I have been thinking, as is my wont, about giving thanks, on this Thanksgiving. Many of my thoughts have been about all the things I am so incredibly thankful for, as is appropriate for the day. But another line of thinking has hit me as well, involving the ironies of giving thanks.
Some background, from my personal life. As much as I love my live, the older I get, the more I realize just how weird this of mine life has been, as a scholar of religion who is not himself religious, an expert on Jesus and the New Testament who does not believe in Jesus or the New Testament, an academic obsessed with the history of Christianity who is not personally connected with Christianity. As many of you know, the weirdness in part comes from the fact that when I started out I was completely committed religiously, as a believer in Jesus, the Bible, and all things Christian. When I was seventeen, I was not just your run-of-the-mill-go-to-church-on-Sunday kind of Christian. I was a hard core fundamentalist, committing his life to the cause. That’s what drove me to be passionate about the Bible and the history of Christianity.
One result of my loss of faith – or my gain of perspective (!) – is that I have an entirely ambivalent view of my own past. There are times that I am resentful about my fundamentalist past, my spending all that time obsessed with a religion that I no longer consider even to be true. This obsession took up (or away) years of my life. I never had a “normal” young adulthood. I never experienced the things that others of my age and background did. Instead of growing into my life I was handing out tracts on the streets of Chicago urging people to find eternal life. That’s a strange way to be living as a late teenager….
But there are other times that I am thankful that I had such an unusual life at the time. Without this history, I obviously would not be where I am today, and I absolutely love where I am today. Without going to a fundamentalist Bible school (a kind of Christian boot-camp) I never would have acquired so much knowledge about the Bible – essential, of course, for my line of work. I was an expert on (aspects of) the Bible before I was even a scholar. That doesn’t happen to everyone every day! I never would have become an academic if I had not had that strange turn to religion in my teen-age years. My life might be better (though I doubt it) or it might have been worse (which is what I suspect); but it would have been different. And I love my life.
One of the things I am most grateful for about my weird course of life is that my Christian faith taught me (or encouraged me) to be grateful. I am thankful that I developed an inclination to be thankful. That is not true for everyone.
I have an unusually large amount of things to be thankful for in my life. But I constantly, all the time, talk with people who also have so many things to be thankful for, and they simply are not thankful people. They aren’t grateful. They are angry, self-absorbed, and bitter. Even if they have amazing lives, they are unhappy and have no sense of humility and gratitude. I think that is sad.
My own sense of gratitude is not something that I have any right to be proud of, as if it is something I accomplished. It too is a gift for which I am grateful. But at the same time, I think gratitude is an attitude that can be cultivated. And really should be cultivated by more people. Especially those who have it good. In part, it is this sense of gratitude for ones’ own life that can help us be more giving of ourselves, more inclined to help others who are having a hard time, or an awful time, or a downright horrifying time. Those of us who have it good should spread the good we have, in gratitude for having it.
When I first became an agnostic (and atheist and humanist – pick your label! I am all the above) I found it particularly unsettling that I felt thankful for so many things – everything from having decent food to having a fantastic career – without having someone to thank. When I had been a Christian, I thanked God for all the good things I had. Toward the end of my years of faith, I started feeling uneasy about thanking God for these good things.
On one hand, thanking God seemed entirely appropriate, since I did not do anything to earn favorable treatment. On the other hand, by thanking God for the good things I had I was acknowledging they had been given me by someone else, and if that’s what I thought, what was I supposed to think about those who did not have good things, who did not have decent food, or food at all, or shelter, or money, or employment, or health? If these things were given to me, why were they not given to others? Not just one or two others, or even one or two million others, but to billions of others?
This was a question I could never resolve, try as I might and even though I had heard (so many) explanations of others (over and over again!). Some people find these explanations satisfying. I never did. For me it was a real enigma.
Now I have gotten to a point in my life where I am far less concerned about the theoretical explanations than I am in two other things. First, I am concerned that those of us who have so much should help out those who have so little, without worrying about the cosmic reasons that this is the situation we are in. And second, I am concerned that those of us who have good things should indeed be thankful for them, even as we ponder the inequities of the universe and the mysteries of life.
Just some scattered thoughts on this day. I hope you have a gratifying rich and fulfilling Thanksgiving!