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Thanking whom?

imago dei

As the fall semester winds down, Thanksgiving provides a welcome respite. The break allows us to catch up with friends and family, enjoy a great meal and bask in the nostalgia of old times at home.

But Thanksgiving Day is—or at least was—meant to be more. The day’s very name invites us to “give thanks.” But for what are we giving thanks, and just whom are we supposed to be thanking? A look at history provides some guidance.

What is popularly known as the “first thanksgiving,” a three-day feast in 1621 between Mayflower pilgrims and Wampanoag Natives, was a celebration of health, a fruitful harvest and genuine fellowship. Of the 100 pilgrims who traveled to the New World on the Mayflower, only half survived a harsh winter and the challenges of building a new settlement. Despite great sufferings, the pilgrims offered thanksgiving to express gratefulness to God for having successfully endured hardship and for the opportunity to establish a new way of life in a new land. Moreover, the occasion celebrated the hospitality and community that the Native Americans had generously afforded the pilgrims.

The practice of thanksgiving continued with varying formality until 1789, when George Washington established a national Day of Thanksgiving. In the first year of his presidency of the newly established United States, Washington proclaimed, “[I]t is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” At the recommendation of both houses of Congress, Washington established for “the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

The annual tradition of our giving thanks, as a political community, to God proceeded for the next 74 years. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln ratified the importance of that communal offering by officially proclaiming Thanksgiving Day a federal holiday. Despite a nation “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” Lincoln underscored that the “gracious gifts of the Most High God” merited “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. … It has seemed to me fit and proper that [these gifts of God] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”

Today, Thanksgiving remains an enormously popular holiday, celebrated by all segments of society. Many travel to kin while others reunite at high-school football games or “turkey trots,” and, in the tradition of the pilgrims, much effort is spent on turkey and trimmings. Major football games and Macy’s Parade floats lead news headlines, culminating in the busiest travel day of the year on Sunday.

So what are we celebrating? Whom are we thanking? Our culture, from the Supreme Court to Silicon Valley to Wall Street, has come to exalt the individual and the material and to marginalize and privatize, if not eliminate, the godly. As I have written, the transcendent has been expelled from Duke’s undergraduate academy. Even speaking of God has become in some circles an offensive imposition of one’s “private, individual beliefs” on the listener. And the “common good”—understood historically as both the material and moral welfare of the populace—has largely devolved into the maximization of individual preferences and GDP.

In such a culture, many will effuse “Happy Thanksgiving” without giving a second thought to their greetings, simply wishing goodwill and continued prosperity to all. Those who pause for the second thought might say that we thank each other for family, friendship, health, and general well-being. Those would be good answers, for truth and the spiritual life are evident in all constructive human relationships. But those answers would also be significantly incomplete, especially in a country where 89 percent of citizens still say they believe in God.

The cornucopia of Thanksgiving should represent not only, or even mostly, the material fruitfulness of our lives but also, and primarily, the flourishing that comes from cleaving to the truth that is God himself. When we indulge in abundance and limit our thanksgiving to worldly blessings, crediting them only to ourselves, we assert a false supremacy and self-sufficiency.

We replay the drama of the primordial Garden, in which the serpent falsely whispered to Eve that man and woman, through self-indulgence, would become “like gods,” defining for themselves good and evil (truth and falsehood) and providing their own satisfaction. Age after age has demonstrated that such self-exaltation, by either the individual or the state, always ends badly, with the dominant imposing their will on the weak as they futilely seek fulfillment in the fleeting goods of power, wealth, fame, pleasure and autonomy.

As this column is wont to declare, for us to flourish meaningfully, we must acknowledge our creaturehood—that we and the world did not will ourselves into existence and that we are dependent on God for his creating and sustaining, with complete gratuity, our very being. We, as creatures, have been given an intellect and a will by which we deliberate, choose and act. We should use those gifts to pursue a path to the Absolute along which lies true happiness. Made in the imago Dei, the image of God, we all find our deepest satisfaction in giving thanks and praise to the Source of our being. Often, that fact seems more evident to the poor and the marginalized. Lincoln rightly observed that the more fortunate, whose bounties “are constantly enjoyed . . . are prone to forget the source from which they come.”

Whom we thank is thus crucial. This Thanksgiving, let us join with generations past, with Washington and Lincoln, William Bradford and Squanto, and raise our glasses to Him who is the origin and sustainer of existence, relationships, joy and true fulfillment.

William Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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