (Marion, Étant donné, PUF, 1997, 32-3)
According to Marion, Heidegger sensed the primacy of givenness in his talk of “Es gibt Sein” – “being is given”, but he masked it again in identifying the “it” that “gives” being with the Ereignis, an interpretament not born from staying with the phenomenon. Marion saves, finally, Husserl and Heidegger from themselves by seeking “to recognize givenness as such” (ED 59) and that “the phenomenon in the mode of object or entity can appear only in finding itself already and more originally given; objecthood and entityness could thus be thought of as mere variations, legitimate but limited, very exactly as horizons, which are drawn by and on the background of givenness” (60). Beings are given by being, let us say. But the beings must be de-entified so that their real nature as givenness comes to life, and being itself must be desubstantialized to become pure giving. cAs for the destinee of this gift, the thinker or thanker, he too is no longer an object, an entity, or even a subject.
“Givenness can never appear except indirectly, in the fold (pli) of the given” (60), and Marion seeks “to make appear a phenomenon purely and strictly given, without remainder, and owing all its phenomenality to givenness” (61). An object or an entity totally transmuted into gift can alone light up givenness in its essential character. Marion’s first example of such an object is the painting.
Articulating Gift and Givenness
Misgiving about Marion’s purism became particularly acute when he wrote about the phenomenon of the gift, which in its historical diversity and structural quirkiness seemed to me a Trojan horse within the citadel of a phenomenology of pure essences. Marion’s forte is the discernment of givenness, whereby he brings into focus the true phenomenality of the phenomena, better that being-fixated Husserl and Heidegger could. When he turns to the human activity of giving and the study of the gift he moves onto a different terrain when he is less at ease, and where the masters are not philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger but anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss, Marcel Hénaff and Jacques Godbout.
The anthropological discourse of the gift (Mauss) and the phenomenological discourse of givenness (Husserl) seem to belong to different spheres, with no semantic continuity between them. Derrida has insisted on this discontinuity, showing again and again how the ideal of a pure given is undermined by the semantic web, with its effects of deferring and dissemination, in which any phenomenon is implicated. The Castelli colloquium on “Le don et la dette” (Archivio di Filosofia 72, 2004) occasioned edifying discourses that would see the gift as an epiphenomenon of a universal givenness of being (thus Angela Ales Bello, Le don et la dette, 315), a sort of pledge or down-payment as it were, come to grief on the way gifts conceal the phenomenon of gifthood, not in a Heideggerian Verborgenheit, but by reason of the quirky logic of their structure. (Rudolf Bernet’s Heideggerian reflection, “Le secret du don”, Le don et la dette, 335-45, has to do with the ontological givenness of world and things, but does not consult the phenomenon of gifts at all.)
Marc Maesschalck, aware of this difficulty, seeks to resolve it by selecting certain traits of the Gift that can be raised to the dignity of the concept in his neo-Fichtean philosophy:
Depending on whether one places oneself in the horizon of the social theory of the gift or in that of a metaphysics of givenness, the epistemological presuppositions and philosophical stakes seem at first sight incommensurable. It seems as if the significance of the gift for natural consciousness must be dissociated from its radical significance from the point of view of a speculative consciousness erecting givenness into an a priori category of its mode of existence in being. From that dissociation must even result a certain precedence in the order of significances: the first significance of the gift as givenness must lead one to rethink its second significance in human affairs, according to the relation of archetype and copy. (Le don et la dette, 281)
He proposes that one first discern which variation of the natural experience of the gift provides a basis for every later effort of thematisation and that one then determine “what variation of transcendental consciousness is able to correspond to that identified on the level of empirical consciousness”; “The immediate advantage of this dissociation is to avoid the ceaseless passages from the natural experience of the gift… to the metaphysical interpretation of givenness as essential structure of being or Life” and it can also lead to “a coherent transcendental regrounding of the philosophy of the gift” (282).
Such an effort to carve out a space of speculative coherence while ignoring treacherous empirical remainders that would spoil it might be justified somewhat in the way philosophy of science justifies scientific advance that often rides roughshod over troubling empirical observations. Marion’s construction of a phenomenology of givenness is carved out in a similar fashion; and it is perhaps in large part itself a speculative or even metaphysical construction rather than purely phenomenological; indeed it remains unclear whether there is any such thing as pure phenomenology. But the potency of all such theory remains vulnerable to the empirical surprises of anthropological observation. (The richer a phenomenology, the less tenable its claims to purity. See my remarks on Claude Romano’s phenomenology of the moment in http://josephsoleary.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/03/time_and_emptin.html.)
