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Sacrifice, Gift-Giving, and Philanthropy

The works of Kathryn Tanner offer a great deal to the contemporary theological community.  Her theology is deeply centered in the development of two key concepts: a theology of divine transcendence and the principle of noncompetitiveness.  Her development of these themes was portrayed most clearly in her Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology and such insights were later applied directly to economics in her more recent Economy of Grace.  Both of these works make substantial contributions in their own right and as such have real value.  However, there are some debilitating weaknesses in Tanner’s account of a theological economics which flow from her construal of the shape of noncompetitive gift-giving.

Against accounts of giving and economics that assume a principle of competitiveness and strife, Tanner argues in light of the revelation of the trinitarian God as a fount of pure self-giving love, that Christians must reject such an economics of scarcity and competition.  So far, so Augustinian.  However, when she goes about explicating the shape of such an economics of noncompetitive gift-giving, problems begin to sprout up all over the place.  Tanner argues that “the Persons of the Trinity give to one another without suffering loss; each continues to have what it gives to the others.”  Thus, for her it follows that “we too, then, should give to others out of our own fullness.”  What Tanner cannot embrace is any notion that our giving to others might come at a cost to ourselves.  Rather, “we do not give out of our poverty, but of what we have already received so as to work for the good of others in response to their need.”  We give out of our abundance, never out of lack.  Indeed, “giving to others…should not mean impoverishing ourselves.  Giving away should not be at odds with one’s continuing to have” (Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 93-94).  

For Tanner, the shape of the life of total giving to which the Christian is called by the triune God is not a life of sacrifice, but a life of non-needy fullness in which giving away need not cost or diminish us in any way.  Rather than calling us to self-denial, the gospel of God’s gift-giving calls us to see that “self-assertion, the effort to realize ones own perfection and good, therefore need not be at odds with concern for the needs of others.”  This orientation leads Tanner to argue for the formation of a “community of mutual fulfillment in which each effort to perfect oneself enriches others’ efforts at self-perfection.” (Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 94).  She is emphatic on these points, consistently insisting that “giving to others and having oneself are simply not in competition with one another in a theological economy” (Economy of Grace, 83).   Indeed, for Tanner, if our giving to others is taken advantage of, if our ability to posses what is ours is imperiled by our sharing it, we have every right to exclusive possession of ourselves and our goods, and the right to protect them violently.  If other persons “don’t advantage you, they void their ownership of you, leaving you now in exclusive possession of yourself, with rights of self-protection against them.”  Indeed for Tanner it is axiomatic that all have the “exclusive right of self-protection against those who would harm you” (Economy of Grace, 82).

Thus, at the end of the day, despite protestations to the contrary, Tanner’s theological economics is simply a dressed up advocacy of philanthropy.  It is premised on the notion that what we have is to be given away only insofar as such giving does not diminish us.  We give to those in need out of our fullness, not in any way that costs us anything.  For her, the ultimate enemy is the thought of having to give something up.  Self-limitation, self-denial, self-sacrifice, these are councils of despair and evil in Tanner’s eyes.  For her “giving should not be at odds with one’s continuing to have.”  Rather we should all simply realize that we need to bring about a some sort of paradisical community “in which each effort to perfect oneself enriches others’ efforts at self-perfection” (Economy of Grace, 84).

In contrast to Tanner’s insistence that we need never suffer or give anything up, Rowan Williams offers us a much different account of the implications of the triune life of gift-giving for the shape of our own lives.  Williams argues that, “If the substance of the gospel has to do with God’s giving up possession or control – in Paul’s language, the Father giving up or giving over the Son to the cross, or Christ giving up his ‘wealth’, security, life for the sake of human beings – then the speech appropriate to this must renounce certain kinds of claims and strategies.”  Williams argues, contrary to Tanner, that the shape of God’s self-giving in Christ places distinctly self-limiting and self-sacrificial demands on those who would follow Christ.  As Williams argues, “I can either attempt to close off my vulnerability or I can so work with it as to show the character of God.”  (Rowans Williams, On Christian Theology, 257-259).  Here Williams recognizes precisely what Tanner wishes to close her eyes to, namely that we live in essential vulnerability.  Her longings for a community of mutual fulfillment where we all get to have everything we want is precisely the desire to flee from the vulnerability of creaturehood. 

