From the Reformation on through the equally revolutionary "Enlightenment" in the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea of the "pure gift"—a vector that keeps going horizontally, neither expecting nor needing to be curved back into a circle—would haunt Western culture. The most radical attempt to theorize an entirely pristine gift ended with a never-ending deferral. The 20th-century French philosopher Jacques Derrida taught that as soon as the first rays of gratitude appeared, the "pure gift" vanished like the wink of a firefly.
People of Gratitude
Where does all this intellectual history wind up? Leithart concludes by asking the church to reclaim its identity as a people of gratitude, a people centered around the Eucharist (the root meaning of which is "thanksgiving")—for the sake of what he calls, grandly, "the renewal of modern society."
Leithart has his sights set on bigger things than iPods and "Secret Santa" parties. He's not just interested in forming grateful individuals. If the church were to become a community whose gratitude to God permeated every nook and cranny of its social existence, then who knows what corporate, societal upheavals might result? Totalitarian regimes, for instance, might weaken and even crumble if their Christian citizens refused to shoulder a burden of gratitude to the overweening State.
In short, gratitude might make a difference on a large scale, or even the largest scale we can imagine. If not all of this proposal proves ultimately convincing, you can't help but admire its ambition.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.