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Simple, Binding Gifts

I find a common confusion in the use of the phrase “free gift.”  Someone gives a free gift, properly speaking, if he was not bound to give it.  No legal constraint or moral obligation or physical coercion dictated the gift.  The giver gave it freely, perhaps because it struck him as good, or he felt pity. But people get confused and think that a “free gift” means that the recipient is not bound through receiving it.  All gifts bind, however. There is no such thing as a gift with “no strings attached.”

The bindingness of gifts is attested to in so-called “gift economies,” such as the mafia.  You simply do not want a “free” gift from a mafioso, as you will eventually be asked to repay, on the mafioso’s terms.

Or consider flatterers, who lose their freedom because they do not see how the binding works in their case.  They think that by saying what the boss wants to hear, they gain control over the boss, who now has to show them favors.  But the boss recognized that the flatterer only said what was supposed to please him – he never regarded it as a free gift – while he thinks his own indulgence of the obviously craven flatterer is a free gift.  Thus, in his eyes the flatterer becomes successively more bound, even as the flatterer misguidedly presumes he is getting more and more control.

If I had to place my finger on the false idea of our time, the root of all other heresies, it would be that gifts do not bind.  Perhaps the idea had its origin long ago in the Protestant assertion of salvation by faith, not works. What that declaration was supposed to mean is that we do not earn our salvation or otherwise obligate God to save us, say, by obedience to the ceremonial law.  Salvation is a free gift.  God was not constrained to save us.  He did so of his own mercy.  But it does not follow that once we are saved, if we are, that we are not seriously bound as a result.

I’ll leave it to you to trace out how “autonomy,” our lack of care for the common good, the general expectation of free stuff, our attitudes towards public debt and future generations, the general preference for “spirituality” over “religion” (i.e., being bound) – how these and other bad attitudes flow from this central falsehood.

Of course, if we at least implicitly recognize that gifts do bind, then, to extricate ourselves from bonds, and to “cast their cords from us” (Psalm 2:3), it becomes necessary to deny that what we have received is a gift.  It was the result of chance, or necessity.

Christian “universalism,” the view that God can’t help but save his rational creatures, that his moral nature requires it, is a vast exercise in denying the reality of the gift of salvation.  It thereby sets its adherents free from any obligation to act in response.

All human life is a free gift from God, of course. And that you have this particular life, that you are you, rather than someone else, is also a gift.  But one way of construing Christian marriage is that it clarifies and testifies to the gratuitousness.  The inherent consequences of a process or state into which we freely enter, we also freely will.

Read more at The Catholic Thing

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