Should We Understand Grace in Altruistic or in Reciprocal Terms?

Alexander Massmann
Tuesday 20 April 2021
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion: Towards a Theological Account of Giving in Interdisciplinary Dialogue
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

1.1 Giving in Theology, Cultural Anthropology, and Biology

The New Testament word for grace, charis, can also be translated as gift. A gift is often understood as given “for free,” with no strings attached, moving along a one-way street. This is a popular view in Western culture, which praises altruism, shaped by both religious and philosophical traditions. Theological support comes from an understanding of God’s grace within part of the Reformation tradition (Hamm 2015).[1] On the other hand, following a classic book by Marcel Mauss (1990), cultural anthropologists argue that a different scheme has shaped human cultures, which
often view gift-giving as obliging and reciprocal. To identify the relevant subfield as economic anthropology (Hann 2006) could invite the rejoinder that Mauss contested precisely the differentiation between the economic and the moral spheres.

In theology, proponents of reciprocal giving contrast an account of human agents as deeply
socially embedded with a thinning out of social relations in the wake of the altruistic ideal. By contrast, advocates of the gratuitous understanding of giving point to social tensions implicit in reciprocal giving (Tanner 2005). On the whole, in theology, human giving should not be strictly separated from God’s, or the subfields of the
doctrine of God from theological anthropology and theological ethics: “the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie” (Calvin 1972, I.1.3).

The puzzle of giving, in which a theological account of giving is in dialogue with one from cultural anthropology, turns into a trilemma when the biological study of the behavior of our relatives in the animal realm, or ethology, is included. The account of God’s work as creator needs to be in a meaningful relationship with biological evolution, as the merciful God is none other than the creator God. Evolution, however, is stereotypically portrayed as “red in tooth and claw.” This popular view has undergone significant revision.[2] But not only does selfishness continue to play a prominent role in evolution. Examining reciprocity, we must also ask if evolution should in fact be analyzed primarily in terms of altruism and selfishness.

Further, if normative traditions envision human giving as altruistic, this phenomenon may
seem a minor theme in the history of the human species even if significant trends in human culture do not feature selfishness but reciprocity.[3] Moreover, a
God who gives unilaterally could
appear to enter the world as a fundamentally alien factor. The theological traditions concerned with salvation and eschatology then appear in tension with the concepts of creation and providence, which otherwise take the wider world as having always been shaped by the one faithful God besides whom there is no other. Critics have labeled such a theological tension as a “docetism in the doctrine of creation” (Pannenberg 1994, 60).

The problem becomes even more acute if we consider that human culture is less than the tip of the iceberg in the history of life. If our planet’s age, 4.5 billion years, were telescoped into one calendar year, the earliest signs of Homo sapiens 300,000 years ago would emerge only thirty-five minutes before midnight on December thirty-first. By contrast, the simplest bacterial life forms may have emerged roughly four billion years ago (Zimmer 2017), so life emerges between
mid-January and late March in our model. We should not mischaracterize evolution as all-out competition, yet if the hearts of moralists beat for altruism, the time scales are still strongly disproportionate. What concepts are there that help us make sense of giving within this wider scientific perspective? We should not reduce human giving to scientistic methods, but how do we portray human and divine giving in a way that does justice to deep history?

In tackling this puzzle,more consistent picture emerges if we see reciprocity as a prominent theme in animal behavior besides evolutionary selfishness. Already here it is important to distinguish reciprocity clearly from altruism or selfishness. Direct reciprocity can be decidedly pro-social, and generalized reciprocity can display aspects that are similar to altruism. However, reciprocity can also appear selfish. Reciprocity plays a prominent role among the social, non human primates. In human societies, further, reciprocity shapes the human cultural condition. Moreover, the theme of reciprocity is prominent in the theology of the Apostle Paul. To some extent, Paul also appreciates unilateral giving. However, I will draw attention particularly to the way Paul redefines the standards of value within reciprocal interactions. My hypothesis is that an appreciative analysis of reciprocity can defuse tensions between the theology of giving, cultural anthropology, and ethology. Theologically, I will argue for a transformation of the standards of value within reciprocity.