For Marion the significance of the gift is that it concretizes the gift-character of being itself. When we thank someone for a gift, we are rehearsing gratitude for being itself. Gratitude for being means appreciation of the givenness of being. For Philo of Alexandria the attitude of human beings toward the divinity was one of eucharistia, to recognize that all being, including all our capacities and our very thoughts, was grace, charis, a favour of the Creator, and to give thanks, gratiam agere, for this, to receive the gift with good grace.
This bridge between the discourse of the gift and the discourse of givenness robs both of their distinctive sharpness. It tends to erect the gift into the role of the entity in Heidegger, as the locus where givenness appears (just as the entity is the locus where Being appears). The distinctive features of the gift, as an interruption of the order of economic exchanges, have not necessarily to do with those of givenness as the beyond of the order of being.
Whence the “Without”?
Robert Bernasconi clarifies the Levinasian background of the “without” clauses that Marion attaches to giving, and their link with an ontological vision. These startling clauses, at the opening of his essay “La raison du don”, seem characteristic of Marion’s strategy of immunizing his phenomenological discourse against anthropological observations. Levinas presents good works, sacrifice, and fecundity as actions wherein “the agent renounces being the contemporary of the outcome of the action ‘in a time without me’. In other words, the work is a ‘passage to the time of the other’. It takes place ‘in an eschatology without hope for oneself, an eschatology of liberation from my own time’” (“What Goes Around Comes Around: Derrida and Levinas on the Economy of the Gift and the Gift of Genealogy”, in A. D. Schrift, ed. The Logic of the Gift, Routledge, 1997, 258, quoting Levinas.) Derrida and Marion inherit Levinas’s sense that “the gift is impossible within the order of being and occurs only as an ‘interruption’ of that order” (259). For Marion the gift becomes a clue to an order beyond being, epekeina tes ousias like the Good in Plato, the order of donation, of the Es gibt. Derrida stays with the interruption and takes the gift as a clue to the unravelling of metaphysical order, not the foundation of a new quasi-metaphysical transcendental order. Indeed, Derrida inherits all this language when he writes of “the gift as remaining (restance) without memory, without permanence and consistency, without substance or subsistence; at stake is this rest that is, without being (it), beyond Being, epekeina tes ousias”. Bernasconi comments: “The logic of the ‘without’ (sans) that both Levinas and Derrida share is an interruptive logic in which what interrupts the order of being is ‘impossible, unthinkable, unsayable’ from within that realm” (259, quoting Derrida, “Given Time”, Chicago, 1992, 147). Derrida would not regard the phenomenological givenness of the given as interrupting the order of being as the gift does, but would rather see it as confirming a metaphysics of presence. He would thus pitch the gift in its paradoxicality against Marion’s seamless vision of givenness. All three thinkers would agree that “the gift is not an event in being. Exchange, circularity and rationality are interrupted by the gift” (259). For Levinas this opens up an order beyond being, “a specifically Judaic wisdom” (266). For Marion it opens up what might be called a specifically Christian wisdom, a retrieval of the Platonic order governed by the Good beyond being within a Christian order of “love without being”, though Marion founds this order by the autonomous methods of phenomenological analysis, without explicit recourse to biblical revelation.
Society: The Primary Locus of the Gift
Sociology tends to be
reductive, even cynical, in unmasking, beneath idealistic aspirations, the
unconscious acting out of a socially determined programme. Pierre Bourdieu sees
the reductive approach of economists to the gift, in their periodical
rediscoveries of it, as comparable to the patching up of the Ptolemaic system
in face of Copernicus, in its failure to recognize the laws of symbolic
exchange and communication. These laws themselves are social laws, with nothing
mystical about them. They concern power that is “created, accumulated, and
perpetuated through communication, symbolic exchange”; “communication converts
brute power relations, which are always uncertain and liable to be suspended,
into durable relations of symbolic power through which a person is bound and
feels bound” (in Schrift, ed. The Logic
of the Gift, 237-8). Neither cold economic calculation nor the spontaneity
of a pure giving is what characterizes cultures of giving; rather “at the basis
of generous action, the inaugural gift in a series of gifts, there is not the
conscious intention (calculating or not) of an isolated individual but the
disposition of the habitus, which is generosity and which tends, without
explicit and express intention, toward the conservation and increase of
symbolic capital” (233). Both the giver and the receiver are prepared, by the
whole labor of socialization, to enter into generous exchange without intention
or calculation of profit” (233). Perhaps all spontaneous actions, or at least
those sanctioned by society – those of courtship, revenge, prayer, ambition –
are activations of learned dispositions, conventions that weave the symbolic
texture of the society.
