Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gratus as an Ontological Proof

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season I would like to recount a story of how gratitude led a man to God.

The summer after finishing college I backpacked Europe and for a month stayed at the American Seminary at Katholic University, Belgium. A good priest friend of mine was spending the summer there in hopes of finishing his doctoral thesis.

One day, while talking, he shared of how his father found faith. His mother was devout her entire life, but had recently passed away. After the funeral the priest's father, who had always been agnostic, sat together with his family around the dinner table. His father then began to share that of all the feelings he was experiencing - grief, loss, pain, even anger - the most poignant was a sense of gratitude. He felt an unoverwhelming sense of gratitude for being able to share his life with his wife. Yet, this gratitude was not 'to' his wife, but 'for' his wife. And as gratitude is relational and always needs someone to be grateful to, he wondered what it meant that he felt gratitude 'for' his wife. Relenting to his own logic, he suggested that it must be God whom he is grateful to for his wife, and with that he had found God.

Hence, let me meagerly suggest - while well knowing the philosophical limitations - that the feeling of gratus can be an ontological proof for God's existence. For everything one is grateful 'for', but not 'to' let it be a meager insight to the possibility that something both greater and good must exist.

Thanks be to God.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story but I would guess that there are lots of people that figure this out in those painful and desperate moments of our life.

Mark Koester said...

Let me try resummarizing your argument. So when someone dies (or I suppose an number of other experiences could be used here), we feel a sense of gratitude (thankfulness, appreciation, etc.) “for” something (we’re thankful for our wife/husband, our children, the food we eat, etc.). And logically speaking gratitude is a relational-concept, meaning gratitude must be felt “to” someone or something. Consequently, my feeling of gratitude requires someone or something else towards which I direct this gratitude. When I’m grateful for the food I eat, I’m grateful to the farmer that grew and tended his fields, to the person that worked to have money, and to the complex economic system that allow monetary exchanges of goods and series (and if you want, I’m thankful to “God” for keeping the whole thing going.). But in the case of a person who passes away, I can’t be grateful to that person, because they are dead. (See note 1). Since I can’t be thankful to that person now dead, someone or something else has to step in to receive this gratitude. So, viola we get “God.”

But why call this placeholder of gratitude God? The direction of this gratitude could be placed anywhere. Like most proofs for the existence of “God,” we don’t really get any idea who this person / thing is and what His/Her/Its/Their characteristics. And worse, why make this placeholder divine or extraworldly, why not just call it the human institutions of memory? Memory is always to someone, mostly myself, but this myself is a being of interconnectedness by the very act of language and other external, mechanical manners of recording. The someone of memory is perhaps better worded as the some-ones of memory, exemplified in real human collectives and historical preserving institutions. Our gratitude to the human some-ones marks the fact that we are mortal beings of temporal lasting searching a way of immortal, eternal enduring. This search for a maintenance or sustaining is all the humanly ways we try to keep things up and going and lasting, be it a car, a computer, a library, the memory of a friend or a spouse, our temporary ideas pressed to paper, etc. I don’t want to give this preservation of the greatness of humanity and its works to God, because we are responsible for its beauty, its greatness, its weakness, its morality, its immorality, etc. At the very limit if you want give these things to “God,” I only “God” is humanly one created and maintained by human hands and minds.

Note 1: I think we could say that this paradox of gratitude to the dead, is part of what a friendship is, because when you love someone or are friends with someone, you enter into a relationship where one of you two will die before the other. As such, the still-living friend that remains mourns the other, an act of mourning that tries to internalize who this dead person was/is. An act we can’t really abandon…

(P.S. correct your spelling before posting your blog, because I almost had trouble finishing what you wrote. An English-teacher block, I suppose.)

The Catholic Atheist said...


First, I apologize for the spelling, I didn't proof it and I don't know why... the oversight has been corrected.

Two, I think you did well in summarizing the argument. Well done.

Three, I agree this 'proof' of God's existence is limited. Epistemology is the hobgoblin of little minds... or is that something else. But seriously, we, indeed, do not get an idea of who God is, but simply that God Is. For Christians that really isn't a problem, nor is it the task of theologians to use erudite and numerous philosophical arguments to circumscribe God. Throughout the history of systematic theology God was first understood in the negative by via negativa. Such that we know God is not malevolent, so God must be good (this is championed by Pseud–Dionysis and Aquinas). Anselm culminated (I would argue) the tradition by offering his own ontological proof; "God is that which nothing greater can be conceived." So how do we speak of God - "theo-logy"? We have sacred Scripture, but not just because it is considered divinely inspired but because God became man through Jesus Christ.

Now, back to your question on memory; I think it is valid to place more emphasis on memory. Certainly, if you are interested Judaism has a central place for such thought.

