Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanking the Universe

Here in the U.S., as we celebrate Thanksgiving, various celebrities are invariably asked by the media what things they are most grateful for. Their responses usually avoid mentioning God. The question is, can we be grateful without acknowledging the existence of God? And: can life have meaning without a belief in God?

Although I am a theist, I believe the answer is Yes--in a sense. Each day as I acknowledge the little things around me or the events that have made my life more bearable, I am grateful--without explicitly thinking of or thanking God or recognizing a supernatural hand in my daily routine. Right now I am grateful to have this blog, and for those who read it in various parts of the world, and for the computer itself: none of this was part of my life 15 years ago. So I am grateful to the universe, I suppose, since I do not believe that God is necessarily involved in arranging the details of my days.

Chance plays an enormous role in the traffic flow that makes driving easy or hard, in the coincidences that make serendipidty happen. At the same time, I believe that gratitude in general is a spiritual as well as religious phenomenon; by this I mean, to be grateful for beauty, for a chance encounter with a friend, is to recognize and affirm the good. It is a recognition of the optimistic side of life and its many positive features.

The basic question is whether meaning can be found without belief. As a recent reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog said (11-15-11), it cannot be said that if there were no God, life would be without meaning: the lesson of the universe, from stars to atoms, is one of amazing life. Yet she goes on to say that all this--the 7 billion of us on this planet, the rumbles and earthquakes, the fleas as well as the planets--are all part of God. If the universe is vast and uncaring, there is a "constant explosion of love and sadess through the enormous sweep of the cosmos" (the correspondent writes).

We must rid ourselves of the stereotype of God as a bearded man up in the sky controlling everything. As Thomas Merton discovered in his reading of medieval philosophy, God is not a being but Being itself; God is the unknowable but loving presence that underlies all existence and is the ultimate source of all.

So for me, even when I am grateful for little things, this is an implicit recognition not merely that the world makes sense despite evil and suffering but also that God is present in the suffering as well as the joy. To be grateful is to implicitly recognize that reality.

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