Gift vs. Given

I am now officially done the seminary year.  This past week I helped out at a Bible Camp in our diocese, and I have also done something I have not done for a while: leisurely reading.  I love reading for school, etc., but I have already noticed a marked difference between reading for a paper and reading simply for its own sake.  When it comes to leisurely reading, nothing compares.

One of the books I have decided to take up is by Kenneth Schmitz titled “The Recovery of Wonder“.  It is, essentially, a book about things and how we view things.  If this post is obtuse, please grant me this slight indulgence as I very much find myself in line with Schmitz’s thought and find his style to be rather attractive.  When I find a style attractive, I have a tendency to imitate it, hence why this post may be obtuse.  If you are not a great fan of obtuse things, then, by all means, you are not obliged to continue on.

As I stated, the book is about things or, in Latin, res.  The fundamental question that underlies the investigation of the book is the reality of things: are they complex wholes or are they simple parts mashed together?  I have yet to finish the book, but am already able to see where his argument is going by virtue of the title.  Wonder – and it is for this reason I purchased the book – has been a concept that has been rather appealing to me for some time now.  To be in awe of things is the sign of contemplation and to see that things point beyond themselves to an Other who constitutes the totality of finite existence.  The thing points to the transcendence of this Other because this Other is also immanent to the thing by virtue of its upholding this unnecessary thing in existence.    In effect, this is the traditional, pre-modern metaphysical worldview.  A thing, whatever it may be, is ultimately a mystery – that is it is something that has an infinite depth that can never be grasped in its totality; there is always a ‘more’ to it.  The word that constitutes such a worldview is the word ‘gift’ and it is the result of the reality of the Hebrew and Christian revelation of the God who creates ex nihilo.  Writing a paper this year on Genesis 1:1-3 helped me realize just how profound and revolutionary the opening words of Genesis are.  The way, in fact, to read the entire creation account of Genesis – the hermeneutical key by which one ought to read the entire creation story – is through the lens of the concept of gift.  All that is is a gift from God, it is not necessary.  God creates out of His gracious love and each thing that is in existence is the result of His loving gaze upon us.  When in the realm of metaphysics, one would call this an ontology of gift: every thing has within its being the stamp of being gifted into existence.  No thing that is – save for God – need exist.  It is pure gratuity.  Thus we hang thinly between the abyss of annihilation and the totality of being.  Our very being is constituted of nothingness and everything at the same time.  This is what is known as contingency, and contingency – ontologically and not simply in a causal series – is expressed most fundamentally in the concept of gift.

Gift, donum, is contrasted with the modern approach of seeing reality as given, as a datum.  When things are seen as a gift, they are seen as their whole, though constituted in a complex manner.  Yet the whole, in the realm of gift, is greater than the sum of its parts.  With the modern concept of things being simply a given, a datum to be investigated, a phenomenon to be observed, we run the risk of seeing distinctions within a thing as also a separation between the aspects of a thing.  This is what is known as scientism: the constant desire to pursue the simple aspects of a thing to the neglect of the whole.  It is also an expression of voluntarism, of power over nature, of the throwing oneself over and above another object.  It is no coincidence that our move towards a technological society is based within a cultural mentality in which power is the ultimate arbiter of life.  Seeing the world as a given – that is, it is simply there, without any concern for its ultimate ontological origin – means to seeing it as something to dissect and to have power over.  Things become the objects of our rational need to dissect, separate, and own, instead of the more primary human need of the intellect, which expresses itself in contemplation, allowing all of reality to be itself to the subject and to receive it with openness as the totality that it really is.

I am not downplaying the importance of the givenness of reality.  There is a very true sense that there is a givenness to the natural realm.  It is simply there in front of us in order to investigate.  Often, when two worldviews are pitted against each other, we have a tendency to want one to win out over the other.  But this need not be the case.  There is value and truth and, dare I say, even beauty to the modern approach to the world.  However, if we are to have true success with it, if it is going to truly correspond to our humanity, then it must be in conversation with the contemplative nature of life.  Contemplation – intellect – and rationality need not be opposed to each other.

Yet, I must emphasize one thing and it is with this that I will end this post.  The point of Schmitz’s book is to rediscover the idea of wonder, to be amazed by that which is around us, from the simplest to the most complex things.  In short, we must rediscover the contemplative nature of life.  Both Schmitz and Pope Benedict point to the ecological movement as an expression of the sense that technological domination over the natural realm must have its limits, that we must let things be at times, that we must allow the world to be itself for us and for us to receive it in contemplative and receptive humility.  What is wrong in the movement is that it emphasizes the natural realm to the neglect of the human and even, at times, to the detriment of the human.  Yet there is also that essential kernal of truth: the natural realm is beautiful and worthy to be upheld and protected against the domination of the human will’s desire to cease control of all that is. To be human is to be finite, to be limited, and the idea that the natural realm is only datum, only given, will constantly go against the truly human when it acts to the neglect of the contemplative attitude towards the world.

It may seem like an impossible task, for the ideology of scientism is very much ingrained within our cultural mentality.  It will take Herculean efforts in order to overcome such a cultural attitude.  Yet we must begin it.  To rediscover wonder in the world is to rediscover the essential aesthetic quality of the world.  Beauty, I am convinced in this day in age, will indeed save the world.  We can reclaim the rightful place of the giftedness of the world alongside the scientific.  They need not be opposed.  For when this is done, then the investigation into the world will no longer be for dominance over it, but rather as an immersion of our selves into the reality of things for their own sake.  Then, and only then, will the world be able to begin to be beautiful once again.

in Christ



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  1. Pingback: Gift vs. Given | Catholic Canada

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