Tanner falls into the trap which Williams sees so clearly of assuming, “that we possess a territory to be safeguarded”.  Williams is absolutely right that, in contrast to Tanner, “the gospel of the resurrection proposes that ‘possesion’ is precisely the wrong, the corrupt and corrupting, metaphor for our finding our place in the world.  What we ‘possess’ must go; we must learn to be what we receive from God in the vulnerability of living in (not above) the world of change and chance” (On Christian Theology, 273-274).  It is precisely this world of change and chance which thrusts us into vulnerability and neediness that Tanner cannot stand, insisting instead on the right of self-protection and insulation from that world.

Likewise, Arthur McGill argues, in contrast to Tanner that philanthropy can never be the shape of the love manifested to us in Christ.  He argues that “Jesus does not identify love primarily with producing good in the lives of others.  Not does he equate it with what we call ‘philanthropy,’ that is, the giving of surplus wealth or surplus time to help others.  On the contrary a man only begins to love as Jesus commands when he gives out of what is essential to him, out of what he cannot ‘afford.’  For Jesus, it is the deliberate and uninhibited willingness to expend oneself for another that constitutes love” (Arthur McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, 55).  

This notion of love as self-expenditure is precisely what Tanner cannot countenance.  For her, our gift-giving must always be out of our abundant surplus, never out of what is essential to us.  And of course, Tanner will point out that such a notion of love as self-expenditure will lead to the mortification of the self.  If you completely and prodigally give yourself away, holding nothing back, then you will eventually get used up and die.  As McGill states directly, “Of course, if you live in this way, you will be used up by others.  Of course, they will take everything you have.  That is why you should expect this self-expenditure to lead sooner or later to your death” (Suffering, 55).

What is at work in the contrast between the philanthropy of Tanner on the one hand, and the self-expending vulnerability of Williams and McGill on the other is a profoundly different theological consrtual of what it means to be truly alive.  For Tanner, being alive means being in possession of one’s self, able to freely give to others without cost to oneself.  For Williams, being fully alive means casing oneself in the same mode of self-dispossessing kenotic love that is manifested in the cross of Christ.  “We are to offer our lives as a sacrifice to the Father, as Christ did, and to follow the pattern of self-emptying or non-grasping embodied in Christ” (On Christian Theology, 254).  Likewise, for McGill, “being dynamically alive does not consist heaping up treasures or achievements or reputations for oneself.  It consists in expending oneself for others.”  In contrast to Tanner, there is no ethic of self-perfection and self-possession appropriate to the Christian faith.  If we take Christ seriously, we must insist that it is self-expenditure for the sake of the other that is the very flourishing of our humanity.  “Self-expenditure is self-fulfillment.  He who loses his life is thereby finding it.  Loving is itself life, and not just a means to life.  He who expends himself for his neighbor, even to death truly lives.  But he who lives for himself and avoids death truly dies. ‘He who does not love remains in death.’” (Suffering, 57)

It is precisely this understanding, embodied by Williams and McGill that conforms to the gospel in all its foolishness.  While Tanner’s construal of non-sacrificial giving sounds utterly reasonable to modern ears, McGill’s call to complete and total self-expenditure sounds worthy of scorn.  And that is precisely how Williams’ and McGill’s accounts of the Christian life conform to the gospel in way that Tanner’s fundamentally does not.  They call us into the life of “having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:10) in which  we are called to precisely the sort of foolishness that would insist that the greatest love possible is to lay down one’s very life.  There is no way to make the call to self-expenditure palatable.  It is simply the shape of the gospel.  We can either fall up that rock and be broken or wait for it to fall on us and be crushed.  And we will indeed be blessed if we are not offended on account of the one who calls us into his life of self-dispossesion and kenosis.  For it is only in the complete surrender of our lives that we discover the fullness of life abundant.


  1. adamsteward wrote:

    Grand post! I’ll just think a few things after you here.

    Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, 30 but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10.29-30).

    In light of this passage, I think we can risk saying tentatively that we do retain what we give to others, but that is only insofar as we are all members of the one body of Christ. The body is fed, but I myself, insofar as I am still able to think of myself as an individual, am indeed impoverished. Our having everything comes as a result of our participation in the body of Christ, but that participation can happen only at the expense of a radical disruption of a self that can draw boundaries around what belongs to it versus what belongs to others.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Indeed, Adam. I think the problems begin when we rush to specify how we won’t really lose anything in Christ. While that is true, I think it plays to quickly to our desire to control the shape of our lives. The only way we get to the “hundred times as much” is through being de-possessed. And, the “much more” that the gospel bestoys on us is just as much a disruptive surprise that is not what we might have initially expected or desired.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Ben Myers wrote:

    Great post, Halden, and I reckon your critique of Kathryn Tanner’s economy book is spot on. Love the new blog-design, too.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Ben. I was curious what you’d think of my critique of Tanner. Glad to hear I wasn’t totally off base!

