The Problem of Christ as a Gift
A beautiful present lies under the Christmas tree. With glee (or is there hesitation at its hidden burden?) you open it. You thank your friend and out of gratitude (or is it indebtedness?) give a gift in return. But is it possible, to truly give a gift back? From this doubt springs a series of more disturbing questions which originated this inquiry. Did you receive a gift in the first place? Did your friend give a gift? And on the present itself—is it a genuine gift?
an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text, argument, or theory.
Late 20th century philosopher Jacques Derrida calls into question the very possibility of gift-giving. The aporia of the gift, its dissipation upon coming into presence, presents a problem not only for philosophy, but also for Christianity. It challenges the fundamental view of the nature of God’s most precious gift as gift. If Christ is a gift from God, can the aporia be overcome? In this essay, I will describe the aporia of the gift as formulated by Derrida, locate it within the domain of Christianity, and advance a framework in which Christ, indeed, is a gift.
Three Conditions of the Gift
According to Derrida, we live in an economy governed by the principle of exchange. For there to be exchange there must be giver, receiver, and what is given. Reciprocity marks the exchange, so the system is defined by its circularity and ultimately by the static equilibrium it achieves. I give, you take; you give I take. The economy constitutes a fundamental part of human existence. In addition to commercial transactions (e.g. shopping), personal interactions follow the economic model. Under the scope of economic normativity, I may request compensation after I loan a friend money or my friend may promise to pay me back at some point. The economy is not limited to “equal” exchange. A person could drive far to send me home, and even if I give only the slightest nod as thanks when I step out of the vehicle, we both fall into the midst of the economy as its participants. Asymmetry fails to break the exchange, so long as a transaction still occurs.
The economy guides ethics as well. Theft disrupts the economy because it displaces the other as giver; the thief gives oneself the other’s property, violently taking on the role of giver while being one’s own recipient, so no exchange takes place. Even in cases of gratuitous giving, there is some sense of violation or disturbance. For example, if I am the beneficiary of a kidney transplant, guilt would immediately overcome me. Of course I am grateful for my new (or better put someone’s old) kidney, but I can do little to pay the donor back. I am indebted to this charitable person for saving my life. If I could pay him with some material good, my guilt could be alleviated. If I could express my appreciation for his generosity, then even that could lighten my burden. Thus, even in an event seemingly devoid of transaction, the economy of exchange creeps in. Always there is desire for some reciprocity, some recompense, a return in some way or another.
One problem of the gift has already made itself apparent. The model of gift-giving is almost identical to that of the economic exchange but delineated by the loss of the exchange’s posterior half. The donor gives without expectation or demand of a return. I give, you take; or vice versa. What should we call the “gift” in the following scenario? A friend gives a present, waits for a present in return but never receives it, and so never gives another present again. Clearly, a gift is not a gift if it is contingent on a return. This, Derrida argues, is one condition of the gift: “For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt.”
Two other conditions remain. Derrida claims “if the present is present to him [the donee] as present, this simple recognition suffices to annul the gift.” In other words, the gift cannot be recognized as gift by the recipient. The one who receives a gift must not know a gift has been given to him, or at least must not see that what he has received is a gift. Radically, this means that even before gratitude can be expressed, the gift is annihilated by mere acknowledgment. Why is recognition destructive? It serves as a symbol which calls the economy. An asymmetric exchange occurs—gift countered by recognition. Further, the recipient of the gift, having recognized his status as donee, “would keep, bind himself, obligate himself, indebt himself according to…the figure of circulation [i.e. the economy].” The donee could attempt somehow to relinquish himself of such debt incurred by a gift, but this could only be possible by an “absolute forgetting” which surpasses psychological repression. The gift at its moment of appearance as gift calls upon the “ritual circle of debt” such that even an inkling of the donee’s awareness of the gift entraps the gift in the economy.
Not only must the recipient be unaware of receiving a gift, but the donor must also give in ignorance. The donor “must not see it [the gift] or know it either.” According to Derrida, the first movement of gift-giving results in a payment or reward of recognition. Through giving, the donor is given back the recognition of herself as giver. If a philanthropist donates to an institution anonymously and gives herself a pat on the back for her own generosity, she has engaged in the economy. If a man makes his wife a fantastic breakfast and so sees himself as a good husband, he has engaged in the economy. Despite the absence of reciprocation by the donee, the act of giving in itself elicits a return—”auto-recognition, self-approval, and narcissistic gratitude”—and without the donee no giving can take place.
In all, these three conditions of the gift are at the same time conditions of the gift’s impossibility. As long as one condition of the gift is unmet, the gift is lost. The gift thus retains its givenness by its “aneconomic” nature—the genuine gift disrupts the economy, breaking open the circle of exchange. The double bind of the gift can now be stated. Once the gift is phenomenalized or seen as gift by the giver or receiver, it is annulled by its own appearance; yet, if the gift does not appear, it can never be apprehended as a gift. “If it presents itself, it no longer presents itself.”
