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In an episode of NBC's sitcom The Office, the obnoxious boss, Michael Scott, brings an iPod as a Christmas gift to a "Secret Santa" party. Everyone else, sticking to the usual custom, has wrapped a small item of junk from home or else purchased a five-dollar trinket for the occasion. When the iPod is opened and the gap between its price tag and all the others becomes apparent, the game is immediately changed. By giving a gift worth hundreds of dollars to people he barely knows, Michael has skewed the dynamics of the party. Confusion and hurt feelings are the predictable result.
It's a silly scene in a frivolous TV show, but Michael's gift nicely highlights something we all know intuitively: that there is a culturally acceptable choreography for giving gifts. Not all gifts are appropriate, and many of the ones that are acceptable are carefully calculated to achieve certain aims or build up specific relationships. We wouldn't, for instance, usually give a diamond ring to someone who wasn't our spouse, nor would we, as Jesus points out, give a snake to a child who asked for a fish. But we would give a return gift to the couple next door who dropped a small Christmas present in our mailbox, and most of us would look for a reciprocal invitation from the family we invited over last week, hoping to get to know them better and strengthen the ties of new friendship.
All these movements and gestures, and many more besides, have been thoroughly analyzed in recent philosophy, theology, and cultural anthropology, turned inside and out in academic studies with titles like The Enigma of the Gift and God and the Gift. What has received less attention is gratitude, the response of the recipients to all those gifting movements and gestures. Peter Leithart's new book, titled simply Gratitude: An Intellectual History, tries to fill that void. Like everything Leithart writes, it's the result of a jaw-dropping breadth of research. One of the distinct pleasures of a new Leithart book is the opportunity it gives us to watch a smart, unpredictable mind sharing his reactions to the books he's worked through. This new work deepens that pleasure.
Gratitude starts before the Christian era, with the ancient Greeks and Romans. A wealthy patron might offer a present to a friend, but such a favor wasn't about establishing equality. On the contrary, the recipient of the gift was expected to demonstrate gratitude by returning the favor in a correspondingly concrete way. Greek and Roman moralists fretted over the elaborate maneuvering this system required. Aristotle and his followers suggested that return gifts should outshine their originals, allowing receivers to enjoy a certain independence. Meanwhile, Cicero and Seneca, the first-century Latin authors, counseled shrewdness. Better, they thought, to use the newly established patron-client relationship for one's own advantage.
Demonstrating gratitude by giving return gifts was a way to climb the social ladder. If you heralded your patron's generosity by publicly showing him your gratitude, you might stand a chance of benefitting from his gifts again in the future, and thus the cycle would be perpetuated. "Paganism did not have to learn gratitude from Christians," Leithart concludes. "Paganism knew all about gratitude, the oppressions of gratitude included."
All this was revolutionized when Jesus interrupted the dance of gift and return gift by focusing all the attention on the one divine Giver, the one whom Jesus called "Father." "[T]he central theme of Jesus' teaching on gift and reciprocity," according to Leithart, "is the revelation of the Father as the generous Patron of all his children."
What happens to the elaborate, delicately choreographed waltz of gifts and return gifts if benefactors can look to God rather than to their friends for any reciprocation they might need? If God is ultimately behind every gesture of generosity, then the rationale for lording it over others and enforcing servile relationships is undone. Suddenly the complicated dance becomes unnecessary. Opting out becomes a possibility. Benefactors don't have to pressure their clients to return their gifts, and recipients don't have to remain shackled to the expectations of their patrons. "The only debts [Christians] owe are to love one another and to give thanks to God."
The remainder of Leithart's book traces the fate of this revolutionary idea Jesus unleashed. Throughout subsequent history, some thinkers latched on to Jesus' vision, attempting to recover and re-proclaim his subversive wisdom. The 16th-century Reformers, in Leithart's narrative, tried to apply Jesus' teaching in a context where gift-giving had become, in the church no less than in wider society, commercialized and regulated. In contrast to medieval Catholicism, Martin Luther insisted that the Mass shouldn't be understood as an exchange calculated to procure blessings from God. Holy Communion is a unilateral divine gift, expecting nothing from believers other than thanksgiving. But by the same token, if God gave without strings attached, then Christians could give to others with similar abandon.
Still, in Leithart's reading, this emphasis on the grateful return didn't quite manage to carry the day in the Reformation. The Reformers, rightly concerned to prioritize divine grace and leave no room for human efforts to repay it, were less successful than the New Testament authors in sketching a seesaw movement of divine generosity and complementary human response. Their emphasis on unilateral grace was perpetually in danger of being reduced to altruism, with no consequent impulse of gratitude and reciprocity. William Tyndale thought that believers should "neither look for reward in the earth, nor yet in heaven," effectively leaving no theological space for gratitude. What Leithart calls the infinite circle in Jesus' teaching—the constant spiral of divine gifts followed by human acts of charity and gratefulness that the divine gifts elicited and empowered—was flattened into a line.
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.
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.