In his lucid and engaging book, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, Robert Barron devotes a chapter to recent theological engagements with philosophy and social anthropology on the question of “the gift”. Over the last 20 years, this theme has picked up serious momentum through the work of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, and Marcel Mauss. After offering a solid, albeit not remarkably original, critique of Derrida, Barron turns his attention toward a more robustly theological account of the gift, beginning with Aquinas:
“Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the simple God who creates the entire universe ex nihilo is the technically theological description of the father in Jesus’s parable [of the prodigal son]. Because he is the sheer act of to-be itself, actus purus, God, as we saw, stands in need of nothing outside of himself. There is no other reality, actuality, or perfection that could in any way complete or add to his being, since he himself is the ground of whatever exists or could exist outside of him. What follows from this is that God neither creates the universe nor relates to it in order to gain something for himself, and therefore, God cannot even in principle be involved in an economic exchange with his creatures. He cannot give in order to receive, nor can he be gracious in order to be thanked. This kind of reciprocity is possible only among and between beings, which is to say, created things existing interdependently. God’s relation to the world that he creates and sustains can only be one of sheer generosity, a being-for-the-other” (p. 233).
A guiding theme throughout the book is what Barron calls “the loop of grace.” By this he means our entering and abiding in the gratuitous Life of the Triune God, an indwelling not of our making yet one we are freely enfolded into through the agapeic reciprocity of giving and receiving gifts. In his words, “The sheer graciousness of God’s presence to the world becomes, in turn, the ground for our participation through love in the divine life” (p. 20). This central concept matters a great deal for Barron’s project as a whole. On the one hand, it provides the language necessary to deconstruct the artificial impasse raised at the intersection of faith and works. It does so by bringing to the fore that “ground” upon which these “responses” are rendered intelligible. Often the debate over faith and works ignores this underlying structure (if that’s even the appropriate word for it) to devastating consequences. When such works are made the ground we get into trouble, bound to a quasi-pelagianism that ultimately absolves the very grace it is meant to embody and extend into the broken spaces of the world. Likewise, grounding the economy of salvation upon “faith alone” tends to reduce Christian life and practice to the interiority of a privatized voluntarism in which the life of the Church is unmoored from actual moral and spiritual transformation. All the while, such marginalized practices as the works of mercy become increasingly invisible, subsidiary, optional, and irrelevant. Plus there’s also the often cited irony that in this way faith itself, as a fundamentally human action, becomes its own kind of veiled “work,” recentering the site of grace, once again, upon us rather than upon God.
Barron intends this language of the “loop of grace” to both expose the vacuity of these artificial alternatives and at the same provide a fresh inroad into a more faithful understanding of the workings of grace through divine/human agency. Put (overly) simply, the grace of God grounds and creates the very possibility of our responsive participation through faith and deed. This grace is utterly inseparable from the Triune God manifested in the crucified Messiah. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (2.4-10).
In his typical density, Paul is attempting to tease out the same question. Of no merit of our own, God in Christ has graciously reconciled the world unto Himself. By definition, this gratuitous excess is ontologically prior to any human responsiveness, yet it is precisely such a reciprocity that is sought through grace’s very extension. For Paul, the grace of God constitutes unequivocally the grounding upon which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17.28). We are saved by grace through faith, but the faith that we ourselves “possess” cannot be the ground. It is the gift of God, but it cannot be built upon the works of our hands. However, against those who would then suggest that the life is faith is a private, individual, internal experience of grace itself, Paul throws a curveball: we are created in Christ Jesus for good works. Throughout his writings, the works of charity that faith induces (Galatians 5.6) remain a constant theme, though one perpetually shrouded with paradoxical language. We enter into the grace gifted to us through faith in/of Jesus. However, ultimately we only fully participate in that received grace when we embody and perform it unto one another. It’s no coincidence that John identifies “abiding in the Father” with obedience to the command of love. Elucidating this point Barron writes,
“‘I am,’ Jesus says, ‘the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower’ (John 15.1). The church, he insists, is make up of those who are grafted onto this vine, remaining in Jesus and sharing his life, a life that in turn comes to him from the Father: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit’ (15.5). The Lord is urging on his disciples a decentering of the ego that mimics the being-in-the-other of the Father and the Son: by remaining in Jesus, they will, eo ipso, remain in the One in whom Jesus remains, and so the divine life will flow from the Father through the Son into the church.