Derrida’s aporia challenges the conventional Christian God-human paradigm. God is described in the Bible as an abundant giver. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8, NRSV). In Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son, the father, who represents God the Father, graciously throws his rebellious son a grand feast after he has squandered his inheritance and returns (Luke 15:11-32). God’s gifts are numerous: creation, life, prosperity, adoption. Of these gifts, Christ stands out for his central role in Christian soteriology.
Christ is commonly described as God’s gift, but what is actually meant by this gift? Disambiguating the relationship among the Son, salvation, and eternal life presents difficulties when considering the meaning of the gift of Christ. Should we consider salvation—that is being saved from the consequences of our sins—the actual gift, as Paul seems to suggest by writing “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). So, is Christ but a means that “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” and, while given, lacks primacy as the gift (Romans 4:25)? If this is the case, then the gift of Christ can and should be stated more precisely as the gift of salvation. God gives this gift to all sinners with the stipulation of obedience to him, with obedience consisting of recognizing and believing in the Son as one’s savior. Following an interpretation of John 3:16 in this vein, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life,” a Christian economy arises. Clemency is exchanged for obedience.
The gift of salvation is thus annulled through participation in the economy, and the necessary reading of John 3:16 construes the latter half of the verse (“so that…”) as an economic restatement of God’s love manifested through the “gift.” John 3:36 read in this manner makes the economic nature of the God-human relationship more transparent: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The threat of eternal damnation underlies salvation as the gift. The Christian follows or “believes” in Christ in exchange for mercy or “eternal life,” or follows Christ in response to the offer of the gift.
Christians could understand the role of Christ as such, but the gift is lost nonetheless. Reciprocity can be circumvented if God’s gift in this context is understood to be Christ “his only Son” and not its effect in relation to justice. This interpretation avoids the problem of reciprocity which considering salvation as the gift creates. Instead, the gift encompasses following Christ. It is a gift to obey Christ! The latter half of John 3:16 can then be understood not as a formulation of exchange, but rather as an extension of the gift.
Yet even Christ as the gift is unable to withstand the conditions of the absence of donor and recipient. The Christian recognizes and acknowledges the gift, as the Gospel of John makes clear, and God giving without purpose or unknowingly is an unpalatable premise. I can pave no clear way out of the quagmire, but this outcome is unsurprising. The endeavor to view Christ as gift was bound to fail, as Derrida claims gift-giving to be a “moment of madness,” with the genuine gift as the gift of nothing.11 Now one could conclude Christ is not a true gift from God. One could also argue, however, that Derrida’s conditions of the gift were problematic to begin with—problematic because they provide an account myopic in its apprehension of the gift. The issue lies not with the impossibility of the gift but the framework used to comprehend it. If the genuine gift breaks away from the economy, how can one see the gift from the economy? A different lens is needed.
Philosopher Jean Luc Marion, a student of Derrida, goes one step further than Derrida by drawing the economy as part of a larger system of metaphysics. For Marion, metaphysics grounds itself upon the principle of sufficient reason: “for every x, there is a y such that y is the sufficient reason for x.” Aristotle engages in such a metaphysical enterprise by advancing a theory of causality which explains the “why” of things. In his theory, four causes can be applied, which are the material (“that out of which”), formal (“the statement of the essence”), efficient (“the primary source of the change”), and final (“for the sake of”).  Applied to the sculpting of a bronze statue, the material is the bronze itself, the formal is the shape of the statue, the efficient is the art of sculpting bronze or the artisan, and the final could be the commemoration of human beauty.16 Aristotle’s four causes can also be ascribed to Derrida’s model of the gift, with the material and formal encompassing the gift, the efficient the giver, and the final the giver’s intentionality. For Derrida, the gift comes about through economic agents engaging in a transaction involving a gift object, hence the loss of the gift. This depiction relies upon sufficient reason, says Marion.
Under metaphysics sufficient reason makes the gift possible, but Marion claims sufficient reason runs counter to the gift. While metaphysics derives its reason from causality, the genuine gift lacks such a metaphysics-based logic. It spurns it, in fact. The issue with Derrida’s conception of the gift, then, is that it conceives of the gift as being caused (e.g. a gift-object given by a giver), when it is free of causality or sufficient reason. Therefore, the aneconomic nature of the gift Derrida posits is reinterpreted by Marion as the gift’s aversion to sufficient reason. The gift should instead be viewed through a lens of givenness, which extends beyond intentionality—meaning rather than the giver giving the gift (which inevitably leads to its destruction), the “gift gives ‘itself’ intrinsically in its self-giving.” What does this mean?
