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.