1.1 Altruistic Giving in Philosophy and Theology: Historical Background

A unilateral, altruistic ethic has assumed a prominent position in modern Western thought. Here theological themes have played a prominent role in philosophical classics. Immanuel Kant considers it a duty to “be beneficent where one can,” but he also affirms a “law … to advance one’s [own] happiness” (Kant 2011, 25, 27). It is the former that Kant singles out in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. He comments on the “pure moral disposition of the heart” (Kant 2018, 157) demanded in the Sermon on the Mount. Kant does not affirm a principle of altruism—a concept that Auguste Comte coined half a century after Kant’s death (Dixon 2013). Nevertheless, Kant highlights a costly ethos: moral action is motivated by reason, and reason stands out in overcoming sensual inclinations and bearing the cost (Kant 2001, 185–186). This is how Kant interprets enemy love, which overcomes any “sweet feeling of revenge” and turns “the hatred of one’s enemies into beneficence” (Kant 2018, 157–158).

John Stuart Mill considers the Golden Rule in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12) “the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality” (Mill 1969c, 218). While the interpretation of the rule is a matter of debate, the prosocial aspect does not go so far as to sacrifice self-interest.[4] By contrast, Mill views self-interest with suspicion when discussing Comte’s zeal for altruism. As long as there is no external coercion, Mill argues, “there cannot be too much” altruism (Mill 1969a, 338). His “Religion of Humanity” encourages a selfless pursuit of the happiness of others. For him, the “promises and threats regarding a future life” in many Christian traditions appeal to selfishness (Mill 1969b, 422).

Jacques Derrida extends the tradition of altruism into the late twentieth century and beyond. For him, a gift does not elicit a return gift but is strictly one-directional. Derrida’s understanding of the gift is decidedly “aneconomic” (Derrida 1994, 7) because it fundamentally contradicts giving in response to a gift or even the acknowledgment of a gift—the very foundations of economic life. The logic of the gift rules out any obligation to reciprocate, any entitlement on the giver’s part or even any recognition that a gift has been given (see also Arendt 2018, 74). This makes the gift “the impossible. The very figure of the impossible” (Derrida 1994, 7). Giving and receiving must be “forgotten,” and precisely when forgotten, gift-giving describes something profound about life: “Being (Sein)—which is not, which does not exist as being present/present being—is signaled on the basis of the gift” (Derrida 1994, 19). Without the gift, life would be reduced to economy, and yet it is not in any obvious, palpable way that life is otherwise than economy. In sum, notably in dialogue with the Sermon on the Mount, a significant strand in Western philosophy has come to understand altruism not merely as an absence of selfishness. Rather, the moral value of giving stands out when it amounts to a personal loss. Giving is less laudable when some benefit for the giver is foreseeable or intended.

Karl Barth’s early work on Romans provides a theological parallel to these developments. Almost a century after Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (2010/1922), exegetical discussions of Paul will result in a different evaluation of reciprocity. Yet the early Barth conceives of God’s salvific activity in the world as an elusive reality that, despite its “impossibility” by human standards, is profoundly significant. Here Barth draws a connection between gift and death, a connection Derrida will posit in his own way as well. Having commented on the “gift” of justification in Romans 3:24, Barth views the gift as so rigorously “impossible” that it requires a negation of life:

That which would be an impossibility, a fraud as a human enterprise, is possible and legitimate as God’s deed … By that which human persons are not, they participate in what God is; in their death, God’s eternal light shines for them—brightly, truly, but always in what they are not, always exclusively in their death.[5]

Barth’s later doctrine of God, which partly foreshadows his doctrine of creation, reverses the negation of life.[6] Once attention shifts to the operation of grace within the realm of experience, the current puzzle becomes more acute: does an altruistic standard of giving define a sanctified life, which can seem a rare phenomenon and to be even less likely in evolution, in contrast to the more common, reciprocal pattern that Mauss describes? To suggest that empiricism settles ethical questions would of course amount to a genetic fallacy: to justify norms as moral, it is not sufficient to point to evolutionary or cultural trends that feature these norms (Nagel 1997). However, realism about the feasibility of moral norms is an important ingredient in a theology that is wary of too abstract a doctrine of creation.


