Friday, October 29, 2010

Finn Watch ctd: Logic, Love and Gifts from Helsinki

As promised, here's a brief report on two fascinating lectures exploring the implications of the logic of gift-giving for Lutheran theology by Finnish Luther scholars Risto Saarinen and Olli-Pekka Vainio, given yesterday at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Dr. Saarinen reminded us several times that while he has already published a book on these matters, the material he presented is hot off the bench of his theological workshop, and is still in development. Therefore, I'll only share some highlights, while eagerly anticipating the finn-ished product.

Dr. Vainio laid the groundwork for Dr. Saarinen's constructive proposal by surveying recent philosophical developments in the phenomenology of gift giving. At one extreme stands Nietzsche, declaring that all giving is inherently an act of utter self-interest, an act of power and assertion of the will that seeks to enslave the recipient in the individual's quest to become a great soul. The state of suspicion under which all giving is placed prompted an equally extreme reaction represented in Derrida, who in seeking utter disinterestedness in giving declared that a gift given is no gift at all. Vainio rejected this postmodern polarity, offering a very Lutheran invitation to accept the fact that all acts of giving are necessarily a mixture of self-interest and disinterestedness, and urged us to reject the grounding narrative of ontological violence which ultimately excludes both personhood and the possibility of goodness, lest we be tempted into the typical Lutheran quagmire of passivity before God's gift of grace, and thus also, towards our growth in love flowering forth in the creation of relationships with our neighbors. Vainio argued that gifts can only be given in a context of personhood and desire, and that not even God gives disinterestedly or "unconditionally," since God desires to establish us as persons who can enter into life-giving relationship with Godself. This is where the Finnish Luther comes in. The union offered in justification between person and Trinity removes the sinner from slavery to debt and power and sets them within a reality where interested love without debt is possible.

Dr. Saarinen continued this train of thought, drawing on recent linguistic research into the semantic range of the word "gift," urging us to look at the phenomenon of giving not from the perspective of the recipient, but rather the giver - in this case, the Trinity. Such a move, while not unproblematic given Nietzsche's suspicions, brings into theological focus in which giving has priority over receiving. Simple as it may sound to emphasize that it is GOD who gives, this basic move, consonant with Barthian and post-liberal concerns, opens up the nature of the gift given by focusing on the identity of the giver, and thus the kind of relationship established between giver and recipient. When the recipient is primary, too often, she becomes merely a passive receptacle for the gift - indeed, we do not say "I give a book to a shelf," but only "I set a book on the shelf." Only a person can receive a gift, which can only be given by a person in relationship.

This epistemic framework grounds Saarinen's constructive proposal for a way forward in Lutheran theology beyond certain gaps and lacunae which exist due to the incompleteness of the church's confessional documents. While some still view the confessions as exhaustive, Saarinen rather views them as "stem cells" or seends from which can be grown rich new varieties and further developments in theology in response to contemporary challenges, using the theology of the gift. Delving into the etymology of various biblical formulations such as "handing on of doctrine" or "proclamation," Saarinen notes that words have their root in the Greek verb "to give." Various categories can be divided into either "economic" or "donative" gifts, the former of which entails an exchange, while the latter is an act of charity. Ultimately, no theological concept is a "pure gift," but is an admixture of economy and donation. Only God gives pure gifts, with clarity and depth of purpose. Theology needs to grow forth from an understanding of God's pure gift of love, and even as it is differentiated into primarily economic or donative aspects, must always recall its roots in this purity, while never forgetting its admixture.

Thus, while we might for example imagine that a social-program ought to be merely donative, giving aid to the needy without requirement, remembering that God's love includes within it but is not exhausted by its economic aspects might lead us to reconsider whether our ethic of charity is not also seeking domination, and also challenges us to give gifts in such a way as to create relationships of exchange between persons. I take this to mean that pretending to offer "unconditional gifts" to the poor is an incomplete witness to God; rather, when possible, gifts are offered so as to establish relationship. It may be the difference between simply giving someone spare change, or inviting them to share a cup of coffee, only to discover that your personhood is tied up with the recognition and acknowledgment of theirs. (The image I have included of St. Vincent de Paul and the beggar exemplifies this for me in its blurring of the distinction between giver and recipient, begging the question of who is Christ to who, and offering a vision of mutuality and exchange, where my salvation is bound up with that of my new friend.)

For Lutheran theology, this is particularly important, since it blurs the edges between merits and gifts, focusing less on the recipient's passive acceptance of the gift and more on the ontology, that is, the vision of reality, that is established by the Giver. Saarinen argued that this Trinitarian, gift-giving ontology incorporates traditional notions of transcendentals, things like truth, goodness, beauty, and love. The Christian life can be mapped as a pilgrimage which, having recognized the Giver as the One who gives Himself in love, initiates a life of seeking after and journeying towards God. Renunciation of sin and hypocrisy is not the substance of the Christian life, but merely its initiation, and while pursuit of one transcendental, such as Truth, might tempt us to focus away from Goodness, life becomes less an "ordo salutis" and more a series of biographical stations which enables lived narratives of creative variety in relationship with and growth towards the God who has first given God-self to us. Passivity is replaced not with a system of merit, but rather, an intimate dance of relationship.

I see this as a welcome corrective to 20th-century Lutheran theology, which has followed Reformation polemics in associating such approaches with works-righteousness and obsession with merits. In this view, exemplified by Forde and others, life becomes merely an exercise in continual repentance and renunciation of our own goodness, an endless repetition of the Gospel of justification, which explodes into our lives, leaving a crater of emptiness behind to be filled by God's grace. But we remain empty (thanks to David Yeago for offering this image). My STM work at LTSS is precisely to reconceive of holiness and sanctification in the Lutheran tradition along more catholic and Augustinian lines, in which the life of faith is akin to a marriage, in which faithfulness means growth in relationship leading to acts of desire and devotion, and pours forth in creativity, which is a form of improvising with and being led in the dance by the music of the Holy Spirit. I also believe that the Finns' approach provides a kind of post-liberal Lutheranism that would interface quite nicely with the Hauerwasian focus on the communal character of the Church's witness. Indeed, it provides a corrective, able to integrate the subjective relationship with Christ into the more objective reality of the Church, the former of which Hauerwas and much of post-liberalism has repeatedly downplayed. And, most importantly, I think these insights provide pastoral resources for breaking the cycle of endless sermons about the already of justification, creating conditions to speak of the adventure, the discovery, and the delight of a life lived in relationship with the Christ dwelling in our hearts, and in the hearts of others.

While Dr. Saarinen's project remains incomplete and awaits further development, yesterday's lectures inspired me with new hope in the possibilities for Lutheran theology, as well as for the life of faith. I'll be waiting eagerly to see what new rich varieties of crops can be grown from the fertile soil of Finnish studies, and am thankful for their sharing the fruits of their labors, as well as planting new seeds in Southern soil, with us at LTSS.

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