Wednesday, November 24, 2021
It's Wednesday, November 24, 2021.
I am Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Gratitude Without Grace in a Secular Culture: How Can Thankfulness Have Meaning Without God?
Well, once again, the American celebration/commemoration of Thanksgiving comes before us, and it will take place, of course, tomorrow. The roots of this tradition go all the way back, as we know, to the pilgrim fathers and mothers who expressed thankfulness to God for their survival after a very, very long winter. And thus our national experiment goes back to an understanding of Thanksgiving and gratitude as part of the nation's moral fiber.
But we also recognize that there was a very clear theological context. These were, after all, not just pilgrims, but they were Puritans. They were Puritan Christians deeply steeped in biblical theology, and their impulse was toward thankfulness because the only reason they could explain that they had survived the long voyage and then the horrifyingly difficult winter was the grace and mercy of God.
Presidents of the United States, going all the way back to George Washington and figures such as Abraham Lincoln, fast-forwarding even to the modern era, presidents have declared national days of Thanksgiving by proclamations at one time or another for decades. People in the United States have celebrated Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the same calendar pattern. And Americans, well, we all find ourselves here once again.
It's also interesting to note that some commemoration, national and cultural, of Thanksgiving and gratitude seems to be common in so many different civilizations. You have in different cultures, you have a different nations, such as just to our north Canada, a Thanksgiving celebration that isn't rooted in the pilgrim tradition, isn't rooted necessarily even in Puritan Christianity, but is rooted in their own national experience. Other cultures and other languages have other expressions. It's also interesting, just from an anthropological perspective, that many of these Thanksgiving celebrations include a feast, a festival, food, food as a way of enjoying bounty and food as a way of communally also expressing thanks.
But when you look at the United States, we recognize that we are an increasingly secular nation that is increasingly confused about the who, what, where, when, how and why of Thanksgiving. Just a few years ago, Emma Green wrote an article about gratitude without God published at The Atlantic. And she asked the question, "If giving thanks isn't inherently religious, where does it come from?" We'll go back to that in just a moment, but there have been even more contemporaneous expressions that raise the same question.
Emily Heil, writing in The Washington Post just this year before Thanksgiving, has offered an article with the headline, "Saying Grace, How a Moment of Thanks, Religious or Not, Adds Meaning to our Meals." Now, here you see the phenomenon of the flattening of religious truth, the flattening of conviction, the flattening of theism. This is often referred to as the domestication of transcendence among theologians. What does that mean? It means that human beings in a secular age can cut even the biggest theological doctrines down to something that just might bring a good experience at a meal.
Emily Heil writes about people who had previously not said grace or any prayer of thanks before meals, at least not regularly. But one dad, well, he had a daughter who decided to start saying grace before dinner, "And he and his wife were encouraging, thinking it would be a nice thing to try out. He was surprised at the effects it had," said The Washington post. Again, Emily Heil reporting, the father said, "It's just been lovely. I really dig the way it creates structure. Everyone has to get to the table and be together and not be distracted. We focus on where we are."
Just notice something really interesting. Not to be too critical of this family because they're very indicative of our culture, but that's the problem. You understand that there is no who in that entire understanding of giving thanks other than we. "Everyone has to get to the table and be together and not be distracted. We focus on where we are." We're then told, "The family sits, holds hands and takes turns saying a free form grace. They might say what they're thankful for, or speak about a sick friend who is in their thoughts. The parents aren't prescriptive about what proper grace is supposed to sound like." According to the father, "If my son's heart is telling him to thank God for mac and cheese, well, thank God for mac and cheese."
Well, at least God enters the picture, but not very seriously in this article, not very substantially. Emily Heil reporting tells us, "The state of grace in contemporary America is hard to quantify. Though the practice remains prevalent, almost half of all Americans said they regularly took a moment before meals to give thanks. That we are told according to a 2017 poll by The Washington post and the Kaiser Family Foundation." But of course, the big question is, giving thanks how and giving thanks to whom? It's not so much the for what. It's much more universal. We can understand the for what, for the gift of life, for the gift of food, for the gift of family. Yes, we could think of the for what, when it comes to a meal and a communal celebration. The question is, thanks to whom?
Thanksgiving implies a who or a whom. Just think about this for a moment. How can you possibly, sanely be thankful for an accident? You might be amazed by the accident. You might be struck by the profound mystery of the accident, but you can't be thankful to the accident. If the world really is just a giant cosmic accident and there is no creator, there is no who, then there is no whom to which we are thankful. It is simply a mystery to which we resign ourselves, but that's not really gratitude. You can't be thankful to a mystery. There is no thankfulness to be addressed there.