2. Fields of Study

2.1 Giving from a Biological Perspective

2.1.1 Reciprocity in Animal Behavior

At first glance, perspectives from science may entrench this problem even further, as evolution is sometimes described in zerosum terms, favoring selfishness over altruism. Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene popularized a thoroughly “selfish,” competitive understanding of evolution. For instance, he suggests that in evolution, females are essentially “hard-working and exploitable parents to one’s children” (Dawkins 2016, 87). However, the second edition pedals back: “mates are likely to be engaged in a nonzero sum game, a game in which both can increase their winnings by cooperating, rather than one’s gain necessarily being the other’s loss” (Dawkins 2016, 397). Yet the question is if Dawkins’s revision has gone far enough. While competition continues to play a highly important role in evolution, reciprocity is very significant as well. The nonzero sum interaction of reciprocity may balance out the widespread interest both in evolutionary selfishness and in altruism, among humans and beyond.

So-called direct reciprocity is prominent notably in the great apes and in monkeys, but also in impala, rats, bats, and in certain birds and some species of fish (Nowak and Highfield 2011, chapters 1–3, Trivers 2006). An organism first reduces its own fitness by sharing resources or helping another organism; the beneficiary then provides a reciprocal benefit that compensates for the benefactor’s initial expense. Even in the plant kingdom, trees exchange nutrients reciprocally with fungi or with other trees. In an early study, vampire bats were observed to share food on a reciprocal basis. Those who return to the roost for the night, having drunk successfully, offer a ‘donation’ to those who have drunk little. The best predictor of which animal will receive in the future is which animal has given in the past (Carter and Wilkinson 2013).

Biologists often speak of tit for tat or quid pro quo when describing reciprocity, which may suggest a highly transactional, primarily self-interested process. However, more recent research indicates a less transactional reality when chimpanzees share food or support each other. Among captive chimps, close allies were observed to practice reciprocity less symmetrically than those maintaining a less close relationship (de Waal 2005). The strength of the existing bond appears to allow for a less precise match between benefit received and benefit provided. In the wild, scientists noted greater symmetry in chimp reciprocity the longer the interaction was observed (Gomes et al. 2009, Gomes and Boesch 2011, Gomes and Boesch 2009). Another study found that wild chimpanzees prefer to share food with those individuals with whom they are in an “enduring und mutually preferred” grooming relationship (Samuni et al. 2018b). Further, measurements of urinary oxytocin in this study suggested that chimps who share food regularly with a preferred partner feel a stronger emotional bond than those who share less often. Another study argues for emotional bonds regulating or coinciding with exchanges between male bonobos (Surbeck and Hohmann 2015).

2.1.2 The Case for Reciprocity in Evolutionary Biology: The Human Cultural Condition

Reciprocity among animals is especially relevant in primates, the closest living relatives of humans. Nevertheless, proponents of an altruistic ethos could argue that reciprocity in non-human animals is less relevant, due to a fundamental distinction manifest in uniquely human altruism. Here a discussion of Michael Tomasello’s answer to the question of why humans are so cooperative is helpful. It is my argument that reciprocity is of abiding ethical significance: it not only characterizes distant evolutionary processes, but reaches deeply into the human moral condition, contributing crucially to language and human cooperative norms.

Combining philosophical reflection with evolutionary and psychological studies, Tomasello compares humans and chimpanzees. He argues that norms of cooperation are firmly established in human life because in contrast to chimpanzees, humans experience the social world in terms of mutualistic, shared projects. This is also the crucial requirement for human language (Tomasello 2009, 52). Tomasello sees human collaboration encapsulated in the model of the stag hunt: a joint project that no one can do alone and that yields disproportionately large benefits. Such joint projects co-emerged with symbolic communication. Symbols are imbued with meaning only within the context of a shared project: I am not raising my hand to maintain my physical balance, but to point to an animal that we might hunt. By contrast, chimpanzees perceive their world in “I-mode,” without “‘we’ intentionality” according to Tomasello (2014, 3, 35), and this places symbolic communication out of reach. Further, in humans, the formative communal experience has even scaled up to a unique form of altruism: humans help others, share things, provide helpful information, and enforce community rules for the benefit of the group (Tomasello 2009, 5, 39).

