Theological Inquiry and the Meaning of Gratitude

Tillich refers to God as “the Ground of our Being”; St. Thomas Aquinas calls God “the first of all causes,” Creator, “the world’s active source.” More recently, Cottingham has focused on what he calls the metaphysical puzzle “of explicating the sense in which God is thought by the religious adherent as the source of value and meaning in human life” (Cottingham, 2005, pp. 46-49). Adams claims that “the realm of value is organized around a transcendent Good” who is God (Adams, 1999, p. 50). Each of these views of the divine nature holds together the essential matters of praxis and theoria. In God, “being” and “doing” are one and the same thing: there is no ambiguity in his nature. Interestingly, Iris Murdoch, from her Platonist perspective, suggests that “God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent nonrepresentable and necessarily real object of attention” whose essential characteristics moral philosophy should attempt to retain (Murdoch, 1970, p. 55). For human beings, made in the image of God, gratitude must hold together doing and intending. Gratitude expresses itself in word and action.

Christian theology provides the ground from which the virtue of gratitude flourishes. Behind and within Christianity, there lies a profound appreciation of all that God has done and does to inform everything that contributes to the quality of human experience and the inherent beauty of creation. First, we are grateful for creation, with which there comes our desire to explore it in practice. The gift is of God’s grace, by which we mean that God takes sheer delight in bringing a world into being to share his love—an unmerited and unconditional gift. Second, we are thankful for the personal character of creation, for God commits himself to making a success of what he has begun. We recognize this in Christ and the liberating forgiveness he offers, which encourages us to give of ourselves for the world’s salvation. Salvation in this context is salvation for good, not simply salvation from evil. There is a moral quality inherent in the beauty of the world as Christians understand it (de Gruchy, 2001). Thus, third, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, creation is essentially good; in it, we experience the holding together in God of the divine gifts of creation and redemption. One might say that God’s commitment of himself is redemptively creative: redemption is the manner of God’s creating. The world is therefore, by God’s grace, a generous environment; it is good in an active, healing sense, constantly evolving and capable of being understood by human beings who themselves share the world’s life while at the same time being self-consciously aware of their own distinctive nature.

We are grateful too for God’s encouragement to explore and understand the world and live with affectionate concern for it and for one another. Most especially, the Christian wonders at and is grateful for the Spirit’s incitement to accept God’s invitation to share with him or her a responsibility to work toward the world’s emerging perfection. In our thinking and doing, we too can be “redemptively creative” and thus reveal the world of God’s creation to be a generous environment.

Human beings are in an important sense called to be cocreators with God. These dimensions of the human experience of God in creation inform the theological development of the Christian perception and understanding of God as Trinity. The term expresses the nature of God’s unity in the loving intimacy of the Divine, experienced by human beings as Creator, Redeemer, and Encourager. The Orthodox tradition uses the term perichoresis: each Person of the Trinity acts of himself but in an affectionate mutuality in the unity of the Godhead.

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