The Dialogue of the Gift

Father Dumitru Staniloae suffered years of solitary confinement in a Romanian Communist prison. But it was within those sterile concrete walls that he developed –of all things!– a theology of beauty and and understanding of the message that the wonders of the natural world are communicating to us. In his writings, he points out that traditionally we have seen creation as saying something about God; his majesty, his artistry, his creativity, and his power. And of course all this is true, the heavens do indeed declare the glory of God. Creation is a theophany, a magnificent manifestation of the beauty and grace of the triune God.

However, Staniloae points out that while traditionally we have seen creation as saying something about God we have often failed to realize that creation is equally saying something about man, and this is summed up in his phrase, “the dialogue of the gift.”

He gives the example of gift giving that we are all familiar with at birthdays, anniversaries, or Christmas. If, for example, you give your wife a necklace on your 10th wedding anniversary, the gift itself is speaking, it is establishing a dialogue. It is saying “this is how much I value our relationship, this is how much you mean to me, this is how grateful I am that you share your life with me, this is how much I love you.” And the necklace says all this silently as she pulls the bow, opens the box, and joyfully handles the silver chain and the diamond pendant. The gift has established a dialogue between you, and this is what gift giving is all about.

Now if your wife works she probably could have saved some of her wages and gone out and purchased the necklace for herself and ended up owning the same piece of jewelry. She could even have asked the shop to gift wrap it for her so she could formally open when she was alone. But it would not speak. It would simply be an artifact: beautiful but mute. No dialogue would take place between her and the necklace because it was not a love gift.

Staniloae insists that creation is not only saying something about God but is equally saying something about man. It is saying the creation is essentially an extravagant love gift. When I give a necklace to my wife I am saying something about how much she is worth and in particular how much she is worth to me, how much she is loved by me, and how much the relationship is valued. This is the meaning of the gift. And this is what the extravagant love gift of creation is saying to every human person.

This gift in all its magnificence is saying something about how much Adam is worth and in particular how much he worth to God, how much he is loved by God, and how much the relationship is valued by God The vast beauty and splendor of creation is the measure of the value of God’s love for Adam. This is the dialogue that the gift is meant to silently establish.

However, several things need to be said at this point before we move on. The first is that it is not without significance that the word “adam” is used in two distinct ways in scripture. It is both a personal name for an individual and a word for humankind in general. In Genesis 5:2 we read “He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created he called them Adam.” Therefore when we read of God’s dealings with Adam the individual in Genesis 2 there is a very real sense that we are meant to read ourselves into the text, as “Adam” represents both an individual and humankind in general.

And it is of crucial importance to do this, as if a gift is for everyone, in a sense it is for no one and is de-valued. I well remember the occasions when our children were growing up when we made the mistake of buying a “family” gift at Christmas. It would usually be something utilitarian that was needed by the whole family—perhaps a tent for camping in the summer. Such gifts were never a success simply because as they were for everyone (we were a family of six) in a sense they were for no one. Had the tent been for one of my sons, they would have been thrilled with the gift. But a gift for everyone is a gift for no one and we soon learned that family Christmas gifts were not a great idea.

And this is the importance of grasping that the concept of “Adam” in scripture. The word is purposely ambiguous as I am meant to read myself into the text, and it is crucial to do so if we are to understand the dialogue of the gift when it applies to the gift of creation.

While it does not say so in the text, I often speculate as to whether God showed Adam the whole panorama of creation after he had given him dominion and the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, in a similar way to which Satan showed Jesus, the last Adam, all the kingdoms of the world. Although it is only a theory it would seem reasonable for two reasons. The first is that if he was to have dominion over the earth it would be reasonable to assume that he would need to have some idea of the territories over which his dominion extended.

The second is that if he was to appreciate the wonder, the beauty, and the majesty of the gift he had been given, it would seem reasonable that God would have to show it to him. How could he appreciate it without being shown the mountain range of the Himalayas, the rain forests of the Amazon, the islands of the Pacific, the glaciers of Alaska, and such marvels as Niagara and Victoria Falls?

Granted that that the earth’s surface would not have been then what it is now, but equal wonders must have existed. And it would seem that he would have to be shown something of the beauty and magnitude of the gift he was given if he was to appreciate what the gift was saying about how much he was loved and valued by the Lord himself.

And, of course, once he had seen it, once the penny had dropped, his incredulous response would be to ask, “Is all this really for me?” And once he comes to this point, the dialogue of the gift begins. Wide eyed with the words  “Is all this really just for me” on his lips is where the depths of the love of God can begin to break in on his spirit and imprint him with the revelation of the how much he is valued in the eyes of God.

However, at this point we need to tread carefully as for some strange reason we find it impossibly difficult to see this magnificent creation in personal terms. As Christians we see it as a gift to mankind in general, but not as a gift to me personally

We see a nature program on TV about Alaska and it is absolutely stunning: a pristine paradise of lakes and mountains. (just one of their seven national parks is as big as Switzerland.) And while we do indeed see it proclaiming the glory of God, we find it almost impossible to see it as an extravagant love gift to me, its vast magnificence proclaiming how much I am worth in the sight of God. But this is indeed what God is silently saying through Alaska. It is meant to initiate the dialogue of the gift in just the same way as when you give your wife a diamond necklace.

