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  • The One Who Is; the One Who Gives:Derrida, Aquinas, and the Dilemma of the Divine Generosity
  • Bishop Robert Barron

It is a favorite technique of those trained in the Derridean deconstructionist method to find a loose thread—an anomaly, a contradiction, an unresolved tension—in even the most venerable philosophical weave and then to pull on it until the fabric comes undone. A prime example of this is the way a number of postmodern thinkers, including Jacques Derrida himself, tugged on the thread of the aporia (or dilemma) of the gift in order to problematize central claims of the religious traditions.1 I would like to turn the tables on the postmodern philosophers by using their own method, pulling the loose thread of their very critique of the aporia of the gift. For it is my contention that their analysis of the anomalies within the idea of giftedness can actually serve to clarify what stands distinctively at the heart of the Christian spiritual and philosophical tradition. I will use the texts of Saint Thomas Aquinas to make my argument.

The Aporia of the Gift

The postmodern preoccupation with the theme of the gift founds its roots in the sociological work of the French thinker Marcel Mauss. In his studies of primal peoples, Mauss uncovered the dynamics of an economy of exchange, whereby the giving of a gift by one tribal chief would prompt in his rival an answering gift, lest the latter be shamed by the former.2 [End Page 15] Émile Benveniste engaged in similar research, which revealed that, in some cultures, one act of hospitality would awaken in the one who received it an act of even more extravagant hospitality, which would in turn compel the original giver to give even more generously, until the two communities essentially ruined one another through a kind of mutual shaming. This is why Benveniste could playfully suggest an etymological link between "hospitality" and the Latin word hostis (enemy).3

In texts such as Given Time and Aporias, Derrida elaborates upon this phenomenon in a more strictly philosophical vein. It appears, he says, that the first condition of the authentic gift is that it is offered without consideration of compensation. Were strings attached to a present that I have made, one would be hard-pressed to refer to it as a true gift. Indeed, were I to receive such a present, I would not feel gratified and grateful, but manipulated. Even a gift as seemingly uncomplicated as a birthday present from a relative carries with it at least the implicit obligation of writing a thank-you note as compensation. Anyone who has ever had the exquisitely awkward experience of confronting a person who plaintively and resentfully observes, "I hope you received the gift I gave you," feels the force of this demand. The second fundamental condition for the possibility of a gift is presence, that is to say, the appearance of the gift qua gift. If some boon appeared simply out of the blue, with no indication as to its provenance, one might consider it luck or good fortune, but one would hardly call it a gift, except in the most blandly metaphorical sense.

Derrida argues that, once we acknowledge these two indispensable conditions, it is difficult to see how a true gift is even possible, for the moment something appears qua gift, it would seem, necessarily, to awaken in the recipient the need to reciprocate. Precisely as a present, a gift can never be free, and in order to be free, it cannot be present. On this score, Derrida rejoices in the delicious link between the English "gift" and the German "Gift," designating poison: the need for a response or reciprocation poisons the waters, so to speak, of the pure gift. Finally, any gift is noxious for both giver and receiver, since it locks both into a mutually destructive economy of exchange.

Now, the full exploration of this motif in the postmoderns would take us way too far afield, but for our purposes, it might be worthwhile to note some troubling implications for the classical Christian tradition, for which the notions of gift and grace are obviously so crucial...


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