Thanksgiving is here.
The concept of Thanksgiving is pregnant with ideas that remain undetected by the vast majority of people who annually celebrate this holiday. Unlike Christmas and Easter, say, which, despite the secularization to which they’ve been subjected, are still regarded by atheists and agnostics as specific to Christianity and, thus, (too) “religious,” Thanksgiving is typically thought to be inherently secular, a day that everyone can and should celebrate.
This, however, is a fundamental misconception of Thanksgiving.
The concept of giving thanks presupposes a relationship between a giver and a receiver. And when the thanks expressed are given for the totality of good things in one’s life, the giver thanked is the Giver, God.
So, first of all, the notion of Thanksgiving implies the existence of God: In giving thanks for our families, health, jobs, friends, quality of life, and so forth, it must and can only be a being capable of and willing to give us these things that we intend to thank.
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And this brings us to the next implication of Thanksgiving:
The God to whose existence Thanksgiving inescapably points is not the God of the Philosophers, the pantheistic Substance of Spinoza, say, or Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. Nor is it anything like Plato’s Form of the Good.
No, the God implied by Thanksgiving is deeply, profoundly, unabashedly personal. Only persons give thanks and only persons deserve thanks. It’s true, of course, that we not infrequently imbue impersonal entities with anthropomorphic qualities and speak as if we owe them thanks: We may “thank” “the universe” for that job promotion, or those who have survived being lost at sea may “thank” the ocean for having “let them go.” But it takes just a little bit of clear thinking for us to see that these are just figurative ways of speaking.
Literally speaking, it is persons alone who deserve to be shown gratitude.
Hence, in thanking God, we thank a God who created us in His own image, a God who is personal.
More specifically, the God who we thank, this Being who is at once capable of and willing to bestow upon us innumerable blessings, is a Being whose power and love must be limitless, for only an omnipotent and omnibenevolent actor could supply us with all for which we give thanks.
Third, the conception of God endorsed, whether consciously or not, by Americans and Canadians—and these are, if I’m not mistaken, the only two peoples on the planet who observe a holiday which they call “Thanksgiving”—is peculiar to the Jewish and Christian traditions. Yet there are at least two reasons, one historical, the other theological, for seeing behind the concept, history, and practice of Thanksgiving a distinctively Christian vision of God:
(1)Historically, America and Canada have been Christian countries. Those who founded them were overwhelmingly Christian and, to this day, Christians continue to compose the majority of the population in both places. Undeniably, it is the Christian notion of God that they had in mind when they decided to reserve a day for the giving of thanks.
(2)The celebration of Thanksgiving is, ultimately, the celebration of a Giver who, from boundless love, bestows endless blessings upon everyone. All people, irrespectively of nation or tribe, owe their Benefactor an eternal debt of gratitude for the countless ways in which He has favored them. While Christianity grew out of Judaism, and while Judaism is, of course, monotheistic, Christianity parts ways with its predecessor or, at the very least, advances beyond it in two, and two mutually related, respects:
(a)Christianity repeatedly and explicitly equates God with Love. Judaism too recognizes God’s loving nature, but it is Christianity that pursued the reasoning of divine love to its logical and theological climax, with God giving all of Himself through His Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection from the dead.
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(b)Unlike Judaism, with its focus on a specific people, Christianity affirms the unique individuality of each person by way of its offer of Salvation. Christ’s Death and glorious Resurrection were meant to reconcile humanity with God. It is the individual, from the Christian vantage point, that must accept Jesus.
It is through the Self-Giving of God in Christ that everyone learns as fully as anyone can learn what it means to both give and receive. The acts of giving and receiving are inseparable, the giver and receiver united inextricably by an indissoluble bond.
This bond the Roman Catholic cleric David Steindl-Rast identifies as…gratitude.
On Thanksgiving, we are reminded of the metaphysical fact that the cosmos is not a self-sufficient mess of matter and we are not random combinations of physical particles.
As we gather around the dinner table with family and friends, we are reminded that ultimate reality is spiritual, that there exists an all-powerful, all-loving God who did indeed make us in His image and Who continually blesses us with all manner of good things.
Thanksgiving is an occasion to remind us that human beings are mutually-dependent upon one another as givers and receivers.
It reminds us that the world is one, a gift of which we all partake and that we continue to renew.
Thanksgiving, importantly, reminds us of a neglected virtue, the virtue of gratitude, and how it unites us with the Ground of our existence and supplies the key to a flourishing human life.
Jack Kerwick [send him mail] received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture.