November 23, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, November 23, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Thanks be to whom? Celebrating Thanksgiving in an increasingly secular age
Writing at a popular atheist website, Austin Cline wrote,
“There’s a popular belief among some American Christians that the American Thanksgiving holiday is necessarily religious. Aside from the apparent desire to turn everything into an expression of their religion, the primary reason behind this seems to be the idea that the whole point must be to give thanks to their god – not any other gods, just theirs, thus making it a Christian holiday too. If this is true, then it makes no sense for non-Christians, or at least non-theists, to celebrate Thanksgiving.”Show Full Transcript
Contrast that with the fact that just last year the head of the American Humanist Association said,
“Thanksgiving is a uniquely secular holiday, as gratitude is a universal human emotion.”
That leader also said this is, speaking of Thanksgiving Day, a “special day of the year is a chance for humanists and other nontheists to express gratitude to their friends and loved ones.”
All this points to one of the issues of greatest worldview significance as millions and millions of Americans are about to celebrate the holiday known as Thanksgiving. What exactly can Thanksgiving mean to someone who is an atheist or a secularist? How in an increasingly secular society can we talk about a common holiday in which the common purpose is to give thanks? That raises the huge question: to give thanks to whom? Back at his article, Austin Cline wrote,
“There are many people whom we should thank because of how they help us either live at all or just live better. A common thread in these cases is precisely the fact that it is humans who are responsible for that for which we should be thankful, so it is humans whom we should be thanking. At no point are gods involved; even if they exist, god aren’t responsible for that for which we should be thankful, so there is no point in thanking them.”
His conclusion is this,
“On Thanksgiving, don’t waste time with prayers, poems about gods, or empty religious rituals. Instead, do something meaningful like talking to your children about all the human beings who work (often anonymously) to improve our lives. Stop to reflect on these people and how your life has benefited.”
Here we have a very clear argument that crystallizes the fact that if you are operating from a secular worldview, Thanksgiving has to be completely reconceptualized. That’s also made very clear in an article that appeared by Billy Hollowell making the point that,
“Atheists looking to deliver Thanksgiving grace devoid of any mention of the Almighty are in luck this holiday season,” he says, as back in 2014 the American Humanist Association had released a series of secular invocations for nonbelievers.
The fact that you have to release a series of secular invocations for a secular Thanksgiving is indication of where we are headed as a society in an increasingly secular age. As God recedes from our cultural knowledge, consciousness, and imagination, the proper address for Thanksgiving is also, of course, receding simultaneously.
In recent years we’ve had the emergence of what is sometimes called secular grace, that is a secular Thanksgiving. Kimberly Winston reporting for Religion News Service, tells us,
“Secular grace typically recognizes the animals who gave their lives for the feast, the people who prepared the meal and even the elements of nature that contributed to it — earth, water, fire and air. It also usually makes reference to the secular humanist touchstones of community, interdependence and relationships.”
And she clarifies,
“There’s one more key difference between secular grace and the religious kind: Secular grace is not offered as a prayer, but more as a benediction over those present.”
Zachary Moore, identified is a 33-year-old atheist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said,
“What we do is thank people. Thanksgiving is like a microcosm of your life, when you can look at who has helped you get to the point where you have a family or a close circle of friends you can sit down with. As an atheist, I want to give thanks to those people and everyone around me. That is a real thanksgiving.”
Similarly, Kate Cohen wrote,
“I have always loved Thanksgiving. It’s the perfect holiday: national but not nationalistic, it celebrates consumption but not consumerism.”
And she said,
“It provides all the benefits of a religious holiday (food! family! fellowship!) without reference to a Supreme Being.”
She later offers a prayer that could be offered by an atheist or a secularist at Thanksgiving.
“For the food.
“For the sun and earth, farmers and cooks,
“We give thanks.
“For family and friends.
“For___________ [this is the interactive part: the leader of the prayer names person to right, who says “and for ___________,” naming person to the right, and so on, till back to leader; or the leader could just name everyone]”
The continuation of the prayer”
“We give thanks.
