Thanksgiving and the Uncontrolling God
The Thanksgiving holiday is a terrific time to talk theology. But some theologies make more sense when offering thanks to God.
Whether the setting is private or public, secular or sacred, hundreds of millions express gratitude. For what, however, are we to thank God? What credit is due the divine? And which theologies best account for our desire to express gratitude?
One group giving thanks consists of those who consider theology a mere form of language without a Referent. There is no Holy Reality, they say, to which their rituals relate. Theology is nothing more than anthropology. Giving thanks to God is merely an expression of a shared cognizance that life is not entirely within our control.
These folks can utter the words, “Thank you, God.” But their unbelief that a Being exists to whom they should be grateful makes their theological sleight of hand unsatisfying.
A Controlling God
Many eager to express their indebtedness at Thanksgiving embrace a second option in Christian theology. This view says God either directly or indirectly controls everything. When someone from this tradition says, “Thank you God for _____,” he or she can fill the blank with any event.
Such events in that blank may be joyous and hopeful. But others are utterly evil and horrific. The God of this theology is responsible for respect and rape, peace and pain, havens and holocausts. The controlling God is ultimately responsible for elections. This God directly or indirectly controls everything.
Most in this theological tradition express gratitude at Thanksgiving only for events they deem good. To remind them their view implies God is also responsible for evil is to dampen their holiday spirit.
The God Who Allows Evil
A third theological alternative at Thanksgiving takes the form of classical free-will theology. Those in this tradition believe they sidestep the theological potholes in which other believers fall. They thank God for good and benevolent acts, while blaming free agents or natural forces for evil.
A closer look at classical free-will theology, however, reveals that the God of this theology is culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil. Classical free-will theology says God voluntarily gives freedom to others. But God has the ability to prevent genuine evils by taking away, overriding, or failing to provide that freedom in the first place.
The God with the ability to control others is culpable for failing to prevent dastardly deeds. Although free creatures initiate evil in classical free-will theology, God is ultimately culpable for whatever occurs. After all, this God has the capacity to control others entirely should God so decide.
Those affirming classical free-will theologies could insert any event into the “Thank you God for _____” phrase. The God they espouse voluntarily permits free creatures to use their freedom to cause genuine evil.
The Uncontrolling God of Love at Thanksgiving
A fourth theological option is more adequate for celebrating Thanksgiving. I call this framework “essential kenosis,” because it says God never trump creaturely agency and/or freedom. This is the uncontrolling God of love.
Essential kenosis says God’s always gives freedom and/or agency to creation. Because God’s nature is this kind of love, God cannot fail to provide, cannot withdraw, and cannot override the freedom and agency God necessarily gives. The uncontrolling love of God presents a spectrum of possibilities to each creature, in each moment, for response. This is not deistic theology. God actively creates, provides, and interacts with creation.
Not only does the God of essential kenosis offer possibilities, God also calls creatures to respond. Our loving Creator inspires and empowers creatures to love. Essential kenosis says God always self-gives and others-empowers. Genuine evil results from the responses these creatures make contrary to God’s call.
Those who embrace the idea that God’s love is uncontrolling can affirm at Thanksgiving that every good and perfect gift originates in God. God is the source of goodness and blessing. The good we enjoy also requires creaturely response to God’s loving activity. In other words, we should thank God for being the source of goodness but also thank the chef for the Thanksgiving meal!
Without scruples, the Christian who believes God is always uncontrolling can thank God for being the source of good and not culpable for causing or allowing evil. She can also thank God for inspiring and empowering us all to act in love, peace, and beauty.
“Our loving God, in deepest gratitude, we thank You for the good you have done and are doing. We thank you for empowering and inspiring us to respond well to your perfect goodness. We are grateful now and forever. Amen!”