Milbank on Gift and Gratitude

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For Milbank, God’s gift of being is, in a sense, gift to no one. If creation is ex nihilo then God does not give a gift to creatures, but gives creatures themselves.[1] In a human gift exchange the gift passes from the giver across a “neutral territory” to the receiver.[2] The gift can then be received and used, or it can be rejected. God’s gift of being “establishes creatures as themselves”, not crossing any such territory.[3] Furthermore, the gift can only be received and thus is not subject to initial refusal. The creature’s entire existence is one of receptivity. To refuse the gift would be to close off all reception and to deny the creatures very existence. In fact, a serious refusal is inherently suicidal. However, even suicide is not an escape from receptivity, as Milbank says, “Since human refusal forecloses its ontic status as receptacle, consigning it to nothingness, it cannot for itself receive even its own refusal, which is to say, receive its meaning as utter alienation from God, the source of all that is.”[4] Creatures are simply incapable of escaping God’s gift.

If creatures are gift, how does one configure gratitude on this scheme? Milbank following de Lubac says, “Hence to will, know, and feel is to render gratitude, else we would refuse ourselves as constituted as gift. Such gratitude to an implied infinite source can only be, as gratitude, openness to an unlimited reception from the source which is tantamount to a desire to know the giver.”[5] The life of the creature is, in one sense, a life of gratitude. This is similar to what Luther referred to as the vita passiva. By nature humans are reliant upon God for all things. To exist is to need breath, nourishment, a beating heart, and so forth. Put another way, to exist is to be receptive. On this conception, if using a gift according to its intention is tantamount to gratitude, then, on one level all humans exhibit gratitude naturally. That is to say, to function properly as a human requires using God’s gifts the way they were intended. On the other hand, failure to give thanks and glory to the Giver is a cardinal component to ingratitude. A creature’s refusal to give thanks to the Creator is another attempt to reject the Giver.

Is a return to God possible? If nothing can be added to God, how can this be done? Radical Orthodoxy sees a return as possible only in terms of the divine life. The Father sends the Son to redeem the world through His life death and resurrection, thus sending the Giver in or with the Gift. The Son returns to the Father as a perfect Gift returned to the Giver (God to Himself). Through the Eucharist, humanity is incorporated into the Gift itself, thus collapsing Giver and recipient.[6] Likewise, the Spirit is sent as Donum from the Father and the Son to indwell the Body (recipient). The Church returns to God as the gift of glorified Bride united with the Son. The dualism of giver and recipient is broken down. Thus, the Body of Christ is caught up into the life of inter-Trinitarian gift giving. For Radical Orthodoxy, this is the only ultimate sense in which a return can be made to God.



[1] John Milbank, “Can A Gift Be Given,” Modern Theology 11, no. 1 (1995): 119-161. 134

[2] Ibid 135

[3] Ibid 135

[4] Ibid 135

[5] John Milbank, The Suspended Middle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). 44

[6] William Cavanaugh, “Beyond Secular Parodies,” in Radical Orthodoxy (New York: Routledge, 1999). 195