Why are we not more grateful to God at Thanksgiving? Our religious faith costs us too little? So shall we join the Thanksgiving parade with all its joy and promise? Or is the holiday only for family reunions and shopping sprees?
Thanksgiving is the oldest American holiday; in fact, it dates from before the independence of our nation, not just by decades but by more than a century. It is also the most inclusive of our country’s days of celebration.
There were Indians—savages--as the Puritans called them at the first Thanksgiving. The Protestant Pilgrims from England did not celebrate their good harvest alone after a hard winter. Now not just Christians but all citizens are welcome at the feast. Joy and good fellowship are the mood of the day but there is also a serious note of the sacred—of what sociologists call “civil religion” as well.
Citizens at prayer get special mention in presidential Thanksgiving proclamations. Ever since George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (the latter made the day official in a time of the Civil War) the nation’s chief executives have invoked providence in thanks for divine blessings. What about the “unbelievers?” Some of them at least acknowledge fate and good luck. But blessings are something more than luck.
The holiday that the Pilgrims celebrated—like today-- was not one of unmitigated good. We can still enumerate a whole list of things in our world that are counter blessing--war, disease, selfishness and stupidity. One might well pray that fate at least takes on a more positive direction. The early North American celebrants had witnessed persecution, intolerance, illness and death in a strange new world as they sought to survive on a new continent. They simply did not believe that eventually everything would take care of itself in time, and no doubt they would be shocked by our indulgence amid the possibility of atomic destruction by the misuse of modern science.
Believers at the first Thanksgiving were committed to liberty. I would like to insist that in spite of the limitations of their worldview it had, however we name it, “depth.” Unless we despair we finally have “to bet our money” and lives on what the philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern” -- his name for faith. It still does matter whether we struggle amid good and evil for a more decent world.
Here is the key. The Pilgrims simply did not believe that we live in a moral vacuum, a faceless world. They did not give thanks to a blind providence. For them, blessings were reality and they came from a holy source and were not to be taken lightly.
Human life does not go on in a cosmic emptiness. We need to give thanks that this is the case. In the struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, evil is parasitic on the good. There is not just suffering and despair in the midst of human life, but what is called in some religious traditions grace. Blessings give integrity to life; they come from a larger world of reality; they are positive and not just imagined. This is what the Pilgrims affirmed as they gave thanks. For our country, on this day, we make bold to pray, may God bless America.
Niels C. Nielsen, professor emeritus of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University, is the author of “God in the Obama Era: Presidents’ Ethics and Religion from George Washington to Barack Obama.”
Related content from On Faith:
Bronfman: A day devoted to gratitude
Speckhardt: Thanks to humanity!
Schneier and Ali: Muslim, Jews feed thousands across North America