To give thanks to God ( or Zeus), or not?

MP3

Much of this week has been taken up with a pastoral matter that would be wrong to discuss here in detail - especially as these addresses are posted on my blog and now also as an mp3. But what I can say is that events played out in a fashion that enabled one person safely to make their way home many thousands of miles away (let's call them A) and a second (a relative of A's), to make some important preparations for their own immanent death. The initial way I met A, and then the way my existing set of contacts and previously arranged appointments for the week enabled the situation to unfold in a way meant, on at least three shining occasions, that I had to express out loud (both for myself and for those I was with) amazement at what had just occurred. Let's stand in the presence one of those shining moments.

The wholly natural and intuitive language that I 'use' in such a situation is, perhaps not surprisingly given my role as a minister of religion, religious and the most basic form it takes is, as you might expect: "Thank God". It is important to remember that when I utter the words "Thank God" they are sounded without a beat between what I am tempted to call my thought/feeling on the one hand and, on the other, the appearance of the words themselves. In fact to say I 'used' these words is really misleading because I would go so far as to say that my thoughts/feelings and the words themselves are really the same thing and *cannot* be separated out - my 'thought-feeling-words' is the way I both experience and express what it was to be in the world at that time and place and doing the things I was. (It's a speech-act). The way things were showing up for me and A was 'miracle-like' in that we both experienced, in a very heightened way, the feeling of being, as Dreyfus and Kelly note ( Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  68) the 'target' of a statistically unlikely set of circumstances in which things were happening which were clearly 'outside' our own control. Part of the meaning we found in these events was, of course, centred on the way a section of path was 'suddenly illuminated' before us which we felt might just 'lead' us out of the present nightmare and to a better place and time - in other words we felt a sustaining hope was grace-fully appearing in our lives. Note that here the language is all, necessarily, of a kind related to the subjective sense of being cared for - we were the 'target' of these events, things were happening 'outside' our control, a path was illuminated by something 'other' than our own light, and, in hope and grace, we found ourselves being 'led' along a path not of our own making.

Now, during one of the occasions during the unfolding of this story when A and I - and a number of times also Susanna - had time to sit down to eat and to talk about these things our conversation naturally - naturally that is for our culture - moved towards more abstract matters of belief and to what we really 'meant' by giving thanks to God. As you will hear in a moment I think this move is a real distraction but we'll hold this point back for a moment.

A initially assumed that, because I was a minister of religion, by saying "Thank God" for what had happened I must mean that the statistically unlikely set of circumstances we had just experienced was the result of some kind of direct intervention by God. But those of you who know me know I really cannot believe in such a God. A significant enduring problem with our inherited monotheistic conception of God she was assuming I held, is that this God has to be, amongst other things, omni-benevolent - all good. The problem with this is, well, OK, on this occasion, God may well have just saved you from utter catastrophe but why the hell did he put you in that cruel and dangerous situation in the first place? Such a God is clearly morally repellent and, even if such a God did exist (which I'm sure he doesn't), I would be fighting against him side-by-side with the rebel angels and I said as much.

In the end it turned out that neither of us did in fact believe in such a God and, after the event and in the calm of the dinner-table, we both wanted strongly to back-away from such the thought that such an interventionist monotheistic God was involved in the events we experienced. But the significant problem with this kind of post-event conversation in which we back-away from the use of religious language is that, (especially if you do this after every occasion you have thanked God) in the end it begins to create in us a feeling of foolishness, distaste even, about using God-language in the first place and, as our worry increases and our angst becomes crippling, we slowly find ourselves unable to express spontaneously, out loud and together our wonder and gratitude. We slowly become more and more religiously and spiritually voiceless and disconnected from ourselves as beings-in-the-world.

The problem is that, superficially, the two examples I have just given seem to represent very different and contradictory beliefs and to require, therefore, some kind of choice between the two. The first example, in which I said thanks to God, seems to imply a belief in a single supernatural interventionist Deity and locates the answer to the question of 'what really matters' in this single God. The second example, using words like "luck" or "coincidence", seems to imply a world without such a God which is radically contingent and which is, therefore, basically a world in which nothing really matters.

Our culture, for many complicated reasons, finds it very important indeed to know which of these two possible interpretations is right. It wants to know what really matter - what eternally and universally matters.

But the desire to know what eternally and universally matters - i.e. which one is right and which one is wrong - is, as Dreyfus and Kelly note, to hear the question of what *matters* as being about metaphysics: the question seems to be asking: Is there or is there not an entity - like the Judeo-Christian God, for example - who is the source [of everything lining up in the way it did for me]? ( Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  70). If the answer is no then it seems we must choose a world in which nothing really matters and that it was just luck or chance which meant things played out the way they did.

But, again as Dreyfus and Kelly note, this metaphysical version of the question is really a terrible distraction and, as far as I'm concerned to continue to be so distracted is really not helping us to live a deeper, more abundant, meaningful life in our secular age - it doesn't help us deal with how we-are-in-the-world.

The question that really matters is not whether God is or is not, or was, or was not, the causal agent in the events I experienced "but whether gratitude was an appropriate response" to what happened to us (cf.  Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p. 71). I really cannot stress this strongly enough and in a second I'll repeat this point to drive it home.

