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Gratitude Problems? 26 November 2015

Posted by Dr Moose in Chaplaincy, Faith, Life, Ponderings, Theology, University.
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In case you hadn’t noticed, quite a difficult feat if you are in any way connected to social media in much of the English-speaking world, today our American cousins celebrate Thanksgiving (and I hope they enjoy it). It’s a particularly transatlantic feast (i.e. both the U.S and Canada have it, although despite having some Canadian uni student friends I can’t speak with any confidence over their interpretation) that has become a major celebration for family get-togethers, general over-indulgence and all that goes with it (including commercial exploitation). I was casting around for a British analogy, and despite the assertions about the thanks for the harvest,  I found myself thinking of November 5th, and the celebration of the foiling of a dastardly act by one Guido Fawkes that would perhaps today be described as religiously-motivated terrorism. At this point I will acknowledge the weakness of the comparison, and that I’m not even sure how celebrated the event is beyond England. There is, however, a common theme that links them: gratitude, giving thanks.

Giving thanks. The simple acknowledgement of the actions, even sometimes the very existence of another. How many times have I, as a parent, done that verbal poke at one of my children, “say thank you”? It’s such a simple little thing, easily lost or disregarded, but of so much value. To the struggling worker, churning through the same daily routine. To the homeless Big Issue seller. To a mother or a child. To the stranger on the bus. Thank you, for your service. No, but thank you, for the one most try to blank out. Thank you, for the care so easily presumed, or the thought and effort borne of love. Thank you for moving over. (And I know I’m not perfect and fail to be say it too often as well. I cast no stones on this one).

But the recognition goes beyond the private. Thanksgiving in the American sense has its origins in gratitude expressed not just at an inter-personal, horizontal, level, but a vertical, human-divine one. I’ll wager the same holds true for Bonfire Night – a thanking of God. The vertical gratitude motif also figures, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, around Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. And this is where things start to blur and unravel, as actions originally incorporating a divine acknowledgement confront the increasingly secular and individualised worldviews of contemporary Western culture.

Gratitude to the divine, the numinous, the uncertain and immaterial unknown that lies beyond ourselves is unsettling, and seems to be increasingly so to many around us. The world of presumed, shared, faith-based, values is passing, or at least, up for debate. A couple of weeks back I led the annual Act of Remembrance (on Armistice Day) at university. Nobody has ever asked me to do it. It’s just something I do, almost in spite my own personal (cautious) feelings about “civic religion”, because it seems right in the context and links the university with the past of the site itself. I was pleasantly surprise, because the turnout was excellent. Yet what pleased me most wasn’t the number of those who came, nor my ability to time the ceremony to within about 6 seconds of 11am for the two minutes’ silence, but the fact that somebody cared enough to return some written (negative) feedback. Somebody was listening to what I said, thinking around it, and disagreed enough to respond. The disagreement was to do with what I said, “charged with personal and religious bias” and also up by the unwelcome discovery that the Act showed a “lack of reflective neutrality”. I feel it’s important at this point to reiterate that I was grateful for the feedback, and have since enjoyed a very pleasant chat over a cup of coffee with the author, who I hope won’t object to my anonymously quoting the email.

I wonder, how many others have had similar thoughts though, but not been willing to voice them? Quite a few, I suspect. I admit that I see part of my role as one of provoking conversation and thought, virtues I would hope to find in a university environment, at least partly because the way Chaplaincy works in this place is without much in the way of a visible, iconic, presence in the community such as a Chapel. I’ve blogged elsewhere, following a request from the university, about the challenges for an Established Church when facing contemporary views and attitudes, which also has a bearing on all this.

But how about you? How often do you find difficulty when confronted with the unexpected mention of the divine in a wider, more secular environment or celebration. If you are a believer, the follower of a faith tradition, are you giving due thanks not just at a horizontal level, but a vertical one. Have you allowed the earthly to rather blot out the divine, or leave it to the realm of the personal in that very English attitude of not ruffling feathers?

If you have no belief in any form of higher power or external driver, how do you engage not just with the inter-personal, but with the fact that others don’t see things the same way? All our viewpoints bear personal bias, whether that’s a militant rejection (‘no-one should be forced to listen to this tosh!’ or a benevolent tolerance (‘I’ll interpret this my way, you do it yours’).

I suspect many of my readers will fall somewhere in the middle of these positions: an uncertainty of what’s actually going on, of the existence of something greater or not, of how much it matters. Maybe what matters most of all is an honest engagement with our questions, a preparedness to disagree, and to disagree well. Not as a matter of point-scoring or debate-winning, but for mutual benefit, education and growth. As a minister I’d rather that such engagement led to faith, but more so, that engagement leads to personal growth and an informed integrity. The holding of a faith, or of an ideological position, should be as a result of opting in, rather than one of default. To be able to live out your values, whether derived from faith or not, it rather helps if you understand why you hold them, after all.

(Expect this topic be revisited next year: I seem to have taken responsibility for a Thanksgiving Service to start the 2016 Graduations in the town’s primary “civic” church!)

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