Of course I would have to reject your statement that you don't want to give the recognition of humanity's greatness to God. If Christianity is correct and the world was made 'creatio ex nihilo' then we owe all to God, and gratitude, another way to say this is to recite the doxology of the liturgy "Praise God from whom all blessings flow."

Ultimately, no philosophical argument shall be able to wrestle away the uncertainty of God, which is to say that those who believe must always have faith. God cannot be reasoned - nor simply experienced -but at times there are arguments that make God reasonable, and this is task worth taking seriously.

too talkative said...

Hi, I found your blog through Emily's blog. I thought I'd jump in and stir the pot a bit.

First, there's no point in pretending I am an unbiased vacuum. So, to give you context of my reply, I am a Buddhist woman. As a Buddhist, I'm a non-theist, meaning that while I find the debate over God's existence a philosophically challenging and fascinating one, I hold that the existence or non-existence of God holds no relevance for the practice, definition and validity of a moral code. So for me, the existence of God boils down to a belief in an ultimate reality versus a nominal/relative one. All very fun, but not really a moral question.

The most important thing is how you are defining "God". Do you mean a moral arbiter of the Judeo-Christian/Muslim variety? Or the representation of ultimate reality, of an Ultimate Cause (Mr. Big Bang himself!), of the Aristotleian variety? By this one post, you seem to be advancing a more Aristotleian concept: God is the receiver of my gratitude/humility, he is the Cause of what I am grateful for. If I am feeling grateful for something, there must be a God. (Correct me if I'm wrong!)

Let me advance my own interpretation of the priest's father, an interpretation shaped by my Buddhism and my feminism. To put it cruelly, I think the father's gratitude "for" his wife is more revealing of old-fashioned gender politics than any spiritual awakening (though, of course, the father took it as the latter - and one could argue that subjectivity and self-identification is the basis of most genuine spirituality anyway!). Yet as nice as a subjective "awakening to faith" is, it is naive to pretend that a man's culture, his internalized perceptions of gender and race and the Other, do not play a significant role in how he interprets reality. It is revealing that he jumps to the conclusion that he must be feeling gratitude to God, rather than, at least for a moment, questioning why he does not feel grateful to his wife (which would be more logical and certainly less self-centered).

To put it cruelly, it rings almost misogynistic to be thankful "for" your wife, as if she was a "gift from on high" and not just another person, an equal, just like you. It implies a sense of possession. The father certainly didn't consider his thoughts sexist and he probably thought he considered his wife an equal, yet there is such a thing as "color-blind racism" and no doubt "gender-blind sexism". There is something subtly offensive about his inability to feel gratitude "towards" the woman who chose to spend her life with him, who behaved in ways which were agreeable to him, etc. In my opinion, a more reasonable, more generous behavior would have been ultimate gratitude to his late wife. His refuge in the idea of a (no doubt gendered masculine) God "giving" him his wife seems to ring too much of oppressive gender politics rather than any philosophically sound awakening. It is also a bit selfish to be concerned about your own spiritual awakening rather than the passing of a loved one. It's psychologically predictable, it happens all the time when strong emotions are provoked, but it is, in the end, only about you - your new faith, your new religion, your God giving and taking things away from you. (I'm sorry for how callous this sounds.)

After all that, I will admit that I'm nitpicking. The man probably did not consider himself sexist, was not sexist in any drastic way apart from the internalization of a patriarchal culture. Also, I understand that your point is that the ability to feel gratitude - that is, God is the Ultimate Cause of good in the world, the reality which we find pleasurable we can call "God" and feel grateful towards. A valid argument, but the example you chose was less than convincing.

too talkative said...

P.S. Also revealing is the father's immediate assumption that he must be feeling gratitude to the gendered masculine, Christian God. I don't trust religion based purely on emotion, and I don't trust religious decisions taken in a moment of high emotion (such as after a trauma). Because then it is more often than not a retreat into the comforts of the normalized superstition. It is limited in its expression, it is driven by anxiety and fear, rather than a genuine probe into reality and morality.

The father did not suddenly exclaim, "Allah be praised!" He did not suddenly realize that God was in his wife, just like the Hassidism (or Philip Pullman) believes. Are these interpretations of God less valid? They certainly imply different things. The father was simply behaving within the confines of his culture. He believed that a Christian God had "given" him his wife - he jumped to the normative conclusion. How valid is a confined, ignorant faith driven by emotion?

I suppose you could say I'm playing the Devil's advocate now. (Nyuk nyuk nyuk.)

The Catholic Atheist said...

Too Talkative,

You name is a misnomer. Your comments were welcomed, I dispatched with them summarily, see my new blog.