Monday, June 14

Thoroughly Thinking Through The Thorny Theology Of Thankfulness And Thanksgiving

Today's "Skeptic's Collection" column is rendered all too relevant by recent tragic events at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX. 

Over the last several years, I have gradually developed what some religious folk might well consider a bad personal tradition -- though I think it is a very good one! -- of occasionally dropping a turd in the ideological punch bowl of monotheistic, especially Christian, belief, not by denying any orthodox Christian teachings, but on the contrary, by thinking through those teachings’ logical implications more consistently than most Christians are willing to do.  So, e.g., the Jesus of the Incarnation is fully God, not only because He loves to play with little kids, but also because on occasion he loves, or at least is willing, to slaughter them, if the biblical account of His character is to be accepted. Similar remarks also call into grave question whether the God of Christianity really is a God Who celebrates life. I cannot prove, but strongly suspect, that an awareness of these issues is the tacit, perhaps even unconscious and unacknowledged, motivation behind the reluctance of many progressive Christians to ascribe to God anything like agency, i.e., a tendency to intervene in human history, individually or collectively:  if God is the kind of God Who “does stuff”, i.e., if God is a God Who is sometimes an efficient cause, then logical consistency would seem to require us to concede that God sometimes does “bad stuff”, occasionally really “bad stuff”. The solution would seem simple:  rewrite theology such that God is no longer an efficient cause, i.e., so that God “does nothing” in a cause-effect sense. (Even Pope Francis got into the God-as-non-magician act. See my rebuttal.) But there is an Olympus Mons of a speed-bump with that approach:  the practice of gratitude toward God.  Which begs a huge question:  if God really does do nothing, what do we do with Thanksgiving?

Now, by way of making important distinctions, there are at least two different ways in which we can express gratitude and give thanks -- both quite healthy and legitimate.  We can …

o … give thanks that something happened or did not happen

I am thankful that, in May of 2007, the ambulance service and medical professionals in Singapore responded with such grace, over-the-top urgency, and invincible competence to the broken jaw I sustained when I tripped exiting a taxi van during a business trip. I am thankful that Boeing’s workers’ compensation shielded my wife and me from any financial impact whatsoever, and, in fact, turned a week and a half in Singapore into a one-month de facto vacation (i.e., until my maxillofacial surgeon considered me stable enough to travel back to the States). I am thankful that my wife and I do not live anywhere near the Gulf Coast of TX or LA, and so must worry every year about hurricane season, especially within the context of a warming planet and changing climate. I am thankful that I was not in New York City on 11 September 2001.  I am thankful that we had good weather at our house during the solar eclipse, and also thankful that we did not, as originally planned before we had second thoughts, undertake the pilgrimage to Oregon, and so get caught up in “Eclipse-Mageddon” wherein every other person west of the Cascades, and their household pets, evidently converged on the vicinity of Eugene, OR. Anyway … you get the picture …

o … give thanks to someone for something they did or had some collaborative part in doing

I am thankful to my wife for undertaking a 24-hour flight from Seattle to Singapore, by way of San Francisco, when one of my Boeing  colleagues in Singapore called her at work to inform her that I had fallen, busted my jaw, and was having reconstructive maxillofacial surgery. No hesitation. No remonstrance. No complaints. No commiseration. She just dropped everything, packed everything, and … by Gawd … came.  I am thankful to Dr. Andrew Tay, my surgeon in Singapore, who wields a scalpel with the virtuosity of Yitzhak Perlman playing a violin. I am thankful to my Boeing colleagues who closed ranks around me like the Spartans around Leonidas at Thermopylae – people from the States, Japan, China, India, Singapore, Finland, the Netherlands … unlike the United Nations in New York, our extemporaneous United Nations actually worked. I am thankful to my in-law family, who never treated me like the new kid on the block, never “evaluated” me, and only wanted me to grab a beer, some sushi, some sashimi, a burger, some mac salad, sit down, laugh, tell bad jokes, and generally “talk story,” as they say in Hawaii. I was eager to oblige:  I ceased being a stranger the instant I crossed my in-laws’ threshold.  I am thankful especially to my mother-in-law, who is sincerely convinced that I should be the CEO of Boeing, at least, and preferably the President of the United States. With equal sincerity, she thinks I could do a much better job than Trump. To hell with modesty:  I think Mom Iwashita is right. Anyway ... again … you get the picture …

Bottom line:  being thankful that is thankfulness directed toward some set of “just-so” circumstances, which may be due to just dumb luck. But being thankful to someone is thankfulness directed toward someone, i.e., some conscious, volitional agent. So the latter is thankfulness directed toward some such agent who “does stuff”.