At the centre of the events of last week as they showed up for us all it was clear - beyond all shadow of existential doubt - that gratitude *was* the only appropriate response and the way we embody this in our culture is to say "Thank God". As our second reading showed (printed at the end of this post), in Homeric times we would have embodied this by thanking an appropriate god from the Pantheon - for Odysseus those thanks were offered to Athena and matters could simply be left there. But for our culture which has got hung up on the distracting idea that religious language says something metaphysical we can't leave it there - we have to go on and say something theological about what this *means* - to say something about something else which lies behind events. The only way we can, like Odysseus, simply leave our expressions of gratitude as they burst forth without further unhelpful analysis, is if we can begin to learn that the question that really matters in religion is, to repeat, not whether God is or is not, or was, or was not, the causal agent in the events I experienced "but whether gratitude is an appropriate response" to what has happened to us (cf. Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  71).

Now what name or names our culture may come to 'use' in the future as an appropriate shared public expression of gratitude I simply do not know but what I can say is that one cannot artificially decide - in the abstract or de novo - what those words are to be. (The need for a *shared public expression* of gratitude is a hugely vital aspect of what I am saying but today I'll just pass over it.) Whatever language we might end up using it has to be one that is, somehow, already part of our own culture and shared.

One possible line of development is to find contemporary ways of shifting our religious language of gratitude away from monotheistic expressions to pluralistic ones which speak, not of God, but of the gods. Here we may draw meaningfully on our inherited Greek culture. The chief benefit of this would be that we needn't get caught up in kind of bind the language of gratitude a single omni-benevolent God seems to require of us - remember my earlier illustration when I noted that, OK, on this occasion, God may well have just saved you from utter catastrophe but why the hell did he put you in that cruel and dangerous situation in the first place?

Instead we may, slowly, be able to find ways to express and share together the feeling gratitude in ways mirror the real complexity of life in a material world in which things have meaning and show up and shine for us in all kinds of bright and dark ways.

So, in the middle of last week's event, as things fell seemingly miraculously in place perhaps I should have said, "Zeus' work". Later, as we all found ourselves in safety and warmth around the kitchen table next door, perhaps we should raised a toast and said "Hestia's work". As A flew high into the sky on silver wings and headed back homeward perhaps Susanna and I should, in gratitude, have simply said "Hermes' work". And lastly, as this address seemed to write itself perhaps I should have finished by saying, "Apollo's work". One thing is for sure it's entire contents were gifted to me and in no way can be considered to be wholly my own and for that gift I am grateful and I must give thanks, and why not to Apollo?

Maybe one day something like this will happen, maybe we can begin quietly to invite the Olympian gods - or at least the language of the Olympian gods - back into our corporate religious life to help us better express our gratitude in a way that doesn't tempt us to carry on in our old metaphysical nonsensical ways. Maybe there is another language waiting for us just around the corner I don't know. But publicly - as a shared language of gratitude - to thank Zeus, Hestia, Hermes and Apollo in our churches would, frankly, be a bit odd and mannered.

So for now - though perhaps not forever - thanking God is sufficient and for last week's events I do, indeed, give thanks to God.


*****
READING

To UNDERSTAND BETTER the Greek sense of the sacred, let us consider an example in which it seems natural to Homer to invoke the presence of the gods. In a representative scene toward the end of the Odyssey, the suitors throw a host of spears at Odysseus from pointblank range. Homer describes the event:

“Again six suitors cast their shafts with force; but each shot missed its mark — Athena's work”

The idea here is that it must not have seemed merely arbitrary or fortunate to Odysseus that these enemy spears missed their mark. It must have seemed to him, rather, that there was some meaning or purpose in this fact, that he was being cared for in the event. Homer's way of expressing this is to insist that the spears missed Odysseus because Athena was protecting him from the enemy attack.

There is something one can retrieve from this description and something one cannot. Obviously we cannot believe that some supernatural entity named Athena actually caused the spears to turn aside. Even if we replace Athena with the Judeo-Christian God, our secular age typically rebels at the thought (though some, of course, will admit this possibility). But whatever the precise metaphysical and theological facts, let us focus on the phenomenology of the situation. Imagine yourself, for the moment, in Odysseus's place. Six of your enemies have amassed before you at close range; each picks up a spear and together they hurl them at you all at once. You are prepared, as the great warrior always is, to die a heroic death in the following instant. Indeed, it looks inevitable. But instead:

"One spearhead struck the sturdy hall's doorpost, and one, the tightly-fitted door itself; two other ash-wood shafts, tipped with stout bronze, just struck the wall. And though two shafts drew close, they leveled nothing more than glancing blows."

What relief, what amazement, what gratitude one must feel! And can it possibly have been blind chance? By any natural measure, it must seem to Odysseus, things should have gone the other way. One experiences this—or at least Homer's character experienced it—not just as mere luck or good fortune, but as an event that tells him he is well cared for. Athena's work indeed.

ALTHOUGH WE ARE NOT likely to attribute events like this to the work of a god, there is nevertheless something familiar in Odysseus's way of experiencing the situation. Those who escape natural disasters or other dangerous situations, for example, often do feel that it was not a mere accident that they were saved. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult — when one is the target of a statistically unlikely  event — to feel otherwise.

(Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 pp. 67-68)
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