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[Chalice] The Spirituality of the Gift [Chalice]

Presented November 30, 2003, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

We have all now lived through Thanksgiving and we have rushed right into that hectic time between Thanksgiving and Christmas known far and wide in our gift giving culture as the Christmas shopping season. What a perfect time to think about gifts, about gift giving, and about what some contemporary intellectuals would refer to in our code speech as "the gift." I bet you didn't even know that one of the key terms in intellectual discourse today is "the gift"! Surely you have already been thinking about gifts. On Thanksgiving we at least try to make a mental note of all the things we are thankful for. And we might know to whom we are thankful. We might direct all of our feelings of gratitude to God, whom we recognize as the great Being who provides all that we are thankful for. Or we might not recognize any supreme direct object of our gratitude but still we count our blessings. Either way, we linger for a while on or around Thanksgiving with that experience of gratitude. But how quickly Thanksgiving fades away and the Christmas shopping season takes its place. Thanksgiving's mental list of things we are grateful for, so quickly gets replaced by that other, longer, and potentially more burdensome list: our Christmas shopping list.

Is this happening to you? Do you find yourself, now that Thanksgiving is over and there are only 24 shopping-days left until Christmas, thinking about what to get Uncle Fred or your brother's wife Betty? How many people are on your shopping list? How many people do you feel obligated to have on your shopping list? In your list making and in your shopping and in your giving, do you feel something like the constraint of obligation? Are you remembering that last year your present to Uncle Fred or Aunt Emma wasn't as good as what Fred and Emma gave you? Are you remembering that worst possible of all Christmas season experiences where someone gave you a Christmas present but you hadn't shopped for him or her and so had no present to give in return? Now this is a perfect example of what would be called in contemporary intellectual lingo an economy of exchange. Last night on TV I saw a commercial depicting perfectly the Christmas season as an economy of exchange. A wife opens her Christmas present and happily kisses her husband and says: "You did a lot better this year." If you can relate to this experience of the Christmas shopping season and gift giving season become something like a holy season of obligation, and I'm sure everyone can, then you have an entré into understanding this sometimes overly complicated and high falutin' contemporary intellectual discourse concerning gift giving, obligation, the economy of exchange, and the possibility or impossibility of "the Gift."

This contemporary intellectual conversation about gift giving, obligation, the economy of exchange and the possibility of the gift is stimulated by a rereading of a classic work of cultural anthropology, Marcel Mauss' 1924 work Essai sur le Don, Essay on the Gift. Here Mauss analyzes archaic cultures that are pre-currency, before money, cultures based on the giving of gifts rather than the exchange of services for money as in modern capitalism. Mauss says even these early gift cultures had elaborate social structures governing the exchange of gifts. Even gift economies were governed by rules and contracts. People even in archaic, gift cultures were under the obligation to give Uncle Fred something that was roughly equivalent to what he gives you. The phenomenon of the market, says Mauss, the obligation to exchange roughly equivalent gifts, did not arise with the invention of money. The market, he says, "is not foreign to any known society." Mauss doesn't want us to romanticize pre-capitalist gift economies. Even gift economies were still economies of exchange based not on free giving but rather on the burden of receiving a gift and the obligation of returning a gift of comparable value.. Mauss points out that in ancient German the word for gift can mean present or poison. The other's gift might be a present or it might be a poison in that it brings upon me the obligation to return and situates me against my will in an economy of exchange.

It won't surprise you to know that Mauss also refers to Emerson's earlier essay called Gifts wherein Emerson illustrates a very ambivalent attitude toward gifts. There seems to be more of the poison than the present in gift giving for Emerson, who writes: "It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten." A gift, says Emerson, invades my independence and makes me sorry."

Now there are some rather famous contemporary intellectual discussions regarding gifts and gift giving written very much in the aftermath of Mauss's essay on Gifts and Emerson's earlier and strange essay titled "Gifts." I will briefly discuss two on my way to saying something about the discussion of the gift and what it has to do with us and with our spiritual lives. The first is a work by that famous contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In an incredibly complicated fashion that only Derrida is capable of, he argues that the gift once it is realized as a gift is immediately experienced as an obligation and initiates the economy of exchange. Thus, the gift when it is realized as a gift is at the same time annulled as a gift. Derrida in a famous metaphor compares the gift to counterfeit money, which only exists as money when it is not recognized as counterfeit. Once it is recognized as counterfeit it is no longer money, and once the gift is recognized as gift it is no longer gift. This compels Derrida to raise the question of whether there really is such a thing as a gift, whether a gift is impossible, or whether the phenomenon of a gift is a way to think about the impossible.

The other famous contemporary intellectual discussion of the gift and gift giving I will discuss is by the famous French feminist and womanist thinker Helene Cixous. She argues that the discussion of the gift and gift giving as it appears in Mauss and Emerson and other male thinkers, where the gift quickly transforms into debt and obligation and initiates the economy of exchange is something like a quintessentially male and masculine way of thinking and living. Cixous says: "Giving: there you have a basic problem, which is that masculinity is always associated-in the unconscious, which is after all what makes the whole economy function-with debt." Masculinity will not let the gift live as gift because it is seen as threat and obligation, the poison aspect of the gift. The masculine economy of obligation and exchange, writes Cixous, "is erected from a fear that is, in fact, typically masculine: the fear of expropriation, of separation, of losing the attribute." Now our Unitarian intellectual hero, Emerson, begins to appear as something like a champion of traditional masculinity which is threatened by and rejects the gift and receives it as threat, obligation, poison. After all, Emerson writes, "It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. We [meaning men] wish to be self-sustained. We [meaning men] do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us [meaning men] is in some danger of being bitten" by us men!

