Thanksgiving and Theodicy

Thanksgiving reduces the need for theodicy.

I don’t mean the holiday that is celebrated in the United States today – although presumably one could attempt to formulate an argument for the existence of a supremely benevolent deity on the basis of turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing. But those with scarcely enough to survive could legitimately question whether the argument is valid, based as it is on such a small segment of human experience. Nevertheless, even if it wasn’t the most persuasive argument for the existence of God, it might well be the most delicious.

What I’m talking about, however, is the fact that many of those who are making do with little are nevertheless thankful for what they have, sometimes more so than those who have an abundance. It seems to me that it is more often those observing the suffering of others who lose their faith in God, than those actually passing through hardship. It is possible, in the midst of any situation, to find something to be thankful for. This doesn’t mean to accept the situation as just, nor to assume that God has ordained it to be so and thus to accept one’s lot in life and not challenge the status quo. Being thankful even when hungry doesn’t mean one necessarily stops hungering and thirsting for justice.

But what preachers sometimes call ‘an attitude of gratitude’ can change one’s outlook; while on the other hand, it is possible to be ungrateful even in the midst of abundance.

As a rule, I don’t thank God for things the same way I might thank a benevolent donor who gave me a large sum of money to support my blogging habit (That hasn’t happened yet, but it can’t hurt to fantasize – and to drop hints). When someone remains healthy when everyone else around them gets sick, or survives a plane crash when others were killed, and thanks God and talks of how good God has been to them, I have serious problems with the implicit corrolary: that God has been bad to the other people in the situation. For me, the point is to be thankful – not to thank God as though you have been singled out for abundance and others singled out for want. It is something of an accident of history and circumstance that some in our time have born into relative affluence and others into extreme poverty. The appropriate response is to be grateful for whatever one has, and to realize our own responsibility for ensuring that resources are equitably shared. It is easy to point to the billions in India and China and blame population size. But the truth is that all of them together do not consume what we do in North America. Let us all be thankful that we have a world that provides for us in abundance, and let us all work together to figure out ways to ensure that, with all this abundance available, no one has to do completely without the basic necessities of life.

I discussed the problem of evil with colleagues recently. Yesterday as I revisited the subject in my mind, I found myself thinking about Pakistan’s democracy. Pakistan has made a number of attempts to get a genuinely democratic government on its feet, but each time issues or inklings of corruption, threats to national security and other destabilizing factors have led the military to intervene. I can’t help wondering if that is what people wish God did. Imagine if during World War II, as atrocities were planned and nations prepared for war, a voice came from heaven saying “Go to your rooms and don’t come out again until you’re ready to play nice.”

Does this scenario take the idea of God as parent a bit too far? Perhaps it doesn’t take the metaphor quite far enough. If our parents never let us fail, never let us mess things up, there are some lessons we will never learn. I have long felt Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ideas to be incredibly challenging. Bonhoeffer suggested that God desires mature children, who can get along without him. God, according to Bonhoeffer, wants us to live before God as though God were not there – etsi Deus non daretur. It is a shocking idea when one first hears it, but the more one reflects on it, the more it seems obvious rather than shocking.

Skeptics who reject the idea of God on the basis of the problem of evil sometimes remind me of adolescent children – begrudging a parent’s intervention as meddling, begrudging lack of intervention as lack of concern. For those who look on the world without thankfulness, neither the idea that God is acting nor the idea that God isn’t is satisfying. But they do have a point. In one sense, it is all too easy to attribute one’s abundance to God – certainly much easier than treating it as simply good fortune, which comes accompanied with responsibility for those who have been less fortunate.

I don’t want to offer a free-will defense that seeks to protect God from blame for various misfortunes and disasters that humankind has experienced. I simply want to be thankful – for a universe that has produced not only life but us, with the free will that we so often use so poorly, and with enough resources to sustain us all if we can only figure out how to deal with them and with one another equitably.

It is a great responsibility and a great challenge. But it is also a lot to be thankful for.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    Hi, James. Im new here, though we crossed paths briefly a week or two ago on another blog. I was intrigued by what you wrote there and thought I’d check out your own blog out. Glad I did!Full disclosure: stictly speaking, Im an atheist, though “religious naturalist” is the term I currently prefer, meaning that although I dont believe in any God understood as anything other than a projection of human ideals, I nonetheless often find “God-talk” (some of it, anyway) meaningful and, for me, often salutary. IN other words, talking about God as Tillich or Buber might is, for me, an evocative way of talking about many things I consider important.Anyway, I was interested in your post here because I have often had similar thoughts. Religion, I think, when it works, works by doing a lot of this: sensitizing us to what we have, to the good and beauty that is always there, somewhere — into what Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz calls the “piety of the ordinary.” We are creatures of habit and are easily acclimated to our environs. Religion — done right! — can function to combat this tendency. By calling our attention to what we have, and to what many in the world lack, we can hopefully step off the treadmill for a minute and smell some roses (to mix and then puree a few metaphors). This sort of awareness requires discipline, and deliberate decisions, and religion is a discourse that can encompass both of these things. And what I like about this idea — this approach to thankfulness — is that it does not even require one to believe in God. I have only a cursory familiarity with Bonhoeffer, but I have come across this idea in another context. Everybody’s favorite legend from the Talmud runs something like this (this is the Cliff Notes version): several rabbis were debating about a point of law. Disputes were supposed to be settled by majority rule, but Rabbi Eliezer wasn’t backing down. In quick succession he called upon a carob tree, a river, and the walls of the building to declare him correct, and indeed the carob tree uprooted itself, the river reversed course, and the walls bent. But the other rabbis refused to yield. Finally in desparation r. Eliezer called down God himself to intervene — and God did. But the other rabbis simply retorted that by God’s own rules, the rabbis were given jurisdiction to decide, not God, and His testimony was summarily dismissed. So Eliezer lost. Sometime later, another rabbi is in heaven and, wide-eyed, asks Elijah what God’s reaction had been. Elijah said, “He laughed with joy, saying ‘My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!’”I love this story. It gives me chills every time I read it. And the message is clear, and exactly what we woudl expect, really, if we took the metaphor of God the Father seriously. What do we as human fathers wish for our children? Do we want them to do the right thing because they are told to, and have to be continually told to, all their lives? Or do we want them to think for themselves, internalize their ethics, and do the right thing because it is the right thing? Ethical maturity means, I do think, as you put it: live before God as though God were not there.Theodicy is still a sticking point with me. But the pragmatic critique moves me past it. What difference does it make whether the gratitude and joie de vivre that I feel for my family and my life and all the good in the world, comes from an awareness of a transcendent being, or an awareness of the intrinsic preciousness of those things?None. Don Cupitt wrote that life is a Gift without a Giver. Just so! Or maybe not. Who can tell? But the proper response is still the thank-you note of a life well-lived and a world made better.Richard

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I’m really glad you’ve visited! I loved the way you articulated not only your own viewpoint, but mine as well, in the discussions over on Debunking Christianity. Welcome! With all you’ve written, you could easily have your own blog, but if you have no plans to start your own any time soon, would you mind if I shared some of your comments as full-blown posts from time to time? They are articulate and thoughtful and don’t deserve to be relegated to the comments section! :)Have a happy Thanksgiving!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06071672526594753513 Richard M

    James-Im pleased you like my writing. I actually would love to have my own blog — the new american dream? — but time limitations (mainly in the form of two very young children) are prohibitive. So, in lieu of that, I satisfy my inner exhibitionist by posting on others.So, yes, please feel free to repost anything you see fit. I look forward to the discussion.Happy Thanksgiving-Richard


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