Friday, February 4, 2011

Can Pleasure Be Found in Charis

In the last post I spoke about what Aristotle recognized as the defining characteristic to Charis which was reciprocity.  My good buddy Webster’s dictionary provides us with a better understanding of reciprocity when viewed against the synonyms of mutual and common. 

Reciprocity implies an equal return or counteraction by each of two sides toward or against or in relation to the other; Mutual applies to feelings or effects shared by two jointly; Common does not suggest reciprocity but merely a sharing with each other.”

In common every day terms I’m going to reduce reciprocity to the concept of giving – you give something and you get something in return.  Notice I said that I’m reducing it to this concept.  Charis is much broader in scope, but we have to start somewhere with the intention that we’ll build up from there.  And what is a better place to start than with an action that everyone loves to benefit from?  Tell me of a person that doesn’t love getting a gift.  I certainly do, and yes, I get great pleasure out of receiving them as I’m sure most of you do.  Yet I want you to understand what I mean when I say charis-pleasure when talking about an act of charis.  Bonnie MacLachlan describes this charis pleasure as follows:

Charis bound people together in the archaic Greek world, the experience of pleasure.  Before the Greeks became citizens of a polis, when new and more complex levels of loyalty and obligation became operative, the distribution of favors and good behavior – such things that went by the name of charis – was enforced with a vigor that in unknown to us.  We are familiar with charity that is voluntary and self-denying but, by the same token, was never confined to the self.  The exchange of charis-favors was founded upon a very general psychological phenomenon, the disposition to return pleasure to someone who has given it.  This pleasure exchange was accepted as a serious social convention . . . the charis-convention amounted to a lex talionis, but of a positive sort.”

So let’s look at this charis-convention.  Reciprocity, the equal giving and taking of favors (or gifts according to our reduction of the concept) was a serious exchange of pleasure.  I know that that sounds a bit strange at first but let me ask you this: Do you, or someone you know, get more pleasure out of giving a gift than receiving it?  I know of a couple of people that get more wrapped up in the wrappings than in the receiving of the gift.  And when I get something from them, I make it a point to make sure that I open it in front of them because half of my joy in the gift is watch how they respond to me opening it.  Conversely, I know of a few people that love to get gifts and it’s always a treat to watch them open a gift whether from me or anyone else.

Now notice that this charis-convention was social in nature.  It never happened away in a closet, it was in front of people that would recognize its function.  That means that this transaction had the ability to create a level of honor among the community that witnessed it.  What I mean by this besides the obvious definition of honor, is that it set up an expectation of completion within the community by the nature of reciprocity.  Example:  Joe gives a gift to Ted while their friend Bill is watching.  The exchange is marked by warm, sincere adoration.  This exchange creates an expectation within Bill to see Ted return the gesture and even greater, Bill anticipates that Joe may extend to him a similar recognition.

I realize that some of you might take issue with the above example citing that it’s too simple.  That is intentional.  I know that human dynamics in a social arena run in myriad of directions, but this simple illustration show the workings of charis-pleasure and the honor that charis establishes within relationships.  There is pleasure in the giving and receiving of gifts – no one can deny that – yet there is an expectation of honoring the reception of the gift that also comes with the transaction.   This honoring the transaction is what we’ll at next time.

Grace and Peace to you!

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