“When this organic relationship is interrupted, life fades: ‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers’ (15.6). As we have seen over and again, the loop of grace — the giving and receiving of gifts — is the key to a Christian ontology and morality. When, like the prodigal son, we turn away from the Father’s love and seek to ground our lives in our own projects and desires, we necessarily wither, losing the little that we have” (p. 243).
In so performing this grace with thanksgiving we find ourselves transformed and renewed, “caught up” — if you will — into this “loop of grace” drawing us ever deeper into the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
How is this language paradoxical? First of all, in Paul there is a deliberate porosity between divine and human agency. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2.20). Who is doing the living here? Who is active in the work? Is it us or is it Christ? To this attempt at a dichotomy, Paul would yell out: Yes! Both are, but as mutually bound together in an agapeic communion. In a brilliant essay found in Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay argues that
“everything depends on how one conceives the ‘human agent’ reconstituted in Christ. Though in one sense we may speak properly of a ‘dual agency’, in non-exclusive relation, this would be inadequately expressed as the co-operation or conjunction of two agents, or as the relationship of gift and response, if it is thereby forgotten that the ’response’ continues to be activated by grace, and the believers’ agency embedded within that of the Spirit. [. . .] Paul’s central theology of participation requires that human agency is reconceived without being abandoned, the self not merely relocated but reconstituted by its absorption within the non-coercive power of grace” (pp. 155-156).
In other words, as we are enfolded into the life of God, our agency in confessing the faith or performing good works is saturated and empowered by the presence of the Spirit of grace. Our agency and God’s are not in competition here. To assume so would only results in the projection of a false deity and the necessary loss of “contact with the loop of grace, the stream of uncompromised generosity that flows from the true God. Whatever we have from the illusory god turns quickly to dust in our hands, and whatever we think we owe him awakens in us only resentment and bitterness” (Barron, pp. 233-234). Instead, “The creature is most itself precisely in surrendering to the noncompetitive God, just as the Son is nothing but the reflection of the noncompetitive Father” (p. 242).
Second, it is paradoxical precisely in that this gift withers and dies if it is not given again. This has already been alluded to above in Jesus’s teaching on abiding in the vine. As Barron notes, “It is a basic biblical intuition that as long as one is receiving being as a grace and resolving to pass it on as a grace, one paradoxically keeps it. But if one endeavors to interrupt the flow and seize what is received, then that possession quickly withers away, dissipates” (p. 78). Yet this kenosis is the precisely paradigm of Christ crucified and glorified (Philippians 2).
Herein we can now return at last to Barron’s analysis of Aquinas.
“Only with these metaphysical and spiritual clarifications in mind can we properly grasp Thomas’s teaching on the ‘obligatory’ quality of the liturgy or put it in a broader context, the general Christian insistence that our lives must be acts of praise and gratitude to the Creator. Such obligations would indeed be burdensome and dehumanizing if they proceeded from a competitive and needy supreme being, but since they come from the one who cannot compete with us and who stands in no need, they are in fact liberating. The gratitude we offer to God is not absorbed by God, but rather breaks against the rock of the divine self-sufficiency, redounding to our benefit. In one of the prefaces to the eucharistic prayer in the Roman rite of the Mass, we find this remarkable observation directed toward God: ‘You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace.’ It is precisely because God has no need of our praise that our act of gratitude is a gift and not a poison; it is precisely because God’s plenitude cannot be increased that our prayer intensifies rather than compromises our participation in the loop of grace. [. . .]
“Love is described in the Christian tradition as a theological virtue, which is to say, a habit or capacity that comes not from the cultivation of natural potentialities but as a gift from God. This is true because love is a participation in the divine life. What I hope has become clear in the preceding analysis is that the simple Creator God is uniquely capable of love in the complete sense, since he alone can fully will the good of the other as other. Derrida helpfully points out, love–the real giving of gifts–is practically impossible among us creatures, comprised as we are by ontological neediness, self-interest, and violence. What makes real love possible among humans is only a sharing in the love with which God loves, some participation in the divine-to-be. When we root ourselves in the God who has no need, who exists in radical self- sufficiency, we can begin to love the other as he does, for our needy grasping ego has been transfigured by proximity to the divine way of life. Without this elevation, our desire will always be tainted by finitude and sin and hence will tend toward ‘economic’ modes of relationship” (p. 234).