Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/26/2009

Thanksgiving: gratitude, grief or grace?

     One way to read contemporary philosophy of religion and philosophical 
     theology is to view it as a series of attempts to determine how God
     became a problem in the West. . . .Their arguments already seem to be
     part of a high modernity which has been deconstructed by end-of-
     ontotheology arguments which claim that the only appropriate
     language for God in the postmodern context is no, not, never.**

Anthony Godzieba (Associate Professor, Villanova University) ought to be ashamed of himself!  

I know how God became a problem in the West. 

God finally—after trying for millennia—became a problem in the West (dare I assume speaking  for myself is speaking for “the West?”) in a 1400-square-foot apartment on a street—lined with live oak trees so old they spread a canopy over the street for neighbors to walk their dogs, the Asian-American medical students’ families to meet and talk and the gay melting-pot Americans to meet to plan rendezvous—in Dallas, Texas, United States, North America, the West, Earth. 

A canopy of (graitude?)

“For health and strength and daily bread, we give you thanks, O Lord.” Two-part, incipit an ascending octave leap on the dominant, the melody descending through the scale omitting the seventh. (I can write in the technical jargon of my discipline.) I have no idea when I first sang this as a blessing before a meal. 

The simple round is the gist of the Thanksgiving Eve sermon by the Rector of a large, wealthy, Episcopal parish in Dallas about the nature and need for Thanksgiving, We are to be grateful for what we have been given (presumably by God). 

The service was deeply moving, the “Noise of Solemn Assemblies” *** at its finest. The organ music was delicious. The choir sang Maurice Green’s “Thou Visiteth the Earth.” We sang the Thanksgiving hymns one might expect. I am emotionally and spiritually (?) engaged in services at this church (until the Creed when I either choke in grief or am enraged, and unable to say the words).  

All but the Credo

God became a problem not when Nietzsche announced his death (Nietzsche was myopic—he killed off only the Western god). God became a problem not with Heidegger’s convolutions; not with Kierkegaard’s grief—although that was close; not with Foucault’s Religion and Culture; not with Niebuhr, Faigley, Frankl, or Lyotard. Perhaps God became a problem with Baudrillard. 

God became a problem (and becomes a problem) each time a person (and then another, and another) discovers that the “metanarrative” (words invented by people in the above list are a problem) we have learned to be true (or we have assumed from infancy) is not. Life is not civilization, or theology, or good works, sociology, politics, love, hate, education, the economy, automobiles, wars in Iraq, or health care reform. And life is not “God.” 

God has worked up to being a problem for millennia. God tries to garner attention. God will, in fact, allow peoples’ lives to come unhinged, to be disasters, miserable, or intolerable. Or God will allow people to be happy, joyous, and free, to be billionaires, to have the power of the Presidency, to celebrate Thanksgiving in style and ease, and luxury. God allows these things (don’t go criticizing my theology—I don’t give a fig about theology; I report the facts as I see them) in order, now and then, to get one person’s attention. Each one who comes to the understanding that God is a problem has to do so alone. 

Discovering that the metanarrative, whatever version of it one has come to believe, is not true is one’s discovery that God is a problem. I can claim to have discovered this for the “West” in my apartment because, for me, the discovery is universal—it shakes my universe, so it must shake THE universe. And once discovered, the problem is never undiscovered. 

Discovering God is a problem means everything else is a problem. “For health and strength and daily bread, we give you thanks, O Lord” is meaningless (or at least problematic). Why give thanks for something that does not exist. God is a problem for me because I for so long had all of my hope, my comfort, my understanding of reality bound up with God.  

My grateful admission that God is a problem does not mean I have concluded God does not exist. How would I know? It means simply that, this Thanksgiving Day I cannot trust the metanarrative, what Wikipedia (Hah! laugh at my scholarship) calls the “abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge.”  

I’m not throwing my lot in with Lyotard (although his work is clever) and the other “post-modernists.” They wrangle over metanarratives as surely as the ancient theologians who asked how many angels danced on the head of your hatpin. 