“For the time to gather and the leisure to sit and the spirit to celebrate
“We give thanks.
“We pause to remember those who cannot be with us today
“And those who live more in famine than in feast
“May our sense of good fortune overshadow our daily troubles
“And yet cast light on the struggles of our neighbors.
“For life’s great bounty and the will to share it
“We give thanks.
“And in gratitude, we eat.
One minor footnote here, we should observe that these secular prayers that are offered tend to follow a very similar structure to the Christian prayers they are intended to replace. It turns out that there’s something even in the structure of our language that leads to a certain kind of expression if one is genuinely thankful and if one is addressing that thankfulness to anyone, much less to someone, being the Creator God of the universe. Reporting on the emergence of so-called secular grace, Winston goes on to tell us that,
“Many of the nonreligious will also include a moment of thanks, as ‘secular grace’ grows in popularity among atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers and other so-called ‘nones.’”
“Maggie Ardiente, director of development and communications for the American Humanist Association said ‘we give thanks for what is happening here and now.’”
“‘It is important for us as nonbelievers to recognize that we are lucky in the grand scheme of the universe and to spend this time with our friends and family, and the tradition of doing that once a year, whether you are religious or not, is a valuable thing to do.”
One of the prayers was submitted by the leader of a group known as the Humanists of Idaho. His name is Van Curren. His prayer sounds like this,
“Corn and grain, meat and milk
“Upon our table width and length
“With loving thought and careful craft
“Through so many hands have passed
“Essence of life, fruits of our labors
“Bringing sustenance and strength
“To ours and all our neighbors
“May we all be grateful for all we have
“And compassion for those without.”
Michael W. Jones, writing about a secular Thanksgiving, says,
“‘So, if you don’t believe in God, what do you do on Thanksgiving?’ I have heard that question a few times. Over the years I have developed an answer, of course, but I have never written it down. It has served me well in those moments at mixed atheistic / theistic table when some of those gathered have looked at me to participate in the ritual thanking that believers seem to require or even to say “grace.” It may not be possible, or polite, to disrupt the flow of Thanksgiving if you are a guest, but perhaps these suggestion will give you a silent way to secularize your Thanksgiving.”
What might be these silent ways to secularize Thanksgiving? He says,
“We can use the turkey as an example. A long time ago a turkey farmer in Iowa, or someplace like Iowa, incubated the egg that delivered your turkey’s great-great-great-grandfather into the world for someone’s holiday dining pleasure.”
He goes on to say,
“While you’re driving home from Thanksgiving dinner, you might see some semis on the road or in a truck stop. The drivers of those trucks didn’t get home for Thanksgiving. They will be having that at a Mid-America Truck Plaza or maybe Denny’s. One of those guys might have been the one that delivered your turkey, plucked, cleaned, and frozen, to your supermarket so that you could go in and purchase it without having to expend any extraneous effort.”
From a Christian worldview perspective, there’s some common themes that emerge here. Every one of them deserves our consideration. As I’ve already noted, there is a common linguistic structure to these secular prayers, and I think that’s more than a coincidence. It’s not just a matter of grammar. It’s not just a matter vocabulary. It’s a matter of the fact that if we structure our thoughts for thankfulness, it’s going to look remarkably like a prayer. The second thing we have to recognize is the enduring theme in the secular prayers of good luck or good fortune. But at this point, the Christian worldview reminds us that if what’s operating in the universe is simply luck or chance or what may be considered fortune good or ill, there is no reason to be thankful for receiving good luck. There is no one to whom we can be thankful. Luck is simply an accident, and for an accident you can’t actually be thankful, even if you would prefer good luck to what might be considered bad luck.
One of the second things we see here is the human dimension of thankfulness, and at this point, the Christian worldview reminds us that on Thanksgiving, indeed, and on every day of our lives, there is a level of gratitude and thankfulness that should be addressed to all of those who are around us, even in including the person who plucked and delivered our turkey. But that doesn’t exhaust our impulse to Thanksgiving, nor can it. Michael W. Jones at the end of his article wrote,
“It is not necessary to look into the sky for an invisible, magical god in order to have a Thanksgiving. We all owe thanks to many real people. If you are living your life in a positive and ethical fashion, a large number of people will owe you thanks, as well. None of us should need any more than that to be thankful.”
