Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Grace for Humanists

            As a formerly religious person, I still have a great romance with religious language and tropes, and am often tempted to try to reclaim religious language for secular purposes. In previous posts, I have explored the secular potential for words like spirit and sacred. In this post, I want to make the case for a secular engagement with grace and gratitude.
            As much as I find him to be a smug so-and-so, I think it was C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity who turned me on to the concept of grace. In my understanding, “grace” signifies the fact that the incarnation and sacrificial death of God-in-Christ was a “free gift” from God—something that humans could never have earned or effected for themselves. One who truly appreciates the freeness of God’s gift cannot but respond with love and reverence.
            Of course, the general concept of gratitude is evident throughout Jewish prayer and ritual life. The practice of saying berachot (blessings) in daily prayer and life (eating food, using the bathroom, seeing beautiful sights) reflects the Jewish awareness that God, not people, is the ultimate Creator.
            Unfortunately, when God is removed from the picture (leaving an empty throne), secular/humanist folk often lose any structured relationship with grace and gratitude. OK, there are still secular holidays like Thanksgiving that could conceivably be used for reflection and literal thanks-giving. We can thank our family, our friends, our government (if you’re into that), our industries (if you’re into that), etc. But in general I’d guess that a secular individual is unlikely to think much about grace or gratitude in a ‘cosmic’ sense.

            So here’s my case: This world, and this life, are gifts, even if there is no giver. Even if there is no God as Creator, that does not make us self-made people. We cannot take credit for the fact of human life, or any of its blessings. We are recipients of something beyond us. And, if we see our lives as good things, then it seems like we should be grateful. We should be thankful.
            But whom to thank? Yes, you can and should still thank the various people that may be more immediately responsible for the goodness in your life. And, on an ecological level, I think we can and should show gratitude towards the Earth (not like it intended to create or dole out blessings or anything), especially since we may need to reciprocate that goodness for our own sakes/survival. Gratitude towards the Earth could be shown through words, although without caring actions/policies those words are empty/pointless.
            On a cosmic level, there is no one to thank; yet, I think cultivating the feeling of grace and gratitude makes us more sensitive—to the joy in life, to our luck, and to a sense of obligation to pass on the blessings. For myself, feeling grateful makes me feel good, and makes me feel magnanimous.
            So, humanists, you don’t need to thank God. But still, be thankful.

I know the title of this post is misleading, since I didn’t actually write a liturgical “Grace for Humanists.” Feel free to write one yourself in the comments section.


  1. Check out this video about atheist spirituality:

    I sympathize with his points, but the elephant he overlooks, of course, is that he cannot see outside his privilege as a straight white male, and even more, his economic and educational advantage. His position is a luxury.

  2. Yeah it's a lovely video, but certainly limited to his particular experience, and not much of a critical justice reading. In general, his concept of spirituality is largely aesthetic, which, as a person concerned with ethics, does bug me. See my discussion here for more: http://theemptythrone.blogspot.com/2011/04/trading-in-god-for-fourth-and-goal.html