Saturday, May 4, 2013

Models of Gift-Exchange

So you'd like to think about giving, gifts, and receiving gifts.

A theology of the gift can concern faith, money, resources, social stations, community, forgiveness, difference, power, media, and ecology.

Gifts are an anthropological study.  Lots of anthropologists agree that gifts are not free.  They don't agree on why people feel obligated to give.  Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion are philosophers who think about the limits of these gifts.  They want a gift that has no obligations at all. 

What kind of gift do you want?

Here's your options:

1.  Ignore the theology of the gift.  Most likely you are at the mercy of whatever theories or strategies those who use gift-language employ.  You'll usually end up using a form of agonistic giving.

2.  Agonistic gift.  Gifts are not free and require action.  If you fail to give, there's trouble, whether violence or shame.  Gifts always carry with them obligation.  They can be welcome or unwelcome.   Giving is competitive between giver and recipient.

Examples of agonistic gift reasoning:

a.  If you want to get anything, give.
b.  Because you are so grateful for what you've received,  you'll give.
c.  You have received, so you should give in turn.
d.  Don't let what you've been given sit idle.  Give it in turn.
e.  Since you've said you are sorry, you can be forgiven.

Basically any time you are urged to act out of gratitude, know that the agonistic gift is being used.

3.  Unilateral gift.   Gifts are free but are one-way.  There is no return, nothing, no obligation.  Most think this is impossible.

Examples of unilateral gift reasoning:

a.  You have inherited this.
b.  It's yours, no strings attached.
c.  It doesn't matter if you repent or are sorry:  you are forgiven.
d.  Surprise discoveries.
e.  Many forms of anonymous organ-donation.  But not all.

Caveat:  if you are urged to act out of gratitude, an obligation is introduced that makes a seemingly unilateral gift into an agonistic gift.

4.  Negotiated or Purified Gift:  Both parties agree that the gift is wanted and not poisonous and that both agree what is involved in the exchange; there is no hidden ploy or strategy but there is force and exchange.  Both parties are on a level playing field.

Examples of negotiated gift reasoning:

a.  Use of covenant/contract examples to illustrate giving.
b.  Any giving which is done "with eyes wide open" and no deception about force and 
c.  God is Trinity and God gives between Father, Son, and Spirit in peace.  This is the kind of giving we are taken up into.

5. Pure Gift.   A gift that is impossible because it is the gift utterly free of obligations.  This requires the giver to not know that a gift is given, the receipient to not recognize the gift as gift, nor to receive it as such.  This is the gift that is more than the unilateral gift.

Examples of pure gift reasoning:

a.  The ungodly are just.
b.  God is a mad giver.
c.  Utterly surprising and unknown gift.  A forgotten and disappering gift.

6.  Promise.  A gift that is recognized but has no force.  It enables other kinds of exchange but does not itself obligate anything.  Utterly unilateral but enables those who trust it to engage in the other kinds of giving in which they are immersed.

Example of promissory reasoning:

God promises and so you may give to those in need in the impure, halting, and difficult ways that you do give.


  1. So how is promise giving not like giving out of gratitude?

    1. The only giver of the promise is God. No one repeats the promise as if they were to make it new.

      One gives out of promise only out of faith since that's all that matters to promise.

      Gratitude is nice but being grateful for a promise is not what a promise asks for.

      All that promise asks for is faith.