Now, if God does not “do stuff” – that is, in technical Aristotelian / Thomistic language, if God is not an efficient cause – then, from a strictly theological standpoint, there is no volitional agent involved. (From a finite, human standpoint, it is quite otherwise:  humans certainly do "do stuff", i.e., are efficient causes.) So if God is not an efficient cause, if God does not “do stuff,” then the only way anything gets done, the only kind of causality that exists in the Universe, is the kind of causality that can justify only thankfulness that or thankfulness to, i.e., things could have been otherwise, but in fact just turned out the way they did ("that" or "for"), or conditions resulting from human action {"to").  If my attention wanders while driving and I run a red light but am not destroyed by a car on the cross street, I can be thankful that I was not hit – but I cannot be thankful to God for any kind of intervention, however subtle, by Divine Providence or prevenient action. In that latter case, because God does not “do stuff”, because God is not an efficient cause, there is no “to” to Whom to be thankful. I am left with dumb luck and happenstance:  I was just lucky.

This refusal to ascribe efficient causality -- of "doing stuff" -- to God radically changes the entire tenor of our Thanksgiving celebrations, at least in cultures with a predominantly monotheistic religious ideology.  If our friends and family are all intact, well, healthy, and prosperous, if no one is starving, if no one is terminally ill, if no one is feeding an opioid habit, etc., etc., then that state of affairs, taken mostly for granted by those of us who enjoy it, is attributable to either (a) hard work on our part (where "our" means "us as individuals and those who care for us and help us" in John Donne's sense) and / or (b) dumb luck and the imponderables of circumstance ... most often some combination of (a) and (b).

This conclusion has (at least) two immediate consequences:

o It is pointless to pray to God for someone or something if by the locution "praying to God" you mean "petitioning God to act as an efficient cause so as to alter some circumstance in someone's life, e.g., cure a disease, find a job, mend some relationship, etc., etc."

There is no point in asking God to "do stuff" if God does not "do stuff". (So, e.g., those of you who are "praying for" the members of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX, why do you bother? Exercise for reader.) And if God does not "do stuff", it is equally pointless to thank God for "doing stuff" -- for the same reason it would be pointless to thank me that Seal Team 6 returned safe and sound from the Usama bin Laden raid, i.e., I had nothing to do with it. (Of course, if there had been casualties, it would have been equally pointless to blame me ... which is, I believe, sorta-kinda the point of keeping God antiseptically separated from the grubby, messy flow of history:  it obviates the Problem of Evil. If God is not an efficient cause, then God does not deserve the credit, and therefore, as a corollary, neither does God deserve the blame. Of course, there remains now the "Problem of the Incarnation". But, again, that's another rant altogether.)

Now, the practice of refusing to ascribe efficient causality -- "doing stuff" -- to God would most likely come as a surprise to the biblical writers, especially, though not exclusively, in the Hebrew Bible, whose God was "doing stuff" most of the time, but also in the New Testament (e.g., James 4:2, 3; 5:14, 15, John ch. 11).  In a pre-scientific culture, this is quite understandable:  absent an understanding of physical law, it is natural to ascribe, e.g., earthquakes, good harvests, solar eclipses, etc., to the action of God -- God acted as an efficient cause and gave a good harvest -- and to be thankful to God when the result was beneficial. But the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is not as easily accounted for, because it is at least difficult, if not flatly impossible, to infer the Incarnation from the premise of a "non-interventionist" God Who does not "do stuff". But these are also all rants for another time. For now, let's stipulate that God does not "do stuff".

o If indeed God does not "do stuff," and if alterations in external / objective circumstances (cf. Matthew ch. 25) result exclusively from some combination of human action and dumb luck, then it is deeply dishonest, in fact, moral plagiarism to take human goodness and attribute it to God.

Why? Because we have already stipulated that God does not "do stuff". The only efficient causes attributable to volitional agents are human beings.

Anyway, happy Thanksgiving!

James R. Cowles

PS -- Just to tantalize you and to add to your perplexity, it is possible to "un-drop" the preceding turd into the metaphysical / theological punch bowl -- or, if you prefer, to "un-ring" the bell or to "un-squeeze" the toothpaste -- via a strategy that was briefly explored first by the early 6th century CE philosopher Boethius, vis a vis the compatibility of human moral freedom with the sovereignty of God.  The relevant text is Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy. An updated version of Boethius' argument is arguably C. G. Jung's concept of synchronicity, as described in his Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. But -- once more -- those are other rants for other times. For now, just chew on this along with your turkey and dressing.

Image credits

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" ... Jennie Brownscombe, 1914 ... Public domain
"Thanksgiving in Baghdad, 2003" ... White House photo by Tina Hager ... Public domain
"Thanksgiving Grace, 1942" ... Marjory Collins, Farm Security Administration ... Public domain
"Woman in field" ... Photographer unknown, Pixabay ... Public domain

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