I love Thanksgiving! I love the rest. I love the time with family. I love the food–way too much.
Thanksgiving is a time of reflection, which is always a good thing.
We all can point to ways in which our lives could have been vastly better. However, this is a time when we recognize that there are just as many ways, if not more, in which our lives could be devastatingly worse. This is a season in which we express how we are thankful that it is not.
The attitude and act of thanksgiving is a universal human experience. Gratitude is as human as an emotion as we can show. Whenever someone has a positive influence on our lives, by nature we have an appreciative response. Sometimes it is internal and unvoiced; sometimes its external and expressed. The point is that everyone, regardless of religion or worldview, can be—and should be—thankful to other people for their impact on our lives.
But, here’s the thing…
There is a difference between being thankful to and being thankful for.
This may seem like petty semantics, but the shift between these two prepositions, in this context anyways, is significant and worth our attention.
Being thankful to someone, that is thankful for their involvement in our lives, is a two-part exchange. You play a significant role in the betterment of my life, and I am thankful for it, expressing my gratitude and at least attempting to return the favor. End of transaction.
Being thankful for someone, on the other hand, directs our thanks—and I would say reverence—to an implied third party. When we are thankful for someone, we imply that there is more to the exchange than that they have a positive impact on our lives. We imply that they are the positive impact. Therefore, we direct our thanks to whoever is responsible for their being in our lives in the first place.
For me, I think of my children. If I am honest, there is very little for which their mother and I can be thankful to them. (Warning: Incoming dad gripe!) They live in our house, eat our food, use our utilities, and all on our dime. And what do we get in return? Messes in the house, complaints about the food, wasting the electricity, and requests for more money! Some thanks! (End of gripe.)
So, while I do not often get the chance to be thankful to them, I can count on one hand the things and people in my life that I am more thankful for. They are the greatest gift in my life third in line only to my Savior and my wife.
So, I must ask the question: to whom am I thankful for them?
I am unspeakably thankful to my wife for going through the unimaginable pain and risk of childbirth. I am immensely thankful to the doctors that guided her through the process. I am enormously thankful to my employer who provides insurance and income, allowing me to give my family a life worth living.
But, I cannot stop there.
I am thankful for the treasure that my wife is in my life. I am thankful for the privilege of living in a country where resources are abundant and available. I am thankful for the opportunity and ability to work for a living.
In other words, more than being thankful for the contributions people have made to my life, I am thankful for the blessings that cannot be ascribed to human agency.
So, I must ask: to whom am I thankful for all these things?
There are many answers to that question. However, I believe that only one suffices.
In a worldview of naturalism, there is no transcendent cause or direction in life. Everything we experience in life must be attributed to matter in motion, chance plus time. Even the emotion of thankfulness, and therefore the act of thanksgiving, must be reduced to an evolutionary device that aids the propagation of the species.
All these wonderful realities that make my life worth living, all the things that are beyond human agency and yet are so meaningful, are they all the result of blind chance? A happy accident? A useful illusion? At the end of the enormous list of blessings that is my life, am I left with a simple shrug and a “lucky me”?
In a worldview of naturalism, I am.
In a worldview of pantheism, everything and everyone is connected into a single universal whole. Whether it is a spiritual or mental connection, all distinctions are at least irrelevant and probably an illusion. Because reality is ultimately an impersonal transcendence, there is no one to ultimately thank.
All these wonderful realities that make my life worth living, all the things that are beyond human agency and yet are so meaningful, are they all the emanations of an impersonal oneness? Is my gratitude simply a hint of my dissolving into the universal whole?
In a worldview of pantheism, it is.
It is crucial to state plainly: None of this is to say that a person who describes themselves as atheist or agnostic, pantheist or spiritualist, cannot be thankful. Atheists are every bit as grateful as anyone else and encourage each other to be thankful. Pantheists are equally grateful and are just as apt to express thankfulness to others.
Nevertheless, thanksgiving is cut short to the human connections we have in front of us. What about gratitude for the beauty of the cosmos, the forming of relationships, the blessing of life itself? To whom are we to express gratitude for all those things that are beyond human agency?
Philosopher Roland Aronson wrote of a particularly meaningful experience he once had while walking through the woods. He was overwhelmed by the sense of awe at the beauty he observed. However, he was struck by his inability to fully express himself in that moment:
But something else as well, curious and less distinct, a vague feeling more like gratitude than anything else but not towards any being or person I could recognize. Only half-formed, this feeling didn’t fit into any easily discernable category, evading my usual lenses and language of perception.
Dr. Aronson is to be commended for his candor and his intriguing suggestion of a way in which a person can have “gratitude in a godless world.”
Nevertheless, he wants to be thankful. But as he sees the world, there is no one to thank.
As a Christian, I am thankful that there is someone to thank. At the end of my long list of people to whom I am deeply grateful is a final “Thank you” to the One responsible for it all.
I think it is important for us Christians to remember this aspect of our faith for which we ought to be thankful, namely that we have someone to whom we can be.
Theologian Albert Mohler states it well:
The inevitable conflict (what James Orr called the “antagonism”) between the Christian view of the world and the secular view comes down to gratitude as much as anything else.
He states elsewhere:
Thanksgiving is a deeply theological act, rightly understood. As a matter of fact, thankfulness is a theology in microcosm — a key to understanding what we really believe about God, ourselves, and the world we experience.”
I am thankful for Thanksgiving and the opportunity it affords us to reflect on the blessings of life. Furthermore, I am thankful that there is Someone I can thank for all of it.
 Roland Aronson, “Thank who very much?” (https://www.pdcnet.org/tpm/content/tpm_2006_0034_0033_0036)
 Albert Mohler, “Gratitude Without God — Just Whom Does an Atheist Thank?” (https://albertmohler.com/2006/08/16/gratitude-without-god-just-whom-does-an-atheist-thank/)
 Albert Mohler, “Thanksgiving as Theological Act: What Does it Mean to Give Thanks?” (https://albertmohler.com/2016/11/23/thanksgiving-theological-act-mean-give-thanks/)
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