Social or domestic relations of trust “can always be ascribed to the durable domination that symbolic violence secures” (239). An act of selfless charity binds the recipient by ties of gratitude and guilt more effectively than a violent conquest. In this optic, Christ could be seen as the supreme master of symbolic violence, binding his disciples in eternal gratitude by the gift of himself. “What is underlined through gift exchange, the counterfeit coin of generosity in which society pays itself, the collective hypocrisy in and through which it pays tribute to its dream of virtue and disinterestedness, is the fact that virtue is a political matter, that it is not and cannot be abandoned, with no other resources than a vague ‘deontology’, to the singular, isolated efforts of individual minds and wills or the examinations of conscience of a confessor’s casuistics” (239-40).
The need to sustain a political culture of giving is perhaps the base-level at which we should tackle the topic of the gift. At this level it intersects with questions of economic justice and political liberation. The recondite philosophical and theological reflections of Levinas, Derrida and Marion need to be legitimated by dialogue with this wider context. In a world of poverty and injustice, economic rationality alone cannot meet all the problems. The catastrophic miscalculations of the USA in offering the gift of democracy to Iraq reveal how great a role symbolic gift-relationship and their distortions play in the effort to create a better world. A logic of the gift that makes no contribution to clarity in this area and does not even aspire to change the world for the better easily becomes the logic of a retreat into well-protected individualism.
Beyond the Western Enclosure
Bernasconi stresses “the need for further genealogical investigations to avoid some of the mystifications that a lack of historical awareness produces” (270). Mauss himself was aware that Indian sources troubled his view of the gift, and studies of the culture of giving in India and China have challenged Mauss rather than merely applied him. Reiko Ohnuma builds on an embarrassed footnote in Mauss, and shows how complex is the logic of the gift in Buddhist thought. Among the scenarios of selfless giving imagined are (1) “those who give even though they exist beyond the enjoyment of either worldly or karmic rewards,” namely arhats’; (2) bodhisattvas “who explicitly reject such rewards, even if they might be able to enjoy them” – quickly passing on the rewards as if they were a “hot potato,” and seeking to “out-gift the gift itself” by rejecting its penchant for repayment and reciprocity; (3) those such as Buddhas, whose compassionate gift “produces no rewards of any kind”. Such ideals need to be measured against actual practice for a full assessment of their anthropological significance. Ohnuma notes a “frenzied or desperate” tone about the dialectic of pure giving, which in any case is possible “only for Buddhism’s most exceptional beings”. The theory contains instructive paradoxes and inconsistencies, and is stretched to accommodate less ideal forms of giving. In Southeast Asia, the cult of gods allows a worldly reciprocal exchange, leaving to the Buddha his higher, nontransactional status. The “merit account books” kept by Burmese villagers reveal how much self-interest pervades the practice of Buddhist giving in real life. Ohnuma’s final pages draw Buddhist giving perhaps too neatly back within a Maussian theory of the gift as always informed by the logic of self-interest (“Gift”, in D. S. Lopez, ed. Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, Chicago, 2005, 111-16).
In the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, giving (dâna) is the first of the six (or ten) virtues of a bodhisattva, and the sixth is wisdom (prajnâ), the wisdom that apprehends the emptiness of all entities. Perfect giving is rooted in wisdom, and in awareness that neither the giver, nor the recipient, nor the gift itself have any inherent existence. Hence no enslaving attachment to any of the three can arise. The one who gives a gift does not lean on its as any kind of basis or support, and expects no reward, and so his act is a free one, not impeding the openness of wisdom, because it does not fixate on giver, gift or recipient. This is less a philosophical purism than a charter for spiritual advance. Following Levinas, we may infer that ordinary acts of giving participate in this freedom and emptiness if only because of the temporality of giving. The gift is a risky investment, and even if a reward is anticipated in some future, the act of giving has no support in the present. One “abandons” the gift, a sacrifice of being, a refusal to cling to substance, and one transforms the being of the gift into sheer givenness, without being.
