Theology of Thanksgiving: Whom Shall We Thank?

We must give up either Divine power or Divine goodness.
November 27, 2020
Photo by Artit Fongfung / EyeEm/Getty Images

Studying the history of Thanksgiving is like digging a narrow mine shaft into the complexities of the history of the English settlement and the United States.

For years, various days of Thanksgiving had been pronounced at different levels of government, almost all in response to bountiful harvests or military victories, often at the same time. Public thanksgiving feasts were constantly organized, the most emblematic being the one organized by the Puritan separatists (or “Pilgrims”) in the Plymouth colony in 1621, after a catastrophic first year on the continent. As anyone who went to elementary school in the United States up to a certain time can attest, a large number of Native Americans were invited. (The bonhomie between the European settlers and the Native Americans deteriorated drastically over time.)

Since that Puritan feast and for many thereafter, the Thanksgiving holiday has become fundamentally theological, promoting the idea that God provides our bountiful harvests and our victories in war. What we don’t notice, of course, is the years of shortages, famine and military failures. If it is God who provides the bounty, it seems that God withholds the bounty, too.

I know that the theology of Thanksgiving is typically not the grist for discussion at most Thanksgiving dinners, but there might be a few people — between the turkey and pumpkin pie — who would like to take the theology of Thanksgiving seriously, for just a moment.

Take our presidents’ Thanksgiving statements, for example. Presidential proclamations give an overall picture of the conventional Thanksgiving theology on God — one who provides for bounty and national success. Lincoln and FDR, our greatest war-time presidents, shared a view of an all-powerful and gracious God who kept the crops growing and ensured success in war. Their proclamations played a large role in making Thanksgiving a national holiday. (And their theologies of Thanksgiving are certainly in line with traditional Jewish theology.)

President Jefferson, on the other hand, never made a Thanksgiving declaration. As a Deist, he did not believe in Divine Providence (“God provides”). Deists believe, in general, that a divine creator set up the physical and moral laws of the universe and what comes next is up to us. Some call this the theology of the “watchmaker God” — a divine being made the watch, wound it up, and walked away.

As I think about the theology of Thanksgiving, I find myself more on the Jeffersonian side of things, as I consider the divine dispensing goodness according to some criterion that I cannot comprehend. If the divine dispenses the good, so the thinking goes, then the divine withholds the good, as well.

Give and Take

Thanksgiving brings up for me more theological ambivalence than gratitude to God. Like many of you, I recall innocents (including a vast number of Jews 80 years ago) being swept up in horrific, brutal and heartless wars. I recall catastrophic droughts (some looming) and failed harvests, causing human starvation and misery.

If God were all knowing, all powerful and good, I am often asked, why would God permit these natural catastrophes? Why would God permit evil people to take charge?

That question is at the crux of Thanksgiving and traditional Western theology. Traditional theologians believe that God is good and all powerful. God, according to them, could provide good harvests everywhere and every year, but chooses not to for some reason that we mere humans cannot understand.

But this conception of God poses a real and painful reality. When my son Kayitz served two tours in the Iraq war between 2003 and 2005, I became an informal chaplain to many families whose children served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. One family’s son was grievously wounded. They came to meet with me, and the mother cried, “I am a good and pious woman. I prayed and prayed and prayed. God was supposed to have protected my son. How could (an all-powerful and good) God do this to us?”

My answer is that all our theological calculations require that we give up either Divine power or Divine goodness.

From a traditional perspective, if we believe that God exists, then we must believe in God’s goodness. Whatever God is, God is the author of the universe and of the moral law — the law of conscience that requires that we be good to each other — by which we ought to live. Free choice is a requirement of this moral law: nearly every culture believes that there really are better and worse answers to moral questions and that human beings have some degree of freedom in choosing to live in alignment with the moral law or not.

But the freedom of choice in moral law means that God is not all powerful, nor all knowing. God does not have the power to make us choose one action or another, nor does God have the knowledge of what we will do. How can God be good, then, if God cannot enforce moral law?

Based on my theological standpoints, experience working with hundreds of suffering families and my study and knowledge of history (especially the Holocaust), I believe that God is the source and inspiration for the good but does not have the power to enforce it. We human beings must choose to be good and create goodness. The power of creating good lies not with God, but in the power of human will.

The Goodness of People

I, like you, feel grateful for so many things. But I am not sure whom to thank. The idea that some divine mind is behind all that for which I am grateful is theoretically plausible, but I can’t make sense of it all, given all the misery in the world. Instead of focusing on the unseen causes of that for which I am grateful, I focus on my gratitude for the people who choose to do good things.

We see this focus on the good, and not so much the cause of the good, in how we celebrate Thanksgiving. Nowadays, in one of the unique events that can be described as “American culture,” many of us get a day off, eat turkey dinners together, watch football or hang out in the kitchen and in usual years, maybe watch or go to a parade.

Some of these dinners start off with a beautiful ritual of people stating, “what I’m grateful for this year.” Most often, this gratitude extends to family and close friends, many sitting at the table. If we are truly grateful, it is because of what they do and what they bring out in us. The bonds of love and friendship, the feeling that we belong somewhere, we long for and belong to others, and they to us. Essentially, but maybe not consciously, we thank them for their goodness.

If people truly are good in a sustained way, their goodness comes from reflection and will. Being good — that is, bringing goodness to others and to the world — requires focus and choice. Yes, we should practice random acts of kindness. We should plan to be kind.

I don’t understand the theological cause of natural disasters, including a pandemic. I doubt there is one. I do know, however, that in the face of human suffering, legions of human beings work and risk their lives to alleviate the suffering of others. I am thankful for those good people taking care of us.

History abounds with the actions of the evil, the cruel and merciless. History also abounds with those who seek and fight for justice, who work to protect the innocent and fight against that evil. I am very distressed that we don’t do enough or even know exactly what is to be done in the face of evil and human suffering. I don’t blame God for human perfidy and ignorance. I am, simply, profoundly grateful for those who struggle against the worst effects of the human condition.

I am, simply, profoundly grateful for those who struggle against the worst effects of the human condition.

I think that whatever good that happens in the world is due either to good fortune or the intentional efforts of human beings. I am grateful for good fortune, in an instinctive sort of way, but I am consciously grateful for good people in a reflective, intentional way.

Where is God in this gratitude for good people, those who make a difference in my life and in human history? In my way of thinking, the Divine will for goodness operates in and through those who do the good, but they have to be receptive to it. God, in my mind, cannot command the harvest, but can guide in its tithing for the benefit of, as our tradition phrases it, the “widow, orphan and stranger in our midst.” We are commanded; you can choose to follow his commandment or not.

God cannot make us be good and moral people, but nearly all of us are created with a conscience. Through the conscience we can metaphorically hear and assent to the divine call for love, justice and truth. We are not puppets or robots, doing the bidding of God. We can, however, consciously or not, know God in the soul and know of God’s will to the good, even if we don’t believe in a Divine being. Humans are the nexus between God willing the good and our broken, fragmented world that yearns for the good. We can choose.

As I thank people for being in my life at our Thanksgiving dinner and the good they bring to me, I think more deeply about all those working for justice, truth and peace. We make sure to talk about these ideas — the good people in our lives, and the good people in the world and our gratitude to them.

I don’t really know what moves people to such extraordinary lives of goodness, or what the ultimate cause of this great, painful and grand mystery is, but this unique American holiday binds us all, at one moment or another, in giving thanks to those who will and do the good.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.

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