I’ve been thinking about this question – ‘does gratitude to God make sense today?’ – following the deaths of three close friends in these past three weeks. At a Center dedicated to the wisdom of religious and spiritual traditions across the world, it helps in times like these to ask the most important questions in the clearest possible form. What do we make of gratitude to God in times like these?
The divine-human connection includes the premise that we experience contradiction, chiefly between the idea of a loving deity and the daily sufferings humanity faces, as evident from specific conflict zones in the world to the arrival of a global pandemic. Across the arc of time, contradiction is a part of any human experience of relationship to God, clarified within the theological conundrum of theodicy, as the challenge of human suffering in light of an all-powerful and all-loving deity. Both Dr. Wendy Farley’s important work on contradiction and suffering as Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy, and premiere indologist Dr. Diana Eck’s reading of the Hindu understanding of goddess Kali (who is ever-present in life and the struggle of death), reveal renditions on suffering and gratitude to the gods. Their scholarship joins a cadre of religious scholars who see gratitude as an existential human relationship with — that first informs a moral response to – God or transcendence.
And yet, catalogued within all originating religious sacred narratives, the first human act is widely summarized as a response of gratitude to the creator and sanctifier of the natural world for the gifts of existence that are often taken for granted, including: Life and health, plentiful harvest, the virtues of community, and even the simple embrace of loved ones unimpeded by a pestilence.
Every religious and spiritual tradition balances their accounts of gratitude to God or the divinities within the experience of individual and societal trauma. As with a pandemic such as Covid-19, when those living today have no experience of the scale of massive loss and duress, the living memory of elders and forebears is located in the texts and compendiums of wisdom that define these communities. The Anabaptist Martyrs Mirror, the rabbinical Gemara, and the Zoroastrian Zend glosses, provide interpretation of suffering and gratitude to God across generations, which are classics because they guide past, present and future.
In fact, each religion includes aspirational accounts of gratitude to God, even as generations of followers are also met with the experience of permeative suffering. The Jewish people experienced pogroms and the Shoah, Buddhist monasteries were attacked in the upheaval of 16th century Japanese life, the Kiowa and Lakota were displaced from the cradle of their accounts of creation, western and eastern Christians experienced martyrdom from early Asia Minor through the Thirty Years War, and today religious and spiritual traditions around the world face a pandemic age with drastic and uneven consequences for individuals and societies alike. Then as now, and often for pastoral reasons, religious and spiritual traditions will reimagine and recalibrate gratitude to God through the experiences of suffering, loss of livelihood and life, insurmountable grief, and more.
I am often reminded how, during his own time of sickness, war and massive transition in 16th century Germany, the Reformer Martin Luther wrote of the ultimate loss of gratitude toward God. For the Reformer, our amnesia always precedes ingratitude. And this brings me back to the very recent deaths of three close friends and creative partners over the last decades of work and life. I feel immense gratitude for their lives, one a dearly remembered Jesuit Priest, whose impact on me, on the vision of the Center, upon the lives of so many students, staff and faculty, will resonate in timbres of grateful memory for decades to come.
I imagine you agree. For those whom we love and hold close to our hearts, only amnesia could misplace the fondness we have for their lives and the gifts those lives bring to the world far into the future. Following in the uneven tracks of wisdom laid down in the lives of billions of human beings over the millennia, I give gratitude to God for their lives even as I and others – like so many – feel tremendous sorrow at their leaving. Life brings contradiction. And sometimes gratitude to God in those moments is what makes most sense.
Dr. Michael Reid Trice, PhD serves as the Director of the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, and is an Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at Seattle University. He is a scholar, speaker, and writer in his fields. Trice is also the Co-Founder of the Religica Theo Lab (theological laboratory) that is a site of engagement for students, faculty and society in order to test the hypotheses regarding the manifold role of religion in public life. Dr. Trice served as the Secretary for the Parliament of the World’s Religions from 2016-2019, and provides leadership on the Interfaith and Faith and Order commissions of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA; he has served on international boards including Church World Service.