Tomasello contends that basic mutualistic collaborations were highly formative for the communal mindset of early humans: everybody’s equal participation was required, so “cheating” was inherently impossible (2009, 54).[7] However, the problem with this position is that people may often pitch in less than others—making a less demanding contribution to the communal hunt, for example—but still try to share equally in the benefits. When chimpanzees hunt for monkeys collaboratively, they solve this problem based on reciprocity: those who make a more significant contribution receive a larger reward (Boesch 2002, Samuni et al. 2018a).[8] If every chimp were after the monkey on their own, those who merely blocked the monkey’s escape path—driving it towards the catcher but predictably failing to catch it themselves—would not receive rewards consistently. They do, however, so their hunt is a communal enterprise. Further, if contributors were rewarded based on equality rather than reciprocity, the catcher’s reward would be small compared to the much less demanding efforts by the driver and the blockers, and the experienced catchers might not bother participating. Reciprocity and the communal mindset, practiced during the hunt, emerge together. Chimpanzees even demonstrate their communal mindset in their communication, which is partly symbolic, albeit rudimentary. They sometimes communicate new information that is helpful to others, based on their knowledge of what other group members do not yet know.[9] Reciprocity helps chimpanzees achieve shared intentionality and symbolic communication, which Tomasello considers uniquely human.

Further, the readiness of young human children to help and share freely and indiscriminately may not simply be altruism, as Tomasello suggests, at least not in the specific sense of giving while not receiving. After all, young children are catered to around the clock by their families. Tomasello further sees their initial altruism turn into reciprocity as their help becomes increasingly selective at around three years of age (2009, 29). Yet the change in children’s helpfulness also corresponds to the fact that their all-around care is continually reduced. Increasingly, they develop a sense of self, observe and understand that some, typically members of their core social group, help them more than others. Children’s helpfulness appears to be reciprocal from early on, although in more generalized form: giving indiscriminately within one’s group while also receiving, with a weak discernment of individual contributions. Eventually giving becomes more targeted socially (Wörle et al. 2020, Greenspan 2003). The suggestion of generalized reciprocity is consistent with Tomasello’s observation that children do not appropriate norms in a secondary development, following parental authority and the hope to benefit from reciprocity; rather, children enforce social rules themselves from early on, based on a fundamental sense of a shared “larger ‘we’ intentionality” (2009, 39). Referring to Sarah Hrdy’s concept of allo-parenting, Tomasello also points to the group in which human prosociality appears to have evolved: from an anthropological and an evolutionary perspective, parents share the responsibility with aunts, grandmothers and others (Tomasello 2009, 84, Hrdy 2009). Finally, beyond more or less generalized reciprocity, humans also display a surplus of altruism, informing strangers of danger, for example. Yet the fundamental human communal mindset appears rooted in the wider family or the clan, which is governed by varying forms of reciprocity.

Language and human cooperative norms are highly distinct, yet they are rooted in a We-experience of reality that emerges together with reciprocity. Although the initial, more generalized reciprocity may be distinctly human as well, it should not be equated with altruism, and reciprocity itself is not strictly unique to humanity.

2.2 Cultural Anthropology: Zooming in on Human Reciprocity

The anthropological significance of reciprocity has of course attained prominence already in the work of the cultural anthropologist Marcel Mauss on “the gift” (1990 [1925], Hann 2006, Wilhoit 2017). In this context, the wider, evolutionary perspective on human reciprocity is fleshed out in terms of specific cultural practices. Mauss recovers a particular understanding of giving that has served as “one of the human foundations on which our societies are built” (Mauss 1990, 5). In the modern West, this view of giving has been eclipsed by a mindset that severs objects and services from personal connections. However, occasionally the more traditional understanding of giving shines through in today’s social interactions when a gift received implies an obligation to give in return (Komter 2004). Such giving in return, at once “disinterested and obligatory” (Mauss 1990, 42), responds to the abiding presence of the giver in the initial gift. Return gifts may even be expected to exceed the value of the initial gift. Within this framework, Mauss sees generous giving deeply rooted in traditional societies (1990, 50). Such giving creates obligations on the recipient’s side, yet it is not an encroachment on the recipient. Engaging in a “constant ‘give and take,’” “one ‘owes’ oneself—one’s person and one’s goods—to others” anyway (1990, 37, 59). Likewise, to refuse to receive a gift is out of the question. In giving a return gift, the right timing steers a path between two forms of ingratitude: waiting too long to give in return, which downplays the obligation to the giver, and an immediate return gift, which denies the giver’s generosity.