In the long account of dâna in the Mahâ-prajñâpâramitâ-sâstra the lofty doctrine of empty giving is embedded among homelier preachings that stress the moral benefits of giving; that the gift consists essentially in the will to give, independent of benefit to the recipient. A sravaka gives in order to escape from rebirth, but a bodhisattva's giving is for all beings, or is in order to know the true character of the dharma and to acquire buddhahood. Yet even at the highest point do ut des thinking is not eliminated: “When one knows that the thing given is absolutely empty, the same as nirvana, and one gives alms to beings in that spirit, the recompense of the gift is inexhaustible” (Lamotte, 708). It is almost as if the reward-structure were build into the idea of the gift.
Buddhism offers the phenomenology of the gift not only the special anthropological complexion of Buddhist cultures but also a different way of sighting the ideal of donation and its ontological implications. Gifts are not instantiations of being but flowers of emptiness. These two visions are not in radical contradiction to one another; Heidegger recognized an affinity between his own thought and the Zen insights communicated by D. T. Suzuki. The two meditations on giving are mutually enriching, gifts to one another. The ability of Western thinkers to receive the gift of Buddhist thought would itself be a gracious enactment of the talent of receiving, which is the complement called forth by generous giving. The Buddha did not close his hand as a teacher but let his light shine forth to all. Like all unconstrained giving – like the music of Mozart or the work of any creative artists who give their lives to the world – this is in deep accord with the rhythm of the divine generosity that rains on just and unjust alike, and with the divine Word that illuminates all human minds. Vatican II understood this and placed no limit on the Christian reception of the gracious gifts coming from the other great religions, while holding forth the gospel message as a gift to humankind, a gift involving no constraint, fixated neither on the ontological qualifications of the giver (Catholic identity), the gift (orthodoxy) or the recipients (whether their status as regards salvation was “defective” or not, to use the unfortunate language of “Dominus Iesus”, 2000).
The best way to celebrate the experience of givenness that blesses our existence at every level is to become ourselves givers, espousing in our lives the dynamic of creation (and redemption). The Eucharist is supposed to be a powerful symbolic enactment of this. In practice celebration of it is clogged by many problems, one of which is a failure to grasp the realities of givenness and giving in appropriate contemporary terms. If the Eucharist becomes a retreat into a cultic enclave, without a constant vital response to the needs of the planet, or to what Vatican II calls “the signs of the times”, then it is not being celebrated as Christ intended. The meal signifying his death for the life of the world, in the eschatological perspective of the coming Kingdom, was connected with the reality of history. The current otiose debate as to whether the celebrant should face the people or the altar is troubling because it seems to reflect an unease with any worldly embeddedness of the celebration, and a desire to make it again a timeless mystery, an act of adoration unconnected with any project of changing the world. The failure of the 2005 Roman Synod to connect the Eucharist with questions of social justice reveals how deep the eucharistic crisis of the Church has become. “My flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51) is interpreted in purely spiritual terms, and its connection with the work of charity, that is, with the work of the Christian community for a more just world, becomes tenuous.
The themes of gifthood, grace, givenness are intricated with the enactment of the gift in the Eucharist. The congregation gives to God a sacrifice that is a return gift in grateful recognition of the gift of creation itself and that emblematizes the gift of themselves. Then this gift becomes Christ’s own self-gift. The interplay between the different modalities of gifthood in this ritual remains rather opaque. A convincing clarification of what is afoot is sorely needed. The unconvincingness of our liturgical language and gestures is not just an aesthetic deficit but a theological one. “May he make us an everlasting gift to you” – what is really meant by this? Are there tensions between the different postures of giving and receiving that have been mixed together in the ritual. “This is my body, given for you” is at a different level from “be pleased with the sacrifice we offer, as once you accepted the gifts of Abel…, Abraham…, Melchizedek”. A double pattern of return may be noticed: the offertory is our return of the gifts of creation, our counter-gift; the Eucharistic Prayer is our return of the gift of redemption, the gift of Christ’s body. In both cases we ourselves are offered in our gift. But these postures of sacrifice may now seem gauche and jejune. A deeper reflection on gifthood is needed to restore the sense of the Eucharist.
