Does Gratitude Require God?

In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh relates an episode in a section titled “To Be Grateful.”

“During a conference on religion and peace, a Protestant minister came up to me toward the end of one of our meals together and said, ‘Are you a grateful person?’  I was surprised.  I was eating slowly, and I thought to myself, Yes, I am a grateful person.  The minister continued, ‘If you are really grateful, how can you not believe in God?  God has created everything we enjoy, including the food we eat.  Since you do not believe in God, you are not grateful for anything.’  I thought to myself, I feel extremely grateful for everything.  Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful.  Why would he say that I am not?

The minister presumes that there must be a “whom” to which one is grateful.  As a nontheist, Hanh presents another option.  The minister’s assumption is perhaps another form of Christian privilege, which I wrote about earlier this fall.  On this matter, I think I agree with Hanh.

You don’t have to believe in God to be grateful.

Let me use an example:  I’m grateful for the relative good health and security of my family this season.  So, is my gratitude rightly directed toward God?

It depends on why I think we have that health and security.  If it’s only because I think God chose to bless us with those things, then I suppose I would have to just thank God.  But I have trouble seeing it this way because I’d need to know then why other families are struggling and broken this season.  Does God not love them?  Are they somehow less worthy than me?  If my neighbor is in pain and in prison, is she forsaken?

I don’t see it this way.

I see the world as a bit of a mess infused with a bit of grace.

The mess is revealed in the fact that while some of us prosper, others of us grieve.  Those of us who are secure this year will struggle in years to come, and have probably struggled in years past.  The mess is also revealed in the fact that my relative health and security has much to do with the social privileges afforded to me as a white heterosexual woman born and raised in the U.S.  Much of my health and security has in fact been at the expense of others worldwide.  The fact that I’ve had access to resources, education, and the relational support necessary to become economically stable and fully insured matters, I think, more than what God does or doesn’t want for me.

Because I think God wants those things for everyone, but the mess of the world prevents it from happening.

The grace in the world is revealed here and there.  In stories and texts and people and traditions and trees.  In the mystery of moments that seem fleeting and impermanent but reveal something that embraces all of creation and lends a spark of hope.  Even in the reflective meditations of a Buddhist monk.

Whatever it means to be thankful, I do know that it requires taking stock of one’s life in a world that doesn’t always make sense, and making meaning in spite of that.

It might not require God, but it does require strength of heart and an open mind.

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About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Oriana Spizzo

    Hello, Dr. Riswold! I’ve been following slacktivist for years, and embarrassingly it’s only now that I’ve discovered your blog on patheos. I’ll definitely be following your posts from now on.

  • Caryn Riswold

    Hey Oriana! Great to “see” you here … you can follow via RSS or email using the options on the right hand side of the page. Hope you are well. :-)


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