Gifts

The conventional complaint one hears this time of year is how commerce has debased gift giving. But we must be careful to distinguish modern American consumerism from commerce per se. As a matter of fact, in many societies the merchant is accounted the most generous and hospitable of individuals. I am not sure that history or anthropology support the notion that trading itself contibutes to the disenchantment of the world, by which all beings are reduced to lifeless objects or resources. The most fundamental economic act is the exchange of gifts. And most religious worldviews are deeply imbued with notions of indebtedness and reciprocity.

A more egregious debasement results from extending the usage of physicists and mathematicians to all of metaphysics, to invent a new category of givenness. Bergson claims that this is the fundamental error of Leibniz, Spinoza and the other prophets of the clockwork universe: they believe that everything is given in this static, essentialist manner pioneered by Aristotle.

The problem with this is that “the language of objects catches only one corner of actual life,” as Martin Buber says. (I and Thou, Walter Kaufmann translation. Scribners, 1970, 69.) Gabriel Marcel builds a bridge between the subjective and objective viewpoints when he writes, “A being is given, not at all in the banal and moreover uncertain sense in which philosophers customarily use this word, but rather insofar as it truly is a gift. Let us carefully refrain here from considering the gift as a thing. On the contrary, it is an act.” (Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, Northwestern University Press, 1973. 54) This is so because true reality is relational – “An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing,” as Fukuoka put it.

In the Christian worldview, one cannot consider gift giving for long without considering the ultimate gift of divine grace. Though not myself a practicing Christian, I’ve always been attracted by this concept, which perfectly embodies the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of Whomever. Though I find the whole notion of the incarnation supremely strange, I can see one obvious, spiritual or psychological value to this mythos. With the Unknowable somehow choosing to make a gift of itself – to take the form of a helpless, newborn infant – the true nature of its relationship with us is revealed to be reciprocal. The gifting can now go both ways; we are no longer overwhelmed by false dichotomies that presuppose a hierarchical order.

This morning I came across a beautiful riff on this theme from the Epistle of James, which was unfamiliar to me because in general I avoid the epistles, not being a very big fan of the apostle Paul. Though traditional in its patriarchy and up-down hierarchical views, its language in the King James version is unsurpassed. The phrase “filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” does mar the poetry a bit. But I love the way this passage begins with grace and ends with the nitty-gritty of social obligations.

James 1
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Merry Christmas!

COMMENT
Despite what Bergson may have thought, Spinoza did not believe in a clockwork universe; he believed in ‘flat multiplicities’: networks of immanent effects (no prime mover, no transcendence) etc. Big inspiration for Deleuze.
Mark Bonta

REPLY
My blunder, actually – I was putting words in his mouth. Bergson’s conclusion about L. and S. in Creative Evolution (Mitchell trans.), which you may not agree with, reads as follows: “The resemblances of this new metaphysic to that of the ancients arise from the fact that both suppose ready-made – the former [i.e. Leibniz] above the sensible, the latter [i.e. Spinoza] within the sensible – a science one and complete, with which any reality that the sensible may contain is believed to coincide. For both, reality as well as truth are given in eternity. Both are opposed to the idea of a reality that creates itself gradually, that is, at bottom, to an absolute duration.” (353-354. Italics original.)
– Dave

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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