Now I don't know how you feel about this view that the annulment of the gift and its transformation into debt, obligation, poison, the economy of exchange is a male thing. I'm sure it won't surprise you to know that Cixous argues that there is a system of relations where the gift lives as a gift, an economy that is not an economy of exchange based on debt and obligation and that she refers to this different system of relations where gift is simply given and received as gift as "a feminine economy." A feminine economy "can stand separation and detachment, which signifies that it can stand freedom-for instance, the other's freedom." Whether you would accept this gendered language or argue against it is something I'm eager to talk about later. What I want to stress here is how important it is for us spiritually, for our spiritual lives, to live beyond the economy of exchange and with a lively awareness of the gift as gift, and that this is especially true during those times when life becomes especially difficult.

There are aspects and periods of human life that are especially difficult, and at such times we know we are in a spiritual struggle. At such times we can think and live entirely within the economy of exchange, as if there is nothing to life other than what we or those we care about gave and got in return and should have gotten and didn't get. I want to think about the difficulty of life in three ways: with the death of those we care about, with personal relationships, and with career problems and disappointments.

Death is always hard. I know some of you have been living through a very difficult time because of the recent death of friends. I hate death. Experiencing deaths is certainly the most difficult part of being the minister of this church. Death always has the power of drawing you entirely into the economy of exchange. Death always or almost always seems unfair since it always an experience of loss, and sometimes death can seem very unfair, so unfair that it can make us think that that's all there is to the life lost: unfairness, the sense that we were cheated or the person who died and his or her family was cheated of what they deserved in this life. Death can make us so absorbed in the depression of the economy of exchange that we can lose entirely our sense of the gift. We can lose our awareness of the other person as a gift, of how the life of the gift lived within the life of the person we have to part with.

Personal relationships, friendships, romantic and loving relationships can really give us a profound understanding of the difficulty of life. They can have such power over us and compel us to change our life's direction and fill us with different dreams and desires and hopes and expectations. And if relationships fail and don't take us where we want them to, the disappointment and hurt can again make us feel that there isn't anything but the economy of exchange, what we put in to the relationship and what the other has put into it and what we have or haven't gotten in return. The difficulty of relationships can cause us to lose our awareness of the gift and to live entirely in the economy of exchange. We can lose entirely our sense that our love for the other person is simply something that happens. Our love for the other person exists as a gift, and that the life of that gift is really entirely beyond the economy of exchange, that that gift has its own life that does not depend on whatever happens in the relationship's economy of exchange. Relationships can be so frustrating and it can happen so easily that the other person ceases to be gift and is nothing more than another object in the economy of exchange.

Our careers, our dreams and expectations of what we wish to do and be, can also be a way into understanding the difficulty of life. Our professional lives too can draw us entirely into the economy of exchange, as if there's nothing to our working lives than what we put in and what we get out, who's ahead and who's behind, what salary and how much vacation, how we are doing compared to the other guy or woman. Since I work at Quincy University, I suppose I have as much right or reason to be disappointed with our workplace economy of exchange than most people. I think we employees should grow a backbone and make more demands within our own workplace economy of exchange. I might be the only Marxist on the faculty. But it would be a very sad thing to think of my career and my work only within the economy of exchange. That would be to forget the gift, the fact, for example, that my whole academic career began with an old woman who lived next door to my family when I was growing up who baked sugar cookies and taught me how to read, her gift to me, or the gift that happens every time a difficult text gradually opens to the mind or a student's mind opens to an idea.

Gifts that happen, that are real, but have no substance to them, no physical reality, no being. The experience of the gift is the experience of what is real but without being. The babies we welcome into our community today, are surely real. They have being, but what about our sense that they are also the experience of the gift? Our sense of the gift is real, but it has no Being.

This is, of course, where that other thinker of the gift, the mystical Catholic philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion, comes into the contemporary discussion on the gift. God is but has no Being. Marion insists our concept of God as a Supreme Being, as the greatest Being within Being, is an idol. God for Marion is a spirit best recognized within our human experience of the gift. "Because God does not fall within the domain of Being, he comes to us in and as gift." Our life beyond the economy of exchange, our life within the experience of the gift that is real but has no being, like our love for another person or awareness of the gift that other people are even as they leave the earth, these experiences of the gift provide us with a way to think the God who has no Being but who is, who continually comes to us in the non-real reality of the gift.

Life can be very difficult and is for many of us very difficult right now. The difficulties of life can take away our sense of the gift and make us feel that we live entirely in nothing more than the economy of exchange. At such times God becomes nothing more than another Being in the economy of exchange, who has failed us, failed to deliver what we expected and wished to get out of this life based on what we or others have put in. While this God as supreme Being dies to us, "the God who is not but who saves the gift" still gives, still comes in and as gift, and shows us a spirituality and a life beyond the economy of exchange, and renews within us that experience of the unreal reality of the gift.

©2003 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2003. The Spirituality of the Gift, (accessed July 16, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.