Mauss hopes to counteract a view of the person as fundamentally autarkic, fostering a wholesome, organic social fabric. Yet he also highlights how reciprocity sustains or encourages competition and self-interest, even destruction and violence in a veritable “war of property” (1990, 4, 8, 25, 37, 45–48). Ambitious people may dare others to keep up with their ostentatious giving. Mauss does not frown at strategic gifts (“do ut des,” 22), yet maintains that the traditional system of giving is a promising social vision for his own age; he regards negative aspects only as secondary distortions of a scheme that is good on the whole (1990, 54). In our wider context, it is further worth noting that in evolution, reciprocal giving is sometimes used for competitive purposes as well, for example, when a chimp alpha male distributes meat strictly among his supporters, excluding bystanders or those who support his rivals, regardless of entitlement or need (Nishida 2012, 239–240, 264–265, Packer 1977).

2.3 Giving in Theology

2.3.1 Biblical Interpretation: Reciprocal Giving in Paul

One of the more substantial recent contributions to the discourse on giving has been the interpretation of Paul by John Barclay (2015). Barclay untangles different aspects in Paul’s emphasis on God’s “gift” of grace. Paul thinks of grace as “prior” to and “incongruous” relative to human action, but in dialogue with Mauss, Barclay notably disputes that Paul thought of God’s gifts as “non-circular.” As the gift of grace subverts ethnic and cultural distinctions in Galatians, Barclay sees grace calling urgently for a Christian social life that is no longer organized according to such distinctions (2015, 443). God’s gift in Christ obliges recipients in a specific way, so it would be inappropriate to insist merely on mortification, as Barth did, rather than to call for some particular activity. It is not simply at the free discretion of Christians whether they respond positively to God’s gift. Discussing Romans, Barclay sees the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5) called for when ranking inclusion in Christ higher than dietary and ritual purity or in each Christian’s claiming their “spiritual gift” in contributing to the life of the congregation (2015, 516–517).

2.3.2 John Milbank’s Philosophical Theology: The Circularity of Created Life

John Milbank has played a crucial role in drawing attention to Mauss’s thought in the theological discourse on grace (Milbank 1995; 2003). Milbank regards reciprocal gift-giving as the grammar of God’s entire history with creation. As God’s gift-giving takes place first within the Trinity, as well as in God’s relationship to creation, creatures participate in the inner-trinitarian gift-giving by giving a return gift that they direct to God’s creatures. God’s gifts are not “for free,” but broadly follow the rules of traditional reciprocal giving. A proper response to a gift is another gift, given with delay, similar to but also different from the previous gift. Although one cannot give anything God does not yet have, God’s gifts oblige creatures to give in return. On the human social level, Milbank regards the rule of some societies that the return gift must exceed the previous gift as legitimate. In gift giving, people pursue not merely a material interest, but also “honour and prestige” (Milbank 1995, 126). However, givers are seeking not themselves, but a continuing, beneficial relationship: an expectation of some return insists on a concrete continuation of that relationship. Self-interest must not eclipse the benevolent character of the personal connection, however. Hearkening back to God’s own giving, the traditional grammar of human giving “will fold temporal linearity back into the eternal circle of the triune life” (Milbank 1995, 150).

For Milbank, the appearance of incongruous grace is due to God’s generosity within the largely intact pattern of giving that has always taken place. Barclay, by contrast, sees God’s grace as “unconditioned” rather than as an uninterrupted chain that has included human giving organically. However, Barclay agrees with Milbank that grace is “conditional,” which suggests that the gift becomes invalid in the absence of an appropriate response.

