Grace and Gratitude: How to Respond to an Ugly Gift

February 12, 2018 by Joe Small

Peter Leithart begins his recent book Gratitude: An Intellectual History with an illustration: “Imagine that your beloved grandmother gave you a rather ugly soup tureen as a wedding gift. Seeing as you have no use for the tureen, how ought you respond? You would, of course, write an appropriately deceptive note of thanks, but what then? Would you box the tureen away and never use it? Would you use it to feed the cat? What if Grandma were coming for dinner? Would you let her see you using her gift to feed the cat?”

Possible responses to receiving a gift are too many to catalogue, but Leithart does his best to survey the ways gift and gratitude have been understood, from Aristotle to Derrida. At the conclusion of his intellectual history, he provides a thumbnail (somewhat humorous) summary of some representative answers to the question of how you ought to respond to Grandma’s gift of an ugly, useless soup tureen. A sampling of his samples:

  • Aristotle would warn you that receiving the tureen puts you in a position of inferiority and that, if you want to be a virtuous and independent person, you should pay grandma back with a bigger gift as soon as possible. Then forget you ever received the gift in the first place.
  • Seneca would encourage you to exaggerate the quality and beauty of the gift, to appear at Grandma’s door every morning to accompany her on the way to the grocery store, loudly celebrating her generosity at every stoplight. He would encourage you to look for the right time and way to repay her.
  • Calvin and Luther would tell you to thank God, while recognizing that you do not deserve the tureen or your grandmother’s love. They would remind you that grace is a gift that can never be repaid.
  • Kant would tell you that since Grandma gave first, you are obligated to her by a sacred duty, a debt that can never be repaid.
  • Nietzsche would urge you to show gratitude especially if the tureen is ugly, to show Grandma how powerless she is to harm you.
  • Heidegger would mumble something incomprehensible in German, hike up his lederhosen, and leave with a Nazi salute.
  • Jean-Luc Marion would strip the tureen to its essence of pure givability, and you and Grandma would both disappear into phenomenological vapor.

So, WWYD [What Would You Do] about Grandma’s gift? More important, WWYD in response to God’s gift of new life in Jesus Christ?

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