“See the Victim whose death has reconciled us to Yourself” – a sacrificial bargain? Better to say that Christ in his death consummated the gift of his entire career of prophetic teaching and healing. This gift has its effect on us through the logic of the gift. In Lukan theology it saves us by the repentance it inspires. The gift inspires imitation, in the abandonment of the generous plunge into time that the disciples practise. The death of Christ thus enables us to espouse generously the dynamic of creation, and to be reconciled with the creative action of the divine.
In reflection on the gift a suspension of conclusive judgement may be necessary, as we take cognizance of the new material coming in from anthropological studies. These can shed new light on the practices used in the Eucharist and on their anthroplogical provenance, and suggest ideas for creating practices more expressive of contemporary culture as it opens to the divine. Ad hoc theories and speculations on gifthood, especially if confined to the habitual Greco-Judaic orbit, are insufficient to create a culture of giving suited for today. The actual practice of giving, both within the local community and in international outreach, is what most enlivens the eucharistic actions in practice. We need rituals that are in more expressive continuity with these actual practices.
The notion of an empty gift, Bernanos’s “miracle of our empty hands” – a gift that takes its shape from the self-emptying of Christ – might do much to reanimate our failing liturgical culture. To give and to receive is to attune oneself to the texture of reality, and this process is disrupted when we focus on gift, giver or receiver in isolation from the total process of give and take. Marion reads the phrase tina charin echete (Lk 6:34) as meaning not “what reward will you have” but “what grace will you have”. Prescinding from exactitude of translation, we might propose “what thanks will you have” as a phrase that combines both meanings. To give a gift well is to be worthy of thanks. To be able to say “thank you” and to be able to receive this word of thanks is one of the most gracious, grace-filled situations in life. This is the situation of eucharistia, thanksgiving, that we enter into in the Eucharist. But it is something that can be well enacted only if rooted in a communal practice of giving and receiving, in response to the needs of the wider world.
“Transubstantiation” suggests a transfusion of one substance into another. But just as Jesus becomes a manifestation of the divine in emptying himself, we could think of the Eucharist as manifesting Christ’s self-emptying in that the meal-event is emptied of self-assertiveness to become a vehicle of mutual self-emptying wherein the dynamic of Christ’s self-emptying takes over. Vatican II and Paul VI’s document Eucharisticum mysterium stressed that the presence of Christ in the sacrament cannot be divorced from his presence in the community and in the Word. Our vulnerability to one another in communal agape, our hearing of the Word in spiritual discernment and in dialogue, make it possible for the sacrament to be something more than the reception of celestial nourishment by the individual soul. Rather it both expresses and galvanizes the vitality of a community at the service of the world.
The Eucharist is a very special object or entity since its being is that of a pure gift. Its substance as object or entity is entirely transmuted into the substance of Christ. Note that bread and wine themselves are transmuted entities from the start, “work of human hands”. A work of art is also a transmutation, and it is not surprising that James Joyce would draw on the analogy between the living body of the work of art and the Eucharistic body of Christ. “Being”, according to Heidegger, is not manifested primarily as a mere presence-to-hand (Vorhandenheit) but in the word of the poet or the work of art. Similarly, the New Being of the redemptive order is not manifested as “substance” but in the event of a shared Word and a communal work, the eucharistic meal. Being in its graciousness is pervaded through and through by givenness, as Heidegger insists: “Es gibt Sein” – a givenness intimately connected with the temporality and eventhood of the phenomenon of being. In the same way eucharistic being, in its assumption of the created order, is expressed in a process of mutual giving and receiving between God and humanity and among human beings.
In conclusion, I would like to underline the interruptive and dynamic character of the gift. To give, without counting the cost, is the activity that most sets our lives in motion, breaking the crust of habit and exposing us to new experiences of suffering and risk. In the world of thought a reflection on giving frees us from frozen conceptions of being and identity. In theology, too, we need to track the thought of the gift in order to recover the dynamic contours of the Gospel and its enactment under present conditions. Jean-Luc Marion has made a valuable contribution here, but his thought needs to be developed in a still more dynamic and relational manner for its full promise to be discovered.
A talk given at the Irish launching of Givenness and God: Questions of Jean-Luc Marion, ed. Ian Leask and Eoin Cassidy, Fordham University Press, 2005, at Mater Dei Institute, Dublin, May 5, 2006.