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On Thanksgiving and the Act of Gratitude

November 21st, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I have taken to joking in recent months that given the shape of my life at this particular moment, I've lost every right to complain--ever.

And it's true:  I have a great deal to be thankful for.  I am in the midst of being a student again, I live in C.S. Lewis's house, I am working on a second book, and somehow we haven't managed to drive all of Mere-O's readers (you) away.  And that's simply the surface.  The parts of my life I don't write about, my marriage and my friendships, make everything else possible.  It's really a wonderful season for me, though unlike other such seasons I feel more humbled  and intimidated than I do deserving.

G.K. Chesterton

And therein lies a point.  Gratitude lies in contingency, in the recognition that the goods we have might not have been.  I was recently asked by a friend what single thought they should take away from reading Chesterton's Orthodoxyand I answered along these lines.  Joy comes conditionally, as the recognition and response to the limits on our lives.  But it also comes conditionally in a deeper sense.  The contingency of the world is tied to its goodness, and our celebration of joy is inextricable from the wonder that all might have been different than it is:

I have explained that the fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness.

Our non-necessary existence is itself the miracle, a fact that should liven the most troubled heart.  We exist.  We know of many sorrows and troubles in this world and we cannot escape its pains.  But even the most troubled soul and body remains a life within a universe of goods that are so awfully, wonderfully strange.  Which is why Chesterton understood the problem of suicide so well:  it is not only acting the traitor against the fundamental oath of loyalty to the goodness of life itself, but it is the denial of the universe and scorning of all its goods.  "The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world."

As Christians, we are taught to meditate on our death to remember that all is less permanent than it seems.  But such meditation is the furthest thing from a nihilistic annihilationism:  it is a joyful affirmation that all we have is a gift.  And as Karl Barth has argued, gratitude is the creaturely response to that grace.  (And yes, I am pretty sure that this is the only Thanksgiving post that will remind us of our mortality.)  For the Christian, the question is not Hamlet's morose "To be or not to be" but one of joy or more joy, the joy of living now with Christ or the joy of being permanently reunited.

Chesterton notes in Orthodoxy that it is only when we made a holy day for the gods that we found ourselves with a holiday for man.  But while the religious dimensions of Thanksgiving are these days somewhat dubious, we might go the other direction and find ourselves this holiday with something a bit more than we bargained for.  For the act of gratitude opens the heart to be confronted by grace, as it disposes us to see and attend to the goodness of the world that might otherwise lay forgotten and neglected.

Happy Thanksgiving, then.  I hope that your day is a joyous one.  We will return with more words on Monday.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.