One of the simple joys of parenting is the perennial potential of embarrassing your children. Each of our kids has travelled with me at one time or another. On every trip, I have taken perverse delight in watching them try to disappear into their seat cushions as I give thanks to God over an airline dinner.
It is not just the difficulty of being thankful for airline food. It is the sheer eccentricity of the notion.
My kids are in good company. In the 1960s western Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart plays an isolationist, self-reliant farmer caught up in the agony of the Civil War. While offering the expected patriarchal grace over a meal, Stewart intones, “Well, God, we thank you for this food. ’Course, we cleared the land, planted the seed, harvested the crops and cooked the food. But thank you anyway.”
So, who are we thanking? What are we giving thanks for? And, if there is anyone there to hear it, why should our thanks make any kind of difference in a universe that can seem so blindingly indifferent?
Good questions. To even begin to address them requires two a priori considerations. The first is whether or not we profess a belief in God. The second is even more important: What is the nature of the God in which we profess faith?
Coming at this back to front, there are at least four good reasons to argue that there is no need to offer thanks to God.
The first is straightforward. Atheists obviously don’t suffer any consequences for not thanking God. I might actually give thanks for atheists. A committed atheist keeps believers sharp, asking questions that ought to be addressed. But I don’t expect them to be thankful for me or to the God about whose business I try to be.
Next is the deist position. Much loved by the fathers of the American republic, deism posits a God who, like a clockmaker, winds up creation and then lets it run. There is no point in asking the deist God for anything or offering thanks for anything. It just isn’t the way the creation game is played.
Third, and a close cousin to deism, is modern pantheism. God is everything; there is no clear distinction between creator and created. Does a fish thank the water in which it swims; a bird the air in which it soars? Well, I suppose they might, but it would be difficult to confirm.
Finally, there is George Lucas and the Star Wars contention that the Force is always with us. This seems to work for Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and even Darth Vader. But the Force is more like an impersonal energy field than something engaged with the give and take of please and thank you.
So then, why ought we thank God, and why might God actually need our thanks?
For Christians, who meet the God of Israel through Jesus of Nazareth and his expansive apostle Paul, God is neither indistinguishable from God’s creation, nor distant from it and accordingly disinterested. The God of Israel is fiercely personal: a jealous lover; a loving parent; even an obsessed artist. Choose whatever image works best for you. The point is that this is a God who is in passionate and eternal relationship with the whole created order.
In the Bible, Abraham and God confide in one another and argue with one another. Sarah laughs at God — and God gets her back with a newborn in the glow of her golden years. David messes up regularly, and God slaps his wrist — with an axe handle. Jesus teaches us to pray to God as a child comes to its mommy or daddy.
And in relationships, writer Erich Segal was dead wrong in Love Story: love most certainly requires saying sorry. And love requires please and thank you. Not because the object of love requires request and tribute, but because loving relationship requires both.
If we believe in the God of Jesus, then we need to thank God to remind ourselves of our place in the grand scheme of things. God needs our thanks to know we care.
We could say that the Bible tells us so. There are dozens of texts calling us to thanksgiving. For example, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
But we really need only common sense and life experience. I recently adopted a mantra for the first time in my life. I borrowed it from the great scholar of world religions, Huston Smith: “God, you are so good to me.”
I murmur it on aircraft, just before I eat dinner.
Rev. James Christie is a professor of dialogue theology at the University of Winnipeg.
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