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  5. This is coming out of left field, but it’s what came to mind, so I’ll throw it in for a bit of added texture.

    Culturally, utter self-giving has very different connotations from the male point of view than it does from the female perspective. As a fellow (in the gendered sense) what came to my mind as you talked about self-giving and sacrifice through the post were images of giving of myself in monetary or temporal fashion. I wonder if “unrestricted self-giving” might have more sexual connotations for a female reader (who are unfortunately more scarce in the blogosphere).

    I’ve heard both Augustine and Luther criticized from a feminist perspective for construing pride as the cardinal sin. When we hear sermon after sermon about the danger of pride and self-assertion, and about how we ought to lay ourselves down for others, the men of the congregation might be rightly convicted while a few abused and down-trodden women are only further cemented in the cycle of self-loathing and submission.

    I wonder then, if the gender of the theologians under discussion might be more than incidental to the positions that they are holding. I haven’t read Tanner, and I’m not sure if she addresses it, but I wonder if self-respect (and a measure of self-defense) might be more a virtue and less a temptation for women than men.

    Anyway, thank you Halden for another good post.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  6. roflyer wrote:

    Excellent post, Halden, and perfect timing as I’m reading Tanner’s Jesus, Humanity, and Trinity right now. Ericdarylmeyer’s comment is exactly the kinds of issues this post raises. What does a life wholly centered on self-giving look like for a woman in an abusive relationship, the underpaid worker, etc. In other words, what does this mean for our conception of justice? Gerald Schlabach, one of my professors, wrote a great book called For the Joy Set Before Us, which provides a compelling account of a reconciliation of self-love and self-denial in Augustine.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Ben Myers wrote:

    No, I definitely don’t think you’re “off base”. I like all Tanner’s stuff, and I also like the mere fact that she’s written a whole book on theological economics. But in the end, her “economy of grace” has far too much (basically Keynsian) economy and not enough grace, so that it doesn’t really achieve a radically theological critique of the existing economy. So anyway, I really appreciate the way you bring Rowan Williams into the whole discussion.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 12:46 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I couldn’t agree more, Ben. I too like Tanner’s stuff alot. It just needs to be as you say, much more radically theological.

    Ry and Eric make excellent points. I’m not sure how, as a white male to address such things in a totally satisfactory way. The one thing that I know for sure is that insofar as I do not embrace the kind of logic of sacrifice that I see McGill and Williams putting forward, I remain part of the very problem that makes such gender related issues so thorny. I feel like all I can do is throw myself back upon such an ethic and hope that it will bear the fruits of redemption in those spheres. But indeed, I have no answers. And how could a white male have satisfactory answers to such questions anyway? I can only hope that calling for a community of cruciformity will perhaps provide the resources to speak to such issues in a way that I cannot.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 12:53 am | Permalink
  9. Ben Myers wrote:

    On a related note, I don’t suppose you’ve yet read Philip Goodchild’s new book, The Theology of Money? I haven’t read it yet myself, but I like the look of it — and I was blown away by Goodchild’s chapter on the ontology of money in the Davies/Milbank/Zizek volume on Theology and the Political. (Goodchild’s approach in that essay is summed up in one memorable sentence: “There is only one important ontological question: What is money?”)

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 12:54 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Not yet, I’m afraid. I did really enjoy his article in that volume and I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far of his Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety. Good stuff indeed. You might also be interested in D. Stephen Long’s new book Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics, and Economics. It’s quite good in furthering the theological “filling out” of a distinctively Christian notion of economy.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  11. Ben Myers wrote:

    Thanks, I’ll definitely get that Stephen Long book as well.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Yes, he actually quotes the very statement you just mentioned from Goodchild, and offers a critique of Tanner’s book as well (brief though it is). His earlier book Divine Economy is also excellent. Definitely a stand-out in the RO series.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 1:06 am | Permalink
  13. Bobby Grow wrote:


    I’ll have to read the post, later, I just wanted to say I like the new look . . . I actually used the exact same picture, the dove, for my header on one of my past blogs. What are the odds of that ;-) hehe.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 2:47 am | Permalink
  14. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    say, whatever happened to “the weekly hauerwas?”

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I kinda let that one slide. Thanks for the reminder, I’ll see if I can revive that one soon.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  16. bruce hamill wrote:

    glad you guys are reading Stephen Long. His book in the middle between the two aforementioned ones… on ‘the Goodness of God’ stands me in good stead too.

    Sunday, February 17, 2008 at 1:03 am | Permalink
  17. Andy Rowell wrote:

    Halden and Friends,

    Thanks for the edifying discussion.

    Chris noticed your post and has a good discussion at:

    which is how I was directed here. I will leave the same comment I left there.

    I am writing a paper for Dean Greg Jones at Duke Divinity School on Rowan Williams and am reflecting a lot on what I call his ethical discernment oriented by martyrdom. I am sympathetic with the psychological sensitivity of Tanner toward abused women, etc.

    My tiny addition to the conversation would be to put Williams in context. I think Chris is right in assuming that Williams is basically always writing for the one who tends to be prideful (i.e. elite, highly educated people – look at his style of writing!) That is his background and his position. Every time that Williams is talking about martyrdom, he is trying to see Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants appreciate one another and liberal and conservative Anglicans appreciate one another – to set aside their “self-respect” for greater unity. In the eight books that I have read by him (On Christian Theology, Lost Icons, Ray of Darkness, Why Study the Past, Writing in the Dust, Resurrection, Wound of Knowledge and Tokens of Trust), I have never heard him really discuss relational dynamics like living with an abusive husband or being employed under an abusive boss. I think Tanner has some of those things more directly in view though I think the comments by those of you above are instructive.

    All the best,

    Andy Rowell
    Th.D. Student
    Duke Divinity School

    Monday, February 18, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  18. Dagnytag wrote:

    Now this will be TOTALLY out of left field, as I am not in any way connected to the field of theology (or economics, for that matter), but merely a prospective Ph.D candidate in the field of Children’s Literature who was directed to Kathryn Tanner by Dr. Mark Knight of Roehampton, in regards to my analysis of pre-death immortality in Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (viz, that the book speaks more against capitalism than religion).

    I find the question of how identity and experience determine (or at least influence) stance very interesting, and the whole white-male vs. abused woman (for instance) reminds me of a similiar conflict that I’ve seen in my twelve-step group, Adult Children of Alcoholics.

    As an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous, ACoA uses AA’s famed 12 Steps, changed marginally if at all, so that you get the same directives being spoken and adhered to by both the victimizer and the victim. In my view, this not only presents problems in theory, but does damage in practice. While for alcoholics in AA it is imperative to relinquish control, make a moral self-inventory, and make amends with those they have harmed, for us on the other end it makes no sense at all. (It is true that some ACoA members are themselves alcoholic, but generally speaking we are the children of or spouses of alcoholics.) I can personally attest that reading aloud my commitment to “make a list of persons I have harmed”, and so on, only compounds my sense of injustice, and triggers my self-protective mechanisms–not because I have never harmed anyone, of course, or have no use for a moral inventory, but because the harm that has been done to me, by the people that these steps were created for, and that has never been addressed or acknowledged by the outside world, is exactly what put me there to start with. I liken it to slaves reading out loud how they should stop enslaving people.

    So, in short, it seems to me that Williams’ and Tanner’s divergent counsels cannot be applied across the board, pragmatically speaking, and perhaps should not be theologically speaking, either. Forgive my total ignorance on the subject (I was raised an atheist by atheists, and surrounded by atheists…), but is there no directive for people in your belief system to search themselves for points of defect or unwholeness and seek to correct it? And wouldn’t that lead prideful/possessive/ controlling/affluent Christians to follow Rowan Williams’ line of correction, and overly obeisant, weak, or timid Christians to follow Tanner’s? There would seem to me to be nothing in the Bible that militates absolutely in either direction: yes, Christ did “empty himself out”, in a manner of speaking, for humanity, to the extent that he died for it–but on the other hand, he walked in a state of total grace and divinity, which presumably is a pretty “full” state of being. From what I understand, God is an infinite source, and Jesus had direct access to that. So we cannot necessarily compare him with people who have had little access to grace of whatever kind in their lives, for whatever reason, and demand that they self-sacrifice accordingly.

    Or maybe we can. My point is only that it doesn’t necessarily follow from Jesus’s example.

    My proposed PhD, by the way, looks at unChristian modes of immortality in children’s lit, and as part of my argument I will be exploring the ramifications of desert-tribe religions being imposed on non-desertous ecologies (!! that sounds awfully high-falutin’ all of a sudden), so if any of you learned fellows have thoughts about it, send them along.

    Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

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