Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Gratitude, Justice, Mystery

Earlham School of Religion Assistant Professor and Ministry of Writing Program Director Ben Brazil delivered the following message in ESR worship on Thursday, November 21

Let me begin with a surprise:  On the last programmed worship before Thanksgiving, I have opted to speak about  … wait for it … gratitude.

Creative right?  No, creative it’s not.

But it is current.  The word gratitude has kind of an old fashioned ring to it, but among writers on spirituality and scholars of human happiness – or, scholars of positive psychology as it’s also known – gratitude has made a come back.   

For example, I was pretty sure I’d find something when I Googled “Oprah” and “gratitude.”  And, sure enough, there it was - I found a page on Oprah.com explaining “what Oprah knows for sure about gratitude.”  In this post, Oprah describes how she used to keep a gratitude journal, where she listed, daily, things for which she was grateful.  

So, here is a partial list of things Oprah was grateful for on Oct. 12, 1996:  “sorbet in a cone,” “eating cold melon on the beach in the sun,” and Maya Angelou calling me to read a new poem.”

And I get it.  I mean, I always feel grateful when Maya calls me.

But after 1996, Oprah became even more successful and became more of a mega celebrity.  But  - yes, you guessed it – she let her gratitude journal slip.  So you know how this is going to go:  Oprah ultimately realized she was more successful, but not nearly so happy.  So Oprah tells us what she knows for sure:  I quote:

“I know for sure that appreciating whatever shows up for you in life changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you're aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.”

Gratitude makes us happier. Oprah knows it for sure.

But it’s not just Oprah that thinks so.   The University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center funds research that “ studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.”

Want to guess one of the core themes of the Greater Good Science Center?  Yes, I’ve got another surprise: one of them is gratitude.  And what they’re finding is striking – that people who practice gratitude consistently report benefits.   These include:

         Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
         Higher levels of positive emotions;
         More joy, optimism, and happiness;
         Acting with more generosity and compassion;
         Feeling less lonely and isolated.

So they’ve put $5.6 million into a three year project to “expand the scientific database of gratitude” and “promote evidence-based practices of gratitude” throughout society.

So let me summarize where the trends are for this Thanksgiving 2013:  Discontent is out, and gratitude is in. 

So, naturally, I’m suspicious.  I’m suspicious of a lot of things, including trends and style.  But I’m also suspicious of happiness and, well, happy people.  Are you happy all the time?  You might make me suspicious.  Sorry, just saying.  So if someone tells me gratitude makes me happy, I start to wonder if maybe I should consider being more ungrateful – just, you know, to be on the safe side.  As kind of a hedge.

Also, all this talk about gratitude puts my bad theology sensors on high alert.  Are we really being grateful so we feel better about ourselves?  Is this just another way to ignore all the structures of sin in the world and feel better about our own narcissism?  Is this just an addendum to our self-satisfaction?  “Not only do I have mine,” we crow, “but I’m also happy, because I’m grateful.

Like I said, I’m kind of a suspicious person. 

But here’s the problem, at least for me:  I have a ton to be grateful for.  I have a happy marriage and two healthy boys.   I have a level of financial security.   And at a time when lots of my grad school friends are in deep, existential despair over the possibility of never getting a job despite 10 years of school and a ton of debt, I am here doing what I want at a school I love and whose mission I believe in.

Of course, there are sources of gratitude other than family, security and work.  That’s obvious.  But if I can’t be grateful, I’ve got problems. 

I know it.  People, including me, have described these turns in my life as blessings.  And they feel like blessings.  To consider them anything else feels – well – ungrateful.

But then the suspicious guy, the cynic, the theologian chimes in – why a blessing for you and not for others?   If you consider yourself blessed by God, must you consider others cursed by God?   What, exactly, are you grateful for.  Why are you grateful?

So, somehow, instead of meditating on gratitude, I end up pondering theodicy, more popularly known as the problem of evil.  In its classic form, it runs something like this:  How can a God who is both all-powerful and good permit – even cause – all the suffering in the world?

 If God causes blessing, doesn’t God also cause suffering?  And then we’re into the much larger question of how God relates to God’s creation.

So, in a really informal way, I started playing with options.   Disclaimer:  These are not academic theology, but my own back of the envelope, mulling-things-over-in-the-shower thinking.   But here they are:

First, maybe I was just lucky.  Maybe what I call blessings are nothing more than dumb luck.   As I was considering this option last night, Jason Griffith emailed me a quote from Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’sGuide to the Galaxy.  Adams says this:

What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can't move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn't been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won't be troubling you much longer.

It’s funny, but it points to something.    In a world driven only by luck, with no purpose, does gratitude make any sense? To whom are you grateful?  After all, your luck may be about to change.

Or here’s a second option:  maybe I have these so-called blessings only because of structural inequality.  I was born a white guy, to a doctor, in our modern American Empire, at something like it’s peak.   Maybe what I called blessing was simply injustice in a thin disguise.

