Down in the Fragile Connections and Networks of Life
An Interview with Gregory Walter about his new book:
Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice
Interviewed by Chris Enstad
Gregory Walter’s book is small but has vast consequences for the church in our understanding of grace as a gift especially when it comes to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Walter walks us through a spectacular set-up for the Eucharist beginning with the meaning of “promise” and “gift”, promise AS gift, the weakness and fragility of the Gift and all leading up to a brilliant topology of promise particularly as it relates to the Eucharist. The very recitation of the words, “In the night in which He was betrayed” set us up as a community for the act of promise in the midst of betrayal. The meaning of this gift is, then, left not up to us as we are wont to do but up to *God*. This whole line of theology, if followed, promises (!) to enact another reformation in our understanding of promise, gift, the neighbor and God.
Walter took some time to answer a few questions about his work for us:
Much has been written, read and discussed in theological circles regarding the theology of gift. I think about Milbank through Calvin, then Luther’s Happy Exchange up to and including Derrida and Peter Rollins. What aspect of “gift”, particularly in relationship to the promise, are you hoping to lift up in your own work?
I want to consider promise as the kind of gift most of these writers have sought and the one most salutary to creaturely life. This means that I am not willing to consider gift as a kind of catch-all for what is special about Christianity even though the long theological tradition equates grace and gift. One of the reasons language and practices of gift have so much cache owes to the basic human experience of the web of relationships that characterize gift exchange. We are given, we receive, and we return. Though many people debate why we live this way and why we might feel the obligations to receive, give, and return the gifts that flow between us, the fact of this remains. Marcel Mauss called a “total social fact” that means that almost every dimension of our lives as social creatures (or, theologically, as creatures created together in one great web we call the world) is governed by the gift.
I have tried to articulate how God’s promise of the Crucified One engages this gift, is dirty and down in the fragile connections and networks of life, yet holds out hope for repair of injury and reconciliation. Some theologians try to show how the gift holds out hope by skating above it all, by transcending the impurity of our obligations and failures but my attempt to describe promise show show it is weak, fragile, and fully part of this creation, though going beyond it in the possibility it holds out.
If creation is a sort of grace, then promise is the kind of grace that repairs or holds out a chance that the failures of that initial grace of existence and life together can fit together despite their actuality.
In your writing you bring us into conversation with Martin Heidigger. Tell us how his philosophy and theology informs your own and what our reading might teach us about promise and gift in light of our own experience and understanding?
I am nervous about my conversation with Heidegger because I’m not sure where he is always going to lead! His late work has called attention to the atrophy of our attention to “place.” Though Heidegger hardly is alone in asking us to attend to place, he does so by discussing place as the result of gift-exchange. Place is a way to think about location and time without having to use the modern traditions of space separated from time in all of their abstraction. In a way, the turn to place in my theological work is similar to the turn to the local in ecological thought. Heidegger can give us a way to think carefully about place and how each locale and configuration and even each sort of thing (this cup, this paten) can create and open up possibilities that we would miss if we thought that the Eucharistic action were indifferent to its location.
Your book is pointedly a theological document and I noted that it leaves questions of a practical nature to the side. I can’t help but notice, however, that the implications of your work do call into question the Christian community’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper as well as the Stranger or the “other”. Tell us where a work such as Being Promised might lead an inquiring individual or community?
In one way the book is entirely about practice since it is a consideration of gift exchange, recognition, power, time, and Eucharist. But on other senses of practice my argument about promise requires certain extensions. Nowhere is this extension more needed in the book than my discussion of the Eucharist. There I show how Christ is a weak host. I do not think this means that the Eucharist, whenever celebrated is always a space or temporary community where there is no coercion, where there are no outsiders.
Instead of this pure space, the Supper is a critical impulse that requires the community that lives from it and declares it to first recognize its betrayal — the beginning of my exposition of the liturgy with attention to the betrayal of the community points this out . And so the Supper does not let the congregation or community off the hook. It neither endorses whatever scheme of hospitality that the congregation exercises nor does it pretend that the congregation can simply sidestep its efforts at engaging hospitality by claiming that they are not the hosts but Christ is. He is a weak host and exposes the congregation’s failures, asking them to repent and repair their practices. One should note that nowhere in the discussion of Christ as weak host do I extend this to the community. This is an extension that I need to consider, that is, how promise and Christian community and practice more generally interact. Taking this up shall make more clear the relation between promise and ordinary Christian practice. One can put these things together from the last two sections of each of the chapters of the book but I think a more explicit engagement of practice can make this clear.
What are your hopes for your readers?
Everyone needs a critical vocabulary for discussing grace, gift, and promise. In this book I hope my readers can uncover and have more tools at hand for making sense of how others and they themselves use promise. This is especially important because of how I show that the God who promises exercises weak power rather than a kind of strong promise in which God can glide above the risks and terrors of being promised.