Remember also that that suggested secular prayer by Kate Cohen addressed farmers and cooks for whom she is thankful, and of course we should be thankful for farmers and cooks. Furthermore as we look at this, we are reminded in that article by Austin Cline of his straightforward argument. It deserves repeating,
“There are many people whom we should thank because of how they help us either live at all or just live better. A common thread in these cases is precisely the fact that it is humans who are responsible for that for which we should be thankful, so it is humans whom we should be thanking.”
Now let’s just think about that for a moment. By the way, his very next words are these,
“At no point are gods involved; even if they exist.”
Now let’s just keep that in mind for a moment because in his first line he had said there are many people who we should thank because of how they help us either live at all or just live better. That points to the fact that as thankful as we should rightly be to many other human beings, we cannot thank any human being, most fundamentally, for the gift of life. The fact that we live at all actually cannot be attributed to any mere human agency. The statement that at no point are gods involved is simply a very clear understanding of the fact that a secular worldview with a secular Thanksgiving and a secular prayer delivered on that holiday also requires an entirely secular worldview in which all of the cosmos, including the human lives within it, are sheer accidents. Once again, you are not properly thankful for an accident. It just happened.
Another interesting footnote at this point has to do with the Thanksgiving holiday as it is observed in the United States. To her credit, Kate Cohen, who offered one of those atheist or secular prayers at Thanksgiving, is at least intellectually honest enough to say that even though she had assumed that Thanksgiving was a safely secular holiday, a closer look at the actual historical evidence indicated otherwise. She writes that curious about the holiday, she looked up the facts.
She says that’s “a terrible mistake if you want to leave your beliefs undisturbed. The origin of Thanksgiving,” she tells her fellow secularists “is seriously, sincerely religious, more so than Christmas. Apparently,” she says “New England colonists used to declare days of prayer in which to give thanks to God.”
And she says the actual historical evidence indicates that,
“George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation — October 3, 1789 — does just that. It recommends ‘a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be… devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.’”
She says as an atheist,
“OK, got it. No wiggle room there.”
She actually did a bit of further investigation. She reports,
“From ‘Whereas’ to ‘in the year of our Lord 1789,’ in 467 words, there are seven mentions of God as a noun (including variations on the word), four as a pronoun, and five as a possessive adjective (‘his’).”
In other words, you can’t have Thanksgiving in terms of the American historical holiday without God being at the center of it. But of course the argument then comes: that was then, and this is now. That was when America was far more shaped and formed by a pervasive Christian worldview. But that’s now been eclipsed in our hypermodern and secular age. Now, the argument goes, we’re going to have to update Thanksgiving to go with our new secular season. The problem is even the secularists can’t seem quite to pull that off.
The sin of ingratitude and the remedy of thanks: Biblical foundations of Thanksgiving
And at this point, this is where our Christian worldview analysis takes us away from the headlines of the day and into the pages of Scripture.
In Romans chapter 1, Paul describes the plight of humanity with these words:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
Then in Romans chapter 1, verse 21, Paul writes,
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Now the thing we need to note in terms of biblical theology is that that is not an indictment of certain human beings. That’s an indictment of fallen humanity. That is an indictment of what human beings have done in our sinfulness. We have denied the Creator and we have worshipped the creature. We’ve exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and in terms of God’s self-revelation, we knew God but would not honor him as God or give thanks to him. The most important thing we realize there in Romans chapter 1 verse 21 is that the refusal to give thanks is at the very heart of the Fall. It’s at the very heart of human sinfulness.
