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.