Now, this one I really have to think about.  After all, understanding blessing as injustice is not a bad read of the American mythology of Thanksgiving, is it?  God provides, and pilgrims and Indians sit down together for a bountiful Thanksgiving feast.   All is well, all is providentially provided.

I don’t think I have to explain, to this group, that there are other ways to tell the story of Pilgrims and Indians.

So maybe structural injustice explains my blessings.  But if I have the life I have only because of injustice, does it make any sense to feel gratitude?  Isn’t guilt the appropriate response?

So, Happy Thanksgiving !  Go eat turkey, be with family, and feel really, really guilty.  Then have another glass of wine.  Or two.

No.  I still think the Christian tradition calls us – calls me – to gratitude.  I think the Holy Spirit calls me to gratitude, and I think scripture does the same.  I’m not willing to trade gratitude for guilt.  It feels wrong.  And – what’s more important – it just utterly saps the energy I need to resist those same structures of oppression.  Even if guilt were appropriate, I’m just not convinced it works. 

 In my experience, hope, community, and even anger are what bring me to protests, what encourage me to get involved, what motivate me to fight (non-violently, of course).   Yes, we need a moment of conviction, of seeing things anew, and that may involve a recognition of guilt.  I think of Jesus appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus, and asking “Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Now, there’s a moment for guilt, right?   But Paul, somehow, moves past that into hope, passion, and action.  

And – as much as it makes me suspicious – the gratitude researchers also find that gratitude makes us more generous and compassionate.  And I DO believe those are fruits of the spirit.

So what do we do?  How do I – do we – reconcile with gratitude in good faith?   Now, some people don’t need a metaphysics or a systematic theology to embrace gratitude.   They just do it.  God bless them, I wish I worked that way.   But if I did, I wouldn’t have ended up teaching at a seminary.  I have to think things through.  Maybe you do, too.

So, in the time I have remaining, I am going to put forth my own, systematic theology of providence.  Naturally, doing so will also require me to describe how God creates, sustains, and relates to the world.  I think I can do it.  We have like 15 or 20 minutes before Peace Forum, right?

No.  Obviously, I can’t answer my questions or calm my doubts about blessing and providence.  That would take nearly an hour, and we just don’t have it.

So I’m going to continue to think, and read, and ponder.  But I do think it’s important to say, at least in passing, that there are interesting theological answers to this problem.  Sallie McFague, for example, has argued that we focus too much on the whys and hows of God’s creation and governance of the world – which are theoretical questions -- and not nearly enough on the “where” – on the creation right here, in front of us.   That’s a practical question.

So, to shift our focus, she asks us to consider all of creation God’s body.   We don’t try to explain God’s body – which includes us – we just know we need to care for it – all of it.   No part of the body can be healthy if other parts are sick, neglected, or starving.  Gratitude means loving where you are -- linked, as it is, to everything else that is.

Many, many other theologians have taken on the question of how God relates to suffering, blessing, and everything else that goes on in God’s world.

Of course, we could also try something novel - listening to scripture.  Let’s listen again to Philippinas 4: 4-7:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

If we listen carefully, we hear Paul linking thanksgiving to prayer, to joy, and to gentleness,  Paul does not say that giving thanks means you – or your world – has everything it needs.  He says give thanks as you continue to ask, as you continue to pray, as you continue to trust, to hope against all evidence that the Lord is near.

This attitude is an antidote to anxiety, Paul tells us.  But I think it’s also an antidote to another vice Paul writes about – pride.   To be grateful is to acknowledge that whatever you have, you did not get it by yourself.   Gratitude has a direction – it points outside of you.  If you have blessings, something outside of you provided them.   Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s others, maybe it’s even structural injustice.  But surely the very fact that gratitude suggests our dependence – our interdependence – on creation and on each other makes it a virtue.  Certainly, it can be a counterbalance to the heartless version of capitalism that currently structures our world.

So, I can’t explain how providence works.  Who knows?  One of the theologians could be right.   Some theories are probably better than others.  But, as a good Catholic – or as good a Catholic I can be in this job – I am drawn to an explanation we Catholics use all the time – mystery.  We don’t know how God reconciles blessing and suffering, but somehow God does.  But we do know we are not self-sufficient.  So if we are alive, if we are not in pain, if we have some source of joy, we can and should say thank you.  It leads us beyond ourselves.

And, again, I think that’s key – it leads us beyond ourselves.  Here I am, a member of the American Empire’s most privileged group, at something near that Empire’s Peak.   That means I am one of the most privileged – blessed? – people ever to live on this planet.  So are most of us here.

So, living with mystery, I am grateful.   And I pray that that gratitude does lead me outside of myself, does give me the hope and energy to cast off anxious concern for my own security and instead to live generously,  to live justly.  I pray that I  -- we – can care for the rest of God’s body – the sick part.  I pray that we can use our luck, or fortune, or blessings, or unfair privilege not in a way that guiltily frets, or that anxiously hordes, but in a way that insists on spreading blessing.

So, I do not understand.  But I am grateful.  Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

  1. "Gratitude is not a feeling; rather it is an attitude, a choice."
    Anonymous, delivered 15 years ago at an AA meeting in Upstate NY