To whom, or what, are you grateful when you say thank you?

By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. Author of The Big Questions: God

I remember once hearing an atheist describe how they were ‘grateful that an indifferent universe conspired to give me life.’ I knew what he meant. But it raises a big question: grateful to what or whom?

He was presumably not grateful to an indifferent universe, which is why he uses the word ‘that’. He’s obviously not grateful to a creator, else he wouldn’t be an atheist. In fact, he can be grateful to no person, for no person can conjure his life from an indifferent universe: even his parents, to whom in one sense he presumably is grateful, are themselves only partially worthy of thanks.

Grateful to evolutionary processes? That doesn’t make much sense, they being blind too.
So I think the phrase must reflect that ultimately he is not grateful to anyone or thing, but his gratitude reflects an appreciation of the luck that his life is simply given; he was thankful for the brute fact of it. No more, no less.

This, perhaps surprisingly, is quite close to the kind of Christianity for which I have the greatest respect. It affirms the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which too stresses that life is simply given: our creation is literally and dizzyingly out of nothing – no reason, no conspiracy, no purpose, no previously existing field from which matter might have spontaneously emerged. The doctrine stresses a brute fact quality to it all too.

However, there is a difference between the atheist givenness and theistic version. For the latter, creation, which is simply given, is still actively made. But it is made in a sense that is entirely beyond our understanding. All our uses of the word ‘made’ must be from something or for something. Creation, though, is not ‘made’ from or for or out of anything, according to the doctrine.

We’re pushing at the limits of understanding here, but that’s theology for you. The idea that the ex nihilo points to is the gratuitousness of creation. All 13.7 billion years of it made… just because, simply given.

To put it another way, our creation is pure, sheer and utter gift; it is radically gifted. As gift, it is given, for the believer, not by an indifferent universe – which being indifferent can’t give anything anyway – but by the mystery referred to as God. That is the reason to be thankful.

Hence, the believer can affirm with the atheist that life is simply given – no strings attached, not for anything – though rather than just being grateful for the luck of it, he or she is simultaneously grateful to God. The believer affirms the quality of a profound mystery.

But the atheist gratitude must, I think, admit a certain limited quality, not entirely unlike being grateful that your numbers came up at the bingo. In short, ‘We are made out of nothing’ can be read in two radically different ways.

The mystery doesn’t end there. For, if my life is gift, it cannot, strictly speaking, be given to me, for I am not, until the gift is given, so I cannot be prior to it to receive it. Rather, life that is radically gifted can only be simply given on, and on, and on. If you come to a point where you truly see that life is gift, something that I presume only saints manage, it can no more be held onto than a flame can hold onto the light it emits once lit.

It is thoughts like this that, in part, keep me engaged with Christianity. For there is a more subtle idea about what God gives – which as Christians would see it, is supremely understood in the life gratuitously given by Jesus. And that idea, to my mind, is worthy of great respect because it is a truly arresting one. It is also, as it happens, the main message of Easter.

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