It's also interesting that this article basically looks at the saying of grace, a prayer of Thanksgiving, just in a regular meal as something that is best understood, not as any kind of real prayer, but rather as a family ritual. And the argument here is there just might be such benefits to a family ritual. What would the benefits be? Well, it might be healthy for people to sit at a table and kind of wait until there is some kind of ritual beginning of the meal. People might take the meal more seriously. That's actually a direct implication of this article. The addition of ritual can add meaning to family life.
But here's where we also understand this is just the residue of religion. This is just the residue of Christianity. This is just the residue of theism or belief in God. If there isn't a genuine thankfulness and if we're not thankful to a creator, to a God who exists outside of ourselves, then it's nothing more than just a ritual that makes us feel better about ourselves and might help us to pace our meals. Well, Happy Thanksgiving to you too.
That article in The Atlantic published a few years ago by Emma Green tells us that there might be good therapeutic implications of Thanksgiving. It might be that some kind of attitude of gratitude might make you more psychologically or psychiatrically healthy. It might be good for your well-being. Green writes, "The social science on gratitude is pretty resolute. Feeling thankful is good for you." Joanne Sang, a psychologist at Baylor University said, "There's something called a grateful personality that some psychologists have studied." "They find that if you're greater in the grateful personality, you tend to have increased life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, hope, positive emotion and less anxiety and depression."
Well, we're all for getting rid of anxiety and depress, but what's the cause if it's just an attitude of gratitude? Do we just conjure it up within ourselves? Is it just some kind of inner positivity? We're told feeling thankful is good for you, but what does feeling thankful mean for if there is no object of our thankfulness, if we're not being thankful to someone for doing something and ultimately to God for the very gift of life and sustenance?
Back in 2014, Emma Green recognized that America is a vastly changed nation, a far more pluralistic and far more secular nation than it was in the 19th century. She writes, "A strong majority of Americans consider themselves religious, but for many others, religious faith doesn't play much of a role in their everyday lives." She continues, "And although roughly 90% of people in the US believe in God or a universal spirit, faith doesn't have much bearing on the way Thanksgiving is talked about in public life. From Butterball commercials to the Macy's parade, gratitude is the animus of these secular rituals, but the object of the gratitude is unclear. If people aren't thanking God," she asks, "who are they thanking? You can thank your grandma for making delicious pie, but who do you thank for the general circumstances of your life?"
Well, for one thing, increasingly Americans are crediting two different sources. One is themselves, and the other is fate. In an increasingly secular society, and this goes far beyond The Atlantic article, it's just an observation about life. Increasingly, people seem to refer to the circumstances of their life in terms of, well, what can only be explained by themselves, or many people simply refer to some kind of blind fate. Yes, our lives are an accident. It's an accident that the entire cosmos exists, but it's a pretty fortuitous accident. And we're thankful that that accident happened, but we're not thankful to anyone. You can't thank the accident. Accidents just happen. That's what makes an accident an accident.
Another person cited in the article identified as Robert Emmons, a psychologist at University of California Davis. He said, "Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving and repaying. We are receptive beings dependent on the help of others on their gifts and their kindness." Well, of course, that's true. Not one of us is self-existent, even when it comes to the need we have for other people in our lives. And by the way, yes, that does start with the fact that if we didn't have parents, we would not exist.
But the reality is that's still an extremely limited and quite inadequate frame because something has to explain what came before, and then something has to explain that, and then something has to explain that. Your parents had parents who had parents, and they had parents going all the way back. How did it start? Once again, a secular worldview has an extremely inadequate and unsatisfactory answer.
The Heart of Sin and Rebellion Against God: Ingratitude — ‘They Did Not Honor Him as God Nor Give Thanks to Him’
But I want us to think about something else as Christians, and that is the fact that the Bible tells us that ingratitude is actually the beginning of all sin. You say, well, where's that found in scripture? It's found in Romans 1:21, where Paul writes, "They did not honor him as God or give thanks." Now that's Paul's description of the fall. That's Paul's description of the human rebellion against God. Paul's not writing about some people. He's writing about all of humanity. And later he'll make clear in the book of Romans he's writing about the fall. He's writing about the consequences of the fall. He's writing about the sin of Adam, but he's writing about our sin in Adam.
And he's talking about in gratitude. They did not honor him as God, nor were they thankful, nor did they give thanks. So it turns out that the very essence of worship is, in one sense, giving thanks. That's what we do. We're acknowledging the creator. We are worshiping him. We're acknowledging that everything we have, our very existence itself, and of course, Christians, most profoundly and eternally, are thankful for God's saving grace through the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ. We can only be thankful, and thankfulness, not just gratitude is an attitude. Thankfulness is a theological task and vocation. It has to drive everything we know about ourselves as Christians, everything we know about God, everything we know about the church, everything we know about worship, everything we know about life. And that profoundly means eternal life, which means in the presence of God, eternal thankfulness.