The gift must be understood from the vantage point of the gift rather than from the viewpoint of the economy of exchange. Through this, the gift expresses its sovereignty from the economy. Marion reduces the gift to pure givenness by distancing the elements of gift-giving-receiving (donor, recipient, and what is given) from the gift which “gives itself from itself.” The gift remains unrealized when it is given by the donor and accepted by the recipient, which falls into exchange; however, the gift reaches its consummation when it calls upon the donor to give and the recipient to accept it as gift. This suggests a passive freedom on the part of the giver and receiver in their respective relations to the gift. Marion states the role of the participants lies in this decision once they are chosen by the gift. What is described is how the participants perceive in their respective consciousnesses the gift. Donor and recipient are passive actors—not deliberative, calculating economic agents—before the gift, which they recognize as gift not through enacting it but because the gift presents itself as being givable or receivable. Thus, the gift is properly aneconomic as well as free from sufficient reason. It retains its character of the given from itself and not by some extrinsic factor, such as the giver. The gift appears to the giver and receiver without becoming annulled, as Derrida claims with his aporia, because it is its mode of giving itself that precludes extrinsic causality.
How does this understanding of the gift mesh with the gift of Christ? Since Marion’s framework is grounded in the human experience, it would be inappropriate to place God as the giver in this context without abusing Marion’s phenomenology. Furthermore, the Trinity blurs the distinction between the giver and the gift, complicating matters beyond the scope of this article. Marion’s framework can be applied here to the gift’s recipients, though. When we hear the Gospel, we witness, quite literally, the givenness which Marion exposits. It is Christ who manifests himself as God’s gift by giving Himself to us: He gives the decision to receive Him as the gift, rather than our decision determining His gift status.
In Jesus’s ministry, we find examples of those to whom Christ reveals Himself. To His first disciples Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19; ESV). Simon Peter and Andrew were fishing when Jesus approached them. Could they have recognized Jesus as the Messiah? Could they have understood the significance of what he said? “Follow me.” These words appear demanding, which they are; here Jesus decided upon these fishermen as his recipients, which led to their decision to accept the gift, that is to follow Him. This is an example of the gift’s fulfilment, but what of its refusal?
To the rich young man who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus answered by offering a choice: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:18-22). “Follow me.” Again, the gift calls upon the recipient, but in this case the would-be recipient walks away. Was Jesus merely Rabbi to him? Or did he recognize the gift standing before him? If the former, then the young man failed to recognize the gift. Christ still stands as the gift, despite the young man’s ignorance, because His givenness is not contingent on the recipient but comes from Himself. If the latter, then the young man rejected the gift, but even then Christ stands as the gift for the same reason. Thus, in bracketing off the recipient, the gift remains.
In conclusion, Derrida’s aporia poses an issue with the possibility of gift-giving. God’s gift, like any other, fails to withstand the metaphysical shackles of Derrida’s conditions; yet it is Derrida’s inability to see the gift on its own terms which makes the gift impossible. Within Marion’s framework of pure givenness, the gift is freed from the economy and presents itself to the donor and recipient without dissolving from its manifestation. In this way, Christ calls upon each of us to make a decision to accept Him as God’s gift. He gives Himself by giving His reception.
1 Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “aporia,” accessed February 16, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/aporia.
2 Jacques Derrida, “Given Time: The Time of the King,” trans. Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (1992): 170.
3 Ibid., 171.
4 Ibid., 173.
5 Ibid., 174.
6 Ibid. 179
7 Ibid., 172.
8 Ibid., 174.
9 Ibid., 166.
10 Ibid., 172.
11 Antonio Malo, “The Limits of Marion’s and Derrida’s Philosophy of the Gift,” International Philosophical Quarterly 52, no. 2 (2012): 164.
12 Yitzhak Y. Melamed and Martin Lin, “Principle of Sufficient Reason,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
13 Aristotle, R. P. Hardie, and R. K. Gaye. Physics. Raleigh, N.C.: Generic NL Freebook Publisher, n.d. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 31, 2017), 20.
15 Andrea Falcon, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
17 Malo, “The Limits of Marion’s and Derrida’s Philosophy of the Gift,” 155.
18 Jean-Luc Marion, “Sketch of a Phenomenological Concept of the Gift,” in The Visible and the Revealed, trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 95.
19 Ibid., 94.
20 Ibid., 95.
21 Ibid., 100.
22 Ibid., 95.
Dan Ju is a Senior majoring in Behavioral Biology. He hails from the paradise of Honolulu, Hawaii. When he was a mere lad of three, he clogged a toilet with a sock.Tags: aporia, Aristotle, Derrida, economics, freedom, Jean-Luc Marion, justice, metaphysics, paradox, philosophy, reason, salvation, soteriology