I don’t think about abstractions that explain history or knowledge. When my friends read philosophy in college and thought deep thoughts, I was learning organ music. I was drunk. I was trying to find sexual bliss. I read (and tried to write) novels. I can’t participate in discussions of Lyotard and Foucault (Foucault may have discovered that God is a problem). 

I grieve God as a problem. I am grateful for it. I assume that, if I live long enough (“what is life” is the first question one asks when one discovers that God is a problem), I may find some grace in the discovery. 

I do not want to over-emphasize the ways in which my body (mostly my brain) works differently than most human bodies. My twin disorders, Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Bipolar Disorder, are perhaps not disorders at all. Perhaps they are the true gifts for which I celebrate Thanksgiving. They have forced me to understand God is a problem. Nothing is what it seems. Nothing is real. If reality is impossible to define, nothing survives when our bodies no longer participate in life on Earth. I am ill (but isn’t everyone?). One of my “illnesses” consists in a misfiring of brain cells that causes me dissociation, the physical beginning of my intellectual understanding that God is [unreal] a problem. 

Lately, I have been comforted, when I am overwhelmed knowing God is a problem, by the writings of Arthur Frank which I discovered in an article by Cristina Rocha. 

In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank argues that people use illness narratives ‘to repair the damage that illness has done to the ill person’s sense of where she is in life, and where she maybe going.’ He identifies three kinds of narratives—restitution, chaos, and quest. . . .Finally, in the quest narrative, ‘illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.’ The ill person has an active role in it, as s/he finds a sense of purpose in the illness, and uses it to undergo transformation. **** 

Thanksgiving Day is a day for me to remember my gratitude that God is a problem for me. I am grateful to be on a quest.

** Godzieba, Anthony J. “Ontotheology to excess: imagining God without being. ” Theological Studies. 56.1 (March 1995): 3(18).  Associate Professor, Villanova University; Editor of Horizons, the journal of the College Theology Society.
*** Berger, Peter. The Noise of Solemn Assemblies; Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America. New York: Doubleday, 1961. “Mainline Protestantism has always been in a symbiotic relationship with the middle-class culture, which is to a large extent its own historical product (after all, it is this type of Protestantism that has been a crucially important factor in the formation of American bourgeois civilization) and that continues to be its social context [in which people do not know God is a problem].”
**** Rocha, Cristina. “Seeking healing transnationally: Australians, John of God and Brazilian Spiritism. ” The Australian Journal of Anthropology  20.2 (August 2009): 229(18).  Cristina Rocha is a staff member at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney.

We Plow the Fields and Scatter

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Responses

  1. Well, life is life.

    And that’s all.

    Thank you for your Thanksgiving post.

    Organ music is a good way to get in touch with the spirit. And just to be and make beautiful notes.

    The metanarrative is a big thing. It’s the story about the story. And our lives are so many stories.

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  2. And thank you for stopping by.
    “Metanarrative” is one of those made-up words, half from Greek and half from Latin, that is, if one thinks about it, an oxymoron in one word. It’s like “homosexual.” Pretty much a meaningless catch-all for people who don’t know how to think and write so the rest of us can understand.

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  3. Homo = the same.

    So you could be in a heterosexual relationship and like someone with the same ‘brain sex’, but they have a different ‘body sex’.

    Also bisexuals are taken in by that definition.

    Oxymoron itself is a strange word.

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  4. But “homo” is a Greek prefix stuck onto a Latin word (sexual). “Homosexual” is a meaningless hybrid of a word, made up to describe something that doesn’t exist. I’ve been gay since the day I was born, and I have no idea what a “homosexual” is. “Oxymoron,” on the other hand, is a perfectly respectable word, a rhetorical figure recognized since ancient Greece: two Greek words joined together (“oxy” meaning sharp or pointed and “moron’ meaning stupid). The rhetorical figure of joining two opposites together to make a point has a history of over 2,000 years–not made up by a 19th-century scientist to try to explain something he didn’t (and couldn’t) understand.

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