To Whom Are We Thankful for the Wondrous Gift of Life? Thankfulness as a Christian Apologetic
But as we draw these thoughts to a conclusion, I want to raise something else, and that is the fact that on the positive side of our opportunity here, we do have a chance to speak to the world about what I can only describe as an apologetic of thankfulness, an apologetic. An apologetic is a defense of the faith. The task of apologetics is to point people to rational, good reasons, Biblical foundations, good arguments for belief in God, for belief in the totality of the claims of Christ, belief in every single word of scripture. We're to be ready, Peter tells us, always to give an answer for the hope that is in us.
So let's think about that for a moment. Why would Thanksgiving be an apologetic? But let's put the question differently. Why is anyone thankful? That's a good question to be asked. I think one of the greatest questions a Christian could be asked is, why are you thankful? To whom are you thankful? That gives us a supreme opportunity to tell people the entirety of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we tell them in gratitude, but in thankfulness, what we see here is an enormous apologetic impulse. People desire to give thanks. There's something about human nature that draws us to the experience of giving thanks.
The Washington Post may talk about discovering a ritual that makes the table more meaningful. Emma Green at The Atlantic rightfully points to the fact that there are huge theological worldview questions that are necessarily raised when someone says he or she is thankful. There's a great apologetic opportunity here. An opportunity for us to turn to those who are celebrating Thanksgiving and say, "Well, why? To whom are you thankful? And if there isn't a whom, if you're not thankful to God, then in what sense are you truly thankful? Because ultimately, once again, if you do not believe in God, and if you are not thankful to God, then you are just thankful for a sequence that can only be tracked back to what can only be defined as an accident."
By the way, one of the scientists quoted in one of these media sources comes right it out and says, "Evidently human beings have evolved into creatures who have an instinct of thankfulness." Evidently. Evidently it's a survival mechanism. It turns out that people who are thankful, tribes that are thankful, cultures that are thankful, have a greater survival rate than those who are not. Well, that's going to be a pretty cold Thanksgiving. We're here to do something which is a ritual in order that our civilization may continue. Again, Happy Thanksgiving to you too.
No, we know there's more to it than that. We know there's more to sin than just the transgression of the law. It's a basic lack of thankfulness. We know there is more to theological confusion than just intellectual confusion. We know it's a refusal to give thanks. We understand the impulse in our own sinful hearts, and that is to thank ourselves or to find some kind of temporal authority we can thank. But then we come up against the enormity of the questions of life, including our own existence, and we recognize no earthly explanation suffices. And then we understand the enormity of our problem, the enormity of our sin. And we understand there is no human salvation. At every point, we are driven to the recognition that the apologetic of thankfulness points us to the fact that God is.
And not just any God, not just any God who may have created the world or fashioned it out of something, but rather the Creator God revealed in scripture, the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who made us, made us in his image, the God who rescues us from our sin through the shed blood and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We might say in conclusion that gratitude is thus a powerful witness that we are called as Christians to show before the world, because we are not grateful as an attitude. We are thankful as a calling, a vocation that comes from God, as an obedience to scripture, as a recognition and worship of the one true and living God. We are thankful because Jesus Christ is Lord. But it also points to that apologetic. Maybe you will have the opportunity, at least maybe sideways in a conversation, to ask someone why he or she is thankful and press that just a little bit to see if you have an opportunity to make clear that the only satisfactory Thanksgiving is a thankfulness that is addressed to God.
One of the most beautiful expressions of gratitude of Thanksgiving in this Biblical frame is found in Revelation 7:12, where those before the throne declare, "Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and Thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen." It just might be that many of you listening to The Briefing today are already in transit to be with family, or you are all already in preparation for the Thanksgiving meal for yourselves and your family. It just may be that this Thanksgiving there are some families who have experienced great, great joy, and you're celebrating that joy together. It might be that there are families, even this Thanksgiving, who are experiencing deep grief, but thanks be to God. We grieve, but we do not grieve as others grieve.
Some of you may be at home. Some of you may be going home. Some of you may just not be at home this Thanksgiving, but I pray for every one of you and for every family a glorious, God-honoring, Christ-exalting Thanksgiving. And Lord willing, we'll meet again for The Briefing next Monday.
Thanks for listening.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. Happy Thanksgiving.
I'll meet you again next Monday for The Briefing.