Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reflecting on Gratitude

As move closer to the joyful season of Christmas, I commend the following reflections from Ken Myers' Advent letter to Mars Hill Audio listeners. There's much food for thought here.



There's an old joke that identifies the favorite holiday movie of agnostics as a heart-warming story called "Coincidence on 34th Street." I don't know if radical skeptics wrestle with the problem of goodness and joy as much as orthodox Christians have agonized with the problem of evil and suffering, but the weeks between Thanksgiving and Epiphany must be a trying time for them. In a season with so many inducements to be grateful - in which the testimony of conscience and Creation is amplified by songs heard on the radio or at the Mall and giving thanks seems meet and right so to do - how can those who admit no Giver avoid doubt about their doubt?

But perhaps the burden of "gratitude-without-a-proper-Benefactor" is a smug fantasy of well-meaning Christian apologists. After all, we live in a society in which people increasingly perceive of themselves most essentially as bearers of rights-claims or as consumers of commodities. Each of these identities tempts us to regard everything we receive as an entitlement or as a self-earned possession. In neither mode are we encouraged to realize that gratitude is the most fitting, the most natural posture for beings such as ourselves. Maybe our culture's biases make it easy to ignore the fact that life is a gift.

Christian people regularly give thanks for the free gift of our salvation and for the blessings that accompany the redemption Christ has accomplished. But we also can find it all too easy to forget that all of Creation is a gift. The free gift of life in Christ is an echo of the free gift of life in Creation - a life that was forfeited when God's beloved creatures chose (in Oliver O'Donovan's phrase) to uncreate themselves and thereby to uncreate the rest of Creation.

Many devout Christians - under the influence of Gnosticism ancient and modern - fail to recognize the quality of Creation as gift and epiphany. Alexander Schmemann - in his book For the Life of the World - argues that sin always involves a failure to perceive and receive aspects of Creation as the things God has made them to be. Eve convinces herself that the fruit is what she wants it to be, not what God has said it is (and what it really is). That fateful disobedience establishes a trajectory of confusion, so that the identity and purpose of all things come to be denied.

The story of the Gospel begins with an account of the meaning of all things. "All that exists is God's gift to man," Schmemann writes, "and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: 'O taste and see that the Lord is good.'"

Schmemann argues that a secularized view of Creation has deadly consequences: "When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the 'sacrament' of God's presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world."

The deadly practices of what John Paul II called the "culture of death" have their origins in a conceptual failure, in the assumption that nature has no meaning and elicits no necessary gratitude. So for the Church to be a culture of life, it needs more than good beliefs. It needs practices that sustain the posture of gratitude. Rather than sensing ourselves as sovereign consumers of religious products - whether ideas or experiences - we need to be recalled to the posture of humble recipients. "What do you have that you did not receive?" is the perpetual reminder we need. "Let it be unto me according to your word" is the grateful and receptive response we should strive to make habitual.

In a season of gift-giving, it may be helpful to remember that it's easier to be generous than it is to be grateful. Robert C. Roberts - author of Spiritual Emotions and a guest on volume 93 of the Journal - observes:

"Our generosity is often directed less at the benefit of the one on whom we bestow it than on the expression of our own importance. We enjoy the role of giver because of the way it ranks us vis-à-vis
our recipient. And we sometimes feel a certain discomfort with being put in the role of recipient because of the way that ranks us vis-à-vis our benefactor."

Like Eve, we still want to take things on our own terms rather than to receive them (or, in the case of forbidden things, avoid them) on God's terms. Being grateful for what we have also requires a contentment with not having what we haven't been given. A cartoon in the New Yorker a year or so ago depicted a man confessing to his therapist: "I do count my blessings but then I end up counting those of others who have more and better blessings, and that pisses me off." Gratitude, it seems, is not well understood by an accounting mentality; it involves a qualitative assessment, not a quantitative reckoning. "All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God."

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