3. Discussion: Towards a Theological Account of Giving in Interdisciplinary Dialogue

3.1 Changed Standards of Reciprocity

The view of God’s gift and the human response, inspired by Mauss’s account of reciprocity, goes a long way to address the present theological puzzle: reciprocal giving is highly significant to being human, and within the creaturely practice of reciprocity, God’s grace is no longer utterly alien and foreign to the world, both in human societies and beyond. If, however, gifts are socially obliging, the risk also increases that the giving of powerful people may especially demonstrate their power or put others under obligation in self-serving ways (for instance, see Mauss 1990). The recipients of such gifts may be distressed by what the givers perhaps intended as benevolent and generous gifts. Those who are predictably giving return gifts which are less appreciated may also end up excluded socially (Komter 1996). The suggestion that such problems in giving are merely an excess, a secondary perversion of something essentially good, is insufficient here. Theologians should pay particular attention to the effects of sin on social institutions—while knowing that altruism in not immune to sin either.

The theology of Paul has emerged as crucial in discussing questions of reciprocity. Yet how precisely do reciprocity or altruism play out in Paul’s thought? While Paul lobbies Christians hard to respond properly to God’s grace (Volf 2009, 65), which urges the transformation of their lives, the characterization of God’s grace as conditional on future reciprocity contradicts as prominent a passage as Romans 5:6–11. Here Christ is described as having died for God’s “enemies.” If Christ’s death provides a benefit even for enemies, it may still rule out certain future behaviors (Rom. 6:1) while remaining valid regardless of the circumstances.

Nevertheless, God’s categorical gift does not do away with honor systems, which reserve respect for specific acts and gifts. Rather, God’s grace reshapes existing systems of honor in a paradoxical way. This point is commonly overlooked in theological discussions of the gift. Against a widespread striving for prestige through conventional religious works, Paul asserts “life in Christ as a new system of honor” (Jewett 2006, 344). Paul saw vainglory as a typical problem in Christian churches (Rom. 12:16, 2 Cor. 11:18.30, Gal. 5:26). Christ’s self-humbling rules out human insistence on one’s own special honor (Phil. 2). Yet the alternative cannot simply be described as generosity or mutuality. The suggestion that Christians should gladly honor others rather than seek honor does not sufficiently stress the asymmetry that Paul introduces into the very standards of honor.[10] The new honor system respects most those whose gifts are least respected (1 Cor. 12), in keeping with God’s revelation in the cross and the election of the disrespected (1 Cor. 1). Honor given to the dishonorable is part of the return gift to God. They are not honored “for free,” but their contributions to the body of Christ deserve recognition as God’s gifts (see also Williams 2016, 68, Brock 2019, ch. 9). Paul assumes that these gifts will in fact contribute to the church’s life due to the gift of the Spirit, as much as he reckons with the “power” of the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1). By contrast, those whose gifts are ordinarily respected anyway can well go without special honors (1 Cor. 12:21–24). A Christian re-claiming of traditional forms of reciprocal giving must emphasize the new role of the marginalized and critique the pursuit of honor and prestige by those who are already well-regarded by others.

3.2 Circling back to Biology: Gratuity in Animals

If reciprocity implies the temptation of competitiveness, a variation of the initial theological problem emerges again. Giving as practiced in fact among animals and people may not be in keeping with Paul’s transformation of reciprocity; they may pay greater attention to gains in status than Paul would advise. However, it is not simply contrary to nature in the biological sense to give without regard of prestigious return gifts. In the wild, bonobos—our closest “evolutionary cousins” together with chimpanzees—have been observed sharing food with members of a foreign group (Fruth and Hohmann 2018), even adopting orphans from foreign groups (Tokuyama et al. 2021). In one experimental setting, bonobos also preferred releasing an unrelated bonobo from an adjacent room and sharing their own food to eating alone, regardless of reciprocity (Hare and Kwetuenda 2020). In another experiment, bonobos donated their own food to strangers; they did not do so when they saw that an ensuing social interaction would not be possible (Tan and Hare 2013). Chimpanzees are less tolerant; sometimes they are downright aggressive towards strangers. Yet they can still be remarkably welcoming towards group members (de Waal 1997; see, however, Peterson and Wrangham 1997). In the wild they may adopt unrelated youngsters (Boesch et al. 2010, see also Wittig et al. 2014). This theme of one-sided prosociality is not as well-documented as reciprocity and competition, however, and should not be taken to support a one-sided case for unilateral giving.