We get a glimpse of this when someone is given a house or a large piece of land. They are overwhelmed by the gift. They are deeply moved by the love of the person who gave such an extravagant gift. And this is how we are to view creation. You are Adam. No one else is around as far as God is concerned. He wants to present it all as a gift to you, just as he did in the beginning on day six, so you can enter into the dialogue of the gift to the same depth that Adam did.

Strangely we don’t have the same problem with the cross that we have with the creation. I know the cross is for all and yet I seem to be able to personalize the love of God for me in the death of Jesus. I know the death of Jesus is for everyone, and yet that does not stop me from making it intensely personal. His love is so great it is as if he died for me and me alone.

But we have trouble doing the same thing with the gift of creation. The fact that it is for everyone makes it hard for us to make it intensely personal—to appropriate it as an extravagant love gift in the same way as we do with the cross. But until we personalize the gift of creation in the same way as we do with the gift of redemption we will fail to enter into the dialogue of the gift.

Walking in the English countryside was something I did frequently for many years before a spinal injury stopped me from doing so. Often when I would come across a particularly beautiful forest or a view of the North Downs I would stop and say to the Lord, “Father, you did all this just for me.” And I meant it, seriously meant it. Because if it was not made for me then who was it made for?

Again, if a gift is for everyone, it is for no one. And this is the whole point. We must break through and see the wonder of the gift that we have been given, and stop simply admiring creation as it if it belonged to someone else. We have become blind and robbed of the priceless gift that is right before our eyes.

I believe that the immense size of the cosmos is meant to teach us that God would gladly give each of us a planet as beautiful as earth. But to do so would not make us happy as personhood is constituted relationally, and such splendid isolation would not meet our deep need for relationship and community.

But to make the point he simply calls humankind “Adam” and expects us to put two and two together. We are meant to conclude that in the mind of God, when we are born, day six of creation takes place all over again. He wants to present creation to us just as he did to Adam, as a love gift as if no one else existed. As if it was just for me. Because, as I have said, if it’s for everyone it’s for no one—and the value of the gift falls to the ground and the dialogue never begins.

We will not understand the meaning of creation fully until the dialogue of the gift takes place in our lives just as it did in Adam’s. We might appreciate intelligent design. We might see creation as declaring the glory of God, a theophany of his presence, and a display of his artistry. But even if we have gone this far, we still have not understood the fullness of creation theology.

Creation is indeed saying something about God, but only so he can then say something through it about man—about how much he is loved and valued by being given such a priceless gift.

And once we enter the dialogue of the gift we discover more. We discover that this majestic cosmos is not an end in itself, but rather is a means to achieve a deeper purpose. That the creation of the heavens and the earth are the stage, the platform, the superstructure, on which God will work within time and space to bring us into the heart of the Trinitarian family, to adopt us as his sons and daughters forever. This purpose, Paul tells us, precedes creation, but creation became the vehicle within time and space to make such a breathtaking plan possible.

But the creation, the stage, the platform, the superstructure on which God was going to work within time and space to bring us into the heart of the Trinitarian family was itself full of transcendent meaning. And indeed it needed to be, as it was the beginning of the dialogue of love that would communicate to man how uniquely he was loved and valued. The dialogue of love initiated by creation would eventually be consummated by the dialogue of love in incarnation. And in a beautiful way Staniloae collapses the distance between them.

Both creation and incarnation are a magnificent movement of grace in order that we might be brought into the heart of the Trinitarian family of love. This is the gospel, and Staniloae has done us a great service by recovering the dimension that we have neglected as Evangelicals, the dialogue of the gift—the extravagant gift of creation, that speaks of the depth to which we are loved and valued by God and prepares us for the next great gift, the gift of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, so that we can find our home forever in the heart of the Trinitarian family of love.

Note from Ray about Staniloae: 

I first came across the work of the Romanian Eastern Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae in 1993, when he was relatively unknown in the West. His life is a remarkable story of faithfulness to Jesus under persecution and suffering. He was a married priest and for many years Professor of Theology at the Theological Institute in Bucharest. But under the Communist regime he worked under severe restrictions for many years and was imprisoned from 1958 to 1962.

However, in 1968 he made the first of several trips to England and was given hospitality by the Anglican Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford. There he gave a lecture called “The Victory of the Cross” and this is what I stumbled across in 1993.

In 1978 after sixty years of work he published his three-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology but because of the continuing political isolation of Romania this remained unavailable in English until after the fall of the communist government in 1989.

Since the collapse of the regime, Staniloae has become increasingly known in the West and although he died in l993 his major works are slowly being translated. His theology, forged as it was in years of isolation and suffering, is alive, creative, fresh, and full of the Spirit.

He is perhaps becoming best known for his insights that organically connect the doctrine of creation and the cross, or perhaps I should say, collapse the artificial wedge that Western theology has driven between them. The phrase “the dialogue of the gift” is central to his understanding of creation, and this is what I want to briefly discuss.



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