In terms of biblical theology, it can be well argued that ingratitude is the most fundamental of all sins. It’s the sin of ingratitude by this reading that led our first father and first mother, Adam and Eve, to defy the clear command of God and to eat from that tree of which the fruit was forbidden. The important thing there to understand is that they were given the endless bounty of the perfect garden, but in their ingratitude they demanded the one thing that was forbidden them. But then we come to understand that ingratitude is the primal problem at the heart of humanity from Genesis 3 forward because we actually learn to read every single passage of Scripture, every account of human sinfulness, as an account of ingratitude. It was the children of Israel who were ungrateful to God’s redeeming purpose when they complained against Moses in the wilderness. It is ingratitude on the part of the people that led, of course, to the formation of the golden calf. It is ingratitude that we see written in terms of the tragic history of Israel’s kings. It is ingratitude that we see indicted by the prophets in the Old Testament. And it is ingratitude that we are told in Romans chapter 1, that classic text of Scripture, that is at the very heart of the human problem, of the fallen human condition, of what it means for humanity to be sinners.
The other really important thing for us to recognize here in Romans chapter 1 is how ingratitude then shapes worldview. That is exactly what we are told here in absolutely straightforward terms. Again I read Romans chapter 1 verse 21,
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
In other words, when we ask the question, how can certain people who defy the existence of God, who deny the authority of God, who declare themselves to be secularists or atheists, how do they get to their worldview? Well, here Romans chapter 1 in verse 21 makes that very, very clear. The refusal to acknowledge God or give thanks to Him leads to a completely distorted frame of reference. It leads to unreality rather than reality. The biblical language forward here is very clear.
“They became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Now again in terms of our gratitude, we need to remember in humility that this is not a passage that indicts modern secularists and atheists as something new at the expense of the rest of humanity. This is an indictment of all humanity, which also points to the gratitude that must come, particularly to the Christian. This is because we believe that the gospel clearly teaches that salvation is by grace alone, and that grace alone can only be the most fundamental ground of our gratitude. The biblical worldview grounds gratitude in terms of everything God is and everything God has done for us—first of all, of course, in creation, and this is where defying the modern secular, evolutionary, materialistic worldview, we have to say that we are thankful for life because we know that it was a divine Creator who said “Let there be,” and everything that he said was and of course is. And that includes of course the gift of every single human life with every single human being made in God’s own image.
And then we also have to understand in terms of biblical theology our necessary gratitude even for the law. Because even as we rightly understand the contrast between law and grace, we also understand that the law itself was a gift. This is why in Deuteronomy chapter 4 you have Moses speaking to the people as God asked the question,
“Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?”
In other words, Israel must understand with gratefulness that it was the people God loved enough to give the law. But, of course, for the Christian the ultimate Thanksgiving comes in the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ, made very clear, for example, when Paul in the book of Romans says,
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Once he has acknowledged that he has contributed and can contribute nothing to his salvation, all that is left is sheer gratitude as he makes the acknowledgement that salvation is entirely God’s act, and it is entirely God’s gift. And that’s the very same reason that the apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verses 16 and following with these commands:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
That was not merely a word from the Apostle Paul to the church at Thessalonica. It was an exhortation from the Holy Spirit to Christians everywhere and wherever they are found. It is God’s will in Christ Jesus for us that we are to give thanks in all circumstances. This is where we as Christians need to understand that biblical theology points us to the fact that Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday. It is indeed the very fabric of the Christian life. But it also reminds us of the fact that as fallen and fragile human beings, it is important for us from time to time to create special days in which we particularly remember the thankfulness of which is always our due. But we also recognize as Christians that human beings are fragile and we are frail. We cannot hold all the thankfulness that is our due at any given moment, much less at every moment, and that’s why it’s not inappropriate for Christians to join in special days of Thanksgiving. That’s not only a precedent in terms of American history, it’s a precedent in terms of biblical history.
At this particular Thanksgiving in the United States in the year 2016, it is important for us to recognize the worldview significance of the emergence of so-called secular grace around us. It is indeed secular. It is not grace, and we need in contrast to understand not just what’s present in those prayers, but even more importantly what’s absent. But then we also need to understand that for Christians, thanksgiving is not merely an attitude. It’s not merely a prayer. It is also a vocation. It is thanksgiving to which we are called, and it is a thanksgiving that is to be constant in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us. So in that spirit, as so many listeners to The Briefing will be traveling this day, I wish and pray for each of you a very Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks be to God.