Today is my birthday. In thinking about the tremendous gift of this singular, precious life that I enjoy, I’m filled with gratitude for the many people and events that have created and nurtured this gift. Like all of us, I owe an immeasurable debt to all that has massively preceded and surrounded me to make “me” possible in every moment of my existence; an immeasurable debt to that “all” that I name “God.”
Or do I?
What does it mean to owe such a debt? David Graeber has written a massive tome exploring that question and why this sense of gratitude is framed in terms of owing a debt. He quotes from the Brahmanas:
In being born every being is born as debt owed to the gods, the saints, the Fathers, and to men. If one makes a sacrifice, it is because of a debt owing to the gods from birth . . . If one recites a sacred text, it is because of a debt owing to the saints . . . If one wishes for offspring, it is because of a debt due to the fathers from birth . . . And if one gives hospitality, it is because it is a debt owing to men. – Satapatha Brahmana 1.7.12, 1-6 (Graeber, p. 43).
Graeber notes that this Indian text is written between 500 and 400 BCE – around the time of Socrates. This is about the time that a commercial economy and institutions liked coined money and interest-bearing loans are becoming commonplace features of ordinary life. The intellectual classes in all of the Axial Age civilizations are grappling with the implications: “What does it mean to imagine our responsibilities as debts? To whom do we owe our existence” (Graeber, p. 67)?
In commenting on this Indian text, Graeber offers a contemporary formulation. “We owe our existence above all:
- · To the universe, cosmic forces . . . The ground of our existence. To be repaid through ritual: ritual being an act of respect and recognition to all that beside which we are small.
- · To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most, that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape . . . We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
- · To our parents, and their parents – our ancestors. We repay them by becoming ancestors.
- · To humanity as a whole. We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence life, possible” (Graeber, p. 67).
Graeber goes on to note, however, that this primordial debt is actually nothing at all like a commercial debt. Our relationship with “God” and with creation, including humanity, is nothing like a commercial transaction. Perhaps that is the point: the absurdity of thinking of our responsibility to these relationships as a kind of debt. Why does Graeber think this?
Commercial transactions imply both equality and separation for purposes of the exchange. But the examples given in the Brahmanas are about overcoming separation: becoming a sage, becoming an ancestor, acting with humanity to become human – thereby canceling any notion of “debt.” Second, one cannot bargain with the gods because they already have everything, or with the universe because it is everything – including me.
The list of primordial debts actually undermines the idea of debt, by showing that one is in fact not separate to begin with, but rather a part of the whole. One is in no way equal to “God” or the universe and therefore has no place from which to gain any leverage in a transaction of any kind. Perhaps the point in enumerating this list of primordial debts is actually to recognize that it is utter presumption to seek to achieve a separate, autonomous existence from which I can bargain with “God” or cancel my obligations to others by paying a debt. It isn’t just that the debt cannot be repaid, but that they very idea of being able to stand over and against the rest of reality, such that I would be in a position to negotiate a transaction that would settle my responsibilities once and for all, is absurd.
As Graeber puts it, “Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is the presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place” (Graeber, p. 68).
I wonder if the New Testament language of Jesus’ death and resurrection being a ransom setting us free from slavery (the ultimate form of indebtedness) doesn’t operate in a similarly paradoxical fashion: Jesus cancels our “debt” to demonstrate the absurdity of our thinking we are separate from God and one another in the first place. There is no debt. There is only gift. Do we have eyes to see it? Will we respond with gratitude? Or will we remain locked in futile attempts to pay a primordial debt?
Life isn’t all debt. It is all gift. And that is something else entirely. I don’t wish to pay a debt so as to cancel a relationship (or have it paid for me). I wish to share the gift so as to deepen the relationship with everyone and everything.
The Kingdom of God as cosmic debt cancellation policy: I’m down with that!