The gift in theology: Unilateralism and reciprocity in Kathryn Tanner’s and John Milbank’s theology of gift

Article by Filip Rasmussen in Studia Theologica.

In recent years, many theologians, philosophers, and anthropologists have turned to the simultaneously intriguing and problematic question of the possibility of “the gift”. This article compares the way the latter figures and is developed for constructive purposes in the theology of Kathryn Tanner and John Milbank. After having explained the background of the current resurgence of gift-language in the work of Marcel Mauss and Jacques Derrida, the article examines how Tanner and Milbank answer the concerns of the latter and highlight their very different emphases on unilateralism and reciprocity, respectively. As an answer to a question posed by Sarah Coakley, I argue that the differences between Milbank and Tanner, between “purified” gift exchange on the one hand and “unilateral” gift on the other, are more rhetorical than substantial. Nevertheless, I also argue that there is a tension between unilateralism and reciprocity in Tanner’s theology which comes down to a problem of relationality. I argue that Milbank solves this problem in a better way, and that Tanner’s account might be adjusted by bringing themes of reciprocity, although implicitly present, more clearly to the surface, and by nuancing her notions of “pure” and “completely unilateral” gifts.