Certainly competition continues to play a very significant role in evolution. This does not mean that evolution takes place only in zerosum conflicts, as the study of reciprocity shows. In addition, animals may occasionally initiate friendly relations by incurring at least a short-term deficit in Darwinian fitness. This has been spelled out with the concept of group selection, for example: if enough organisms in one group bear significant costs for others indiscriminately, then the group is likely to be successful and the prosocial organisms will not die out, at least in the short-term perspective (Traulsen and Nowak 2006, Sober and Wilson 1999). A similar dynamic has been referenced above with psychological studies of generalized reciprocity in humans, which helps explain altruistic acts towards non-group members.

4. Conclusion

Should we understand giving as coming with “no strings attached” or as contributing to an ongoing relationship in which the recipient incurs an obligation to give in return? For theologians, the question involves an account of grace and of God’s action. Since, moreover, trends in human giving are to some extent prepared in biological evolution and established in cultural practices, the follow-up question is how the operation of God’s grace towards humanity relates to the wider creation with its evolutionary and cultural trends. First, while evolution displays a significant selfish streak, it also features reciprocity, to which prominent human cultural trends run in parallel, even if they cannot be reduced to naturalistic explanations. Reciprocity has, moreover, played a highly significant role in the emergence of uniquely human cultural characteristics like cooperative norms and language. Secondly, a significant case has been made for a reciprocal grammar in God’s giving. Against this backdrop, God’s grace should not be understood as a foreign factor that erupts suddenly into creation. This account, however, still includes the dangers of competition inherent in reciprocal giving—both in Mauss’s depiction and in primate ethology. Moreover, a prominent text like Romans 5 portrays God’s grace as valid regardless of reciprocation. This does not result in an open contradiction between altruistic and reciprocal schemes of giving, but in a change in the standards of reciprocity: it is notably the disrespected whose gifts are to be honored, just as Paul sees God’s grace addressing the marginalized first of all. Finally, even the more generous mode of giving has precedents in evolution. Evolution provides motifs that can be recruited in the development of a Christian ethos, an ethos that is neither in contrast to nor identical with evolutionary and human cultural precedents. A Christian ethos works these motifs into a composition of greater complexity, as an element of gratuity in God’s giving transforms reciprocal interactions, for the greater honor of the disrespected.


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[1] For a different Lutheran understanding of the gift, see Saarinen 2017.

[2] Coakley 2012. While particularly interested in altruism, Coakley does not play off altruism against reciprocity.

[3] Among the thinkers embracing such a tension are Martyn 1997, Griffiths 2014, Ziegler 2018.

[4] According Luz (2007, 367), the moral function of the Golden Rule is heuristic, not motivational, and the moral substance is other-regarding, not equitable; but even that does not minimize self-interest.

[5] Barth 2010, 168–169. Barth comments on Romans 4:3–5; trans. A. M.

[6] In Barth 1957, 504–505, it is not justification, the receiving of the gift, but its opposite, sin, which defies understanding as an “impossible possibility.” Real lived life, not death, is in correspondence with God’s calling.

[7] Tomasello (2014, 37) has dropped the suggestion that at the beginning of human cooperation, cheating was impossible; considering reciprocal interactions fundamental in the emergence of human shared intentionality instead. Tomasello now suggests that cheating was discouraged by communication about people’s reputation. However, reputation management requires itself what it is meant to explain: shared intentionality and symbolic language. The thesis that shared intentionality only emerges with humanity unnecessarily complicates matters.

[8] Tomasello (et al. 2005, 722) objects that chimps hunt in “I mode,” as otherwise they would distribute the spoils equally. Yet that is not necessarily how genuine teams operate.

[9] Crockford et al. 2012, Seyfarth and Cheney 2012, Schel et al. 2013a, 2013b, Kalan et al. 2015, Crockford et al. 2015.

[10] In Romans 14:1–2, those who are “strong,” also in a social sense, are asked to include the “weak” (Jewett 2006, 834–835). So in Romans, too, the desired accommodation is not simply mutual (pace Barclay 2015, 510).

Cite this article

Massmann, Alexander. 2021. “Should We Understand Grace in Altruistic or in Reciprocal Terms?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 1).

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Alexander Massmann
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