Comedian Jim Gaffigan likes to say that, for him, the difference between Thanksgiving and every other day is that on Thanksgiving he gets to over-eat with people he doesn’t like. Leaving aside Gaffigan’s humor and cynicism, Thanksgiving is a holiday that, if taken in the right spirit, confronts us with the metaphysical questions of things like free will and the existence of God.
Recently in one of my classes we had a lengthy discussion of free will, and we all agreed that it is a question that can never really be resolved. If I believe that there is no free will, then no argument against my position will ever suffice – any argument would be seen by me to be part of the determinism inherent in the person making the argument. And if I believe in free will, then no argument against it will ever be seen by me as anything other than an exercise in free will and therefore self-contradictory.
But maybe free will can be defended by something other than an argument. Maybe free will can be defended by Thanksgiving. The whole purpose of Thanksgiving is, by definition, to give thanks. But the very act of giving thanks assumes free will. We don’t offer thanks to people for things like obeying the law of gravity or for not sprouting tails or feathers, and if we did people would wonder about our sanity. No, we offer thanks for things that people chose to do, things they did out of the goodness of their hearts, things dependent upon their use of free will.
So the celebration of Thanksgiving is, unbeknownst to most, a celebration of the free exercise of will inherent in the human person. But it is also a recognition of the existence of God.
Earlier this week the members of the Theology Department received an email from Dr. Anthony Fior ’02, our department’s fearless leader. Anthony spent his undergraduate days at St. Louis University, and there came across a most talented philosopher, Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J. The email from Anthony linked us to an article written by the late Fr. Kavanaugh entitled “Relish the Banquet.” I have been familiar with Fr. Kavanaugh’s work for a number of years and so was glad to see his name attached to this brilliant Thanksgiving-themed article that had originally appeared in America magazine in 2010.
In this article Fr. Kavanaugh proposes that, if properly seen, Thanksgiving is not just a day but a way to God. Near the end of the piece he quotes an atheist who stated, “Who cared if there was really any Being to pray to? What mattered was the sense of giving thanks and praise, the feeling of a humble and grateful heart.” Fr. Kavanaugh follows this quote with a thought of his own on the topic: “Well, I think it makes all the difference that there is Someone to thank.”
What his response implied, but His charity kept him from saying, is what I was thinking: What sort of numbskull wastes his time thanking a non-existent being? And then writes about it to let the world know what a numbskull he is?
Inherent in both of these philosophical issues is the question of human nature. If human beings feel a need to say “thank you” maybe there is something in our nature that draws this out. Why would human beings who had no free will feel the need to ever say thank you? What would be the point? Why thank someone for what they could not have avoided doing? And if there were no God, no “Being” or “Someone,” then why would there be such a strong desire within the human person – even the atheist – to thank Him?
Might it be that we are hard-wired to give thanks for the same reason we are hard-wired to seek food when hungry and drink when thirsty? And is it possible that the uniting of those needs – food, drink and thanks – can combine in a way that satisfies the great longing of the human heart for love, relationships and community? And might that satisfaction manifest itself, upon occasion, around a table bedecked with a turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce?
So as we gather yet again on this fourth Thursday of November let us remember how important it is to give thanks – certainly to each other, but also to the God Who created in us the desire to give thanks.