Saturday, February 7, 2015

TOB: What is a gift?

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 We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: a Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

It is no secret that John Paul II was both involved in and influenced by the Second Vatican Council. Though his attendance at the Council was occasionally spotty, due to the then Cardinal Wojtyła’s passport being revoked by the Communist government in Poland, he participated in many of the planning committees through written interventions and the like. When he was elected to the papacy, it is clear that the late pope took seriously the task of propagating and interpreting the teachings of Vatican II. The documents appear often in his writing, and even if there are no direct references, there is usually some reflection on a theme that emerged from the ecumenical council.

One theme that is interwoven throughout John Paul II’s writing is that of gift. One of the most-quoted lines by the saint is from Gaudium et spes (GS) 24:
The likeness [between the communion of men and the communion of the Persons of the Trinity] reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself.

Looking back through his writings, it becomes clear that this line is special to John Paul II. It’s included in almost every one of his encyclicals, and much of his other writing as well. TOB is of course no exception here. And “gift” carries here some meaning both beyond and below, as it were, the presenting of another person with a token. It has more depth as it is used by the Council Fathers in GS and in John Paul II’s work, including TOB. Let’s try and unpack that a bit.

In the Wednesday Catecheses, the first place gift appears is not with respect to man giving himself to woman, or vice versa, but with respect to God giving man the gift of creation. This language is radical, even if it may seem trite to us today.

**Reader beware: generalizations and simplifications in the next couple of paragraphs, though I think none of it false. It just needs more nuance after further discussion.**

Pre-Christian philosophical man had two choices (more or less) when it came to understanding the divine: either there was a god or gods who were very close to man, creating man because he somehow needed him—man’s sacrifices, man’s offerings were some source of power or pleasure, for example—or there was a god who was absolutely indifferent to the world, who created unknowingly or didn’t care at all. There were attempts to bridge the gap between these two pictures of divinity with the image of an indifferent god, a demi-urge, subordinate to the supreme being..  This demi-urge was responsible for making the world and consequently  in some sense, needed his creatures. In the end, even this alternative takes us back to the perennial philosophical seesaw of the necessity of the world to God or the absolute indifference of God to the world.

Can we say that God needs his creatures, or that creation was necessary? We cannot. To do so would be to put God at the mercy of his creatures, and ultimately would make him just a more powerful version of ourselves. But can we say that God is indifferent to us? That he created the world arbitrarily, through some sort of spasmodic will? . . . This doesn’t seem quite right either, especially in a Christian worldview. This is, after all, the Father who sent his Son for us, and the Son who suffered and died for us. There is a lot at stake there for a God who is simply indifferent to his creation.

So how do we cut through this dialectic of need and arbitrary will in God? By trying to understand the logic of gift. Let’s think about this a bit: one never truly needs to give a gift, one just wants to. But when you decide to give a gift, you’re not simply indifferent to what happens to it after you’ve given it away, nor are you indifferent to how the person receives it. But you do give it in all freedom, meaning there are no claims or qualifications on how the person is to use it; rather, you hope that they enjoy it, receive it well, and use it well. True gifts are not perfunctory things.

This all points to there being such a thing as a logic of gift. In a way, when I give a gift, I’m giving part of myself. I’ve put thought into it, time and/or money, etc., so this thing is not entirely different from myself, and yet, here I am, giving it away freely to another person, to do with it what they will. Indeed, I don’t diminish myself in giving a gift, even if it is part of me. In fact, the opposite is likely true. The gift in some sense unites the giver and the receiver: the giver is really giving part of himself, while the receiver really receives it into himself.
"Creation of Adam" is in the Public Domain.

So too with creation. The logic of creation is gift: God is entirely free to give, and we, in some sense, are entirely free to either receive it well, or to reject it. It is there for us, so that it may serve us, and we may serve it. And God is not entirely indifferent to whether we choose to receive or reject His gift.

But just as a gift tells something about the one who gives it, so too can creation tell us about our Creator. If the logic of creation is gift, then that logic in an analogical sense is also within our Creator. Now, if a gift really does unite the giver and receiver, we might be able to say that the logic of gift looks a bit like communion, and that this logic could be carried up—again, analogically—into God. And of course we already know this to be true: the Trinity is a communion of life and love. The point then is that the logic of creation is not outside of or extrinsic to the logic of the life of the Trinity. The Creator is not foreign to his creation.

But the stakes of this gift,  the gift of creation, are raised higher than any gift we could possibly give or receive because in the gift of creation, not only is the gift given, but the receiver is given too. That is to say, man is created, and he is created as the receiver of the gift of creation. Thus, the logic of gift is written into him as well, into his very being, his very body. Therefore, the logic that enables (so to speak) creation in the first place, a logic of gift and communion that already exists in the Trinity, can be seen in the flesh of man himself.

But what does this mean for man’s existence and his existence-as-embodied creature? First, it seems to me that gratitude is then the disposition of our existence, and that gratitude always directs us to another—we’re always directed out of ourselves, and again, our bodies help us to see this. This gratitude is not, however, simply how we react to God, rather, as an existential disposition, it means that that is how we’re disposed to everyone and everything. If creation is a gift, if my very existence is a gift, along with the existence of everything else, gratitude has to be how we first look at the world.

But(!) look at the radicality of this: it immediately communicates a different way of relating to the rest of the created world, God and each other. Gratitude is not bitter: one doesn’t view a gift in light of one’s own neediness—that is, we don’t hold it against the giver that he sees something we need or desire and then gives it to us. In this logic of gift and reciprocal gratitude—in this logic of communion—our embodiment and corresponding finitude is not something about which we should be ashamed; it is rather the space to allow a gift to be given in the first place. The limitedness of my body is not a curse I must master or overcome, but precisely the place at which I am open to generosity.

Gift, then, indicates an entire way of understanding and responding to God, the world, my own body, and everything in between. We were created as gifts to ourselves and to each other, in the image and likeness of the Trinity, an image and likeness to which our corporeal form is not incidental. To give oneself, as John Paul II highlights often in his quoting of GS 24, allows one to enter into the logic and life of God himself.

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