Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanksgiving and Personhood

Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a prolific author, and an agnostic – made so by his personal struggles with theodicy, the problem of suffering in a world created and ruled by a good God. I once heard a debate between Ehrman and Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright – himself a New Testament Scholar and recognized expert on the historical Jesus and Pauline studies– on this topic. Each scored a few debating points; neither offered much new in the perennial debate. The discussion was generally forgettable, with the exception of one moment of personal reflection by Ehrman. In recounting his loss of faith and its aftermath, Ehrman acknowledged a void left behind: the lack of anyone to give thanks to for the many moments of grace in his life. Without God, it is impossible to give thanks – though one may be genuinely thankful – for the many “accidental” blessings of life: the presence of a loving companion, the health of family, the abundance of goods, the joy of meaningful work. What do we do with these deep feelings of gratitude when no one is responsible for the blessings, when there is no one to thank? This is Ehrman’s – and any agnostic’s – dilemma, and Ehrman truthfully and courageously confesses it.

This haunting confession points to a deep truth of thanksgiving. It is not enough to feel vaguely, if genuinely, thankful. Thanks must be given; it must be expressed personally – from person to person. So one Eucharistic Prayer begins:

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Celebrant: It is truly right to glorify you, Father, and to give you thanks; for you alone are God, living and true, dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and forever.

We come as person -- gathered in communion with other persons -- to Person. Christian thanksgiving -- and all true thanksgiving -- begins in personhood, in the recognition that the other has enriched you, that the other is a source of blessing. Christian thanksgiving begins with doxology, with the recognition and acknowledgement that God is the Other from Whom all blessings flow. Christian thanksgiving begins with prayer to God who is everywhere present and filling all things, the Treasury of good things and Giver of life.

Orthodox anthropology tells us that man is a tripartite being: body, soul, and spirit. The soul is both life force and mind, the reasoning, discursive aspect of man that grapples with such things as theodicy. The spirit is more central still. It perceives truth directly, unmediated by reason, truth revealed by Person to person. Thanksgiving lives in the spirit and transcends rational doubt. Ehrman knows -- and knows in the spirit -- that it is good and right, always and everywhere, to give thanks to the Father, the Almighty. More's the pity that he has no way now to do so.

By God's grace we do. And so, on this Feast of Thanksgiving -- and every day -- let us offer our tribute of thanks and praise to God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

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