In Christian tradition, these “holy days” have been filled with forgiving, fasting and feasting as we celebrate the greatest gift of all – God-with-us – and all the reasons to give thanks.
Here, I see a chance to revisit gratitude; namely, my most contentious column from several years ago, which asked, “To whom do atheists direct their thanks?”
I’d just returned from Canada, where our host family had given up several main living spaces to accommodate my travel buddy and me. Deeply moved by their generosity, I also felt an upward surge of the heart toward God, the ultimate giver.
Unfortunately, some readers got stuck on the question, misinterpreting my words as saying atheists cannot be grateful. My lack of expounding on this specific point ignited a firestorm, and hateful messages began flooding my inbox.
I still see my original question as worthy of pondering, in the light of my true intent. And recently, a book by a Boston College philosophy professor, “Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He’s Ever Been Asked,” prompted a revisit to the gratitude topic.
The relevant query: “What do you think is the origin of religion?” Kreeft’s answer goes on for two pages, but he starts by saying religion must be a universal instinct since religion itself is universal. Further, he contends, good, joyful religion derives from gratitude.
“Gratitude is a primal instinct because we know that we are recipients,” he says. “We are given millions of good things as gifts throughout life – things we did not plan or work for – but first of all, we are given life itself…”
Religion and family always flourish or decline together, Kreeft said, though all humans have the capacity for a cosmic, universal gratitude – a gratitude for everything good. I believe this, too. But he adds that for the atheist, “the worst moment in life” is gratitude for life and existence. Why? Because for those who don’t believe in God, there is no one to thank for these good things. They “just happen.”
On a natural level, of course atheists can be grateful. My original proposition, and the one Kreeft presents, is that gratitude beyond the immediate, tangible gift and giver isn’t possible for those who don’t believe in God, the giver of life itself.
In my earlier example, the atheist would be grateful to the host family, but obviously wouldn’t view them as acting from the heart of God, the source of all good. My mentioning that isn’t a judgment of the heart, only a revelation of the limitations of the materialist viewpoint.
We’re made to praise and thank God, the ultimate giver. And in these holy days, I’ve found myself pausing often to thank the Eternal Lord for all the good in our world, including our very lives, as well as for those who struggle believing.
May the new year ahead restore hope to all who doubt, so that together we might all give God sincere thanks and praise, as is our just duty and pleasure.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec. 29, 2020.]