Gott sei Dank

The only relation of consciousness to happiness is gratitude: in which lies its incomparable dignity. —Theodore Adorno

Theological connotations and religious conclusions aside, let me briefly entertain the following hypothesis: the name “God” emerges from our spontaneous need to give thanks. “God” might be perceived and understood as a catch-all-and-nothing term that serves a psychological function for us, namely: it corresponds to our need to express feelings of boundless thanks. “God” names the ‘receiver’ of this thanks. This minimal definition of God leads to the idea that “God” is thanks through and through (Gott “sei” Dank); and that perhaps what pertains most profoundly to God in our experience is and has always been gratitude approaching the limit of what is thinkable, what can be known, what is.

Max Ernst , Birth of a Galaxy, 1969.

This thanks is boundless because it is not merely for this or that thing, occurrence, person, and so on, but for the that it was in general: the evident or apparent fact of it all having been. It is thanks for whatever has ‘hung together’ in having happened, and it is boundless because this ‘hanging-together’ surpasses logic and the scope of our vision. It renders descriptions impotent and symbols silent. It defies computation or full account. This thanks is boundless, also, because we can always penetrate into another aspect of the improbability of everything, the ‘gratuity’ of Being at all.

“God” is then a weakly sufficient term, a label by ‘default’ (better terms are lacking); it only has to correspond to this feeling or need to address boundless thanks to the ‘unlimited’ or ‘unconditional’, which nothing in our imagination can ever exhaust. Perhaps one needn’t even utter this word out loud, the feeling is enough. God then names that something or someone who might know why we give thanks, what all we give thanks for, and why thanks is so appropriate; who might know all this better than we do and be able to receive it better than any of us could.

The impression in question is so strong that the issue of ‘who’ exactly one addresses by the name “God” fades. In fact, it is almost irrelevant in comparison to the function that it or a substitute name would serve as the ‘addressee’ of ultimate thankfulness. Such an addressee is only hinted at in this upsurge of feeling toward an unknown ‘thankee’—surging for having existed, for having had a history, a body, a drive, a connection to others, to nature, to the world. Issued in holistic fashion, this thanks includes all: joys and sufferings, terrors and reliefs, in contemplation of the whole mortal state, without prettying it up. This is why it cannot help but seem like a miracle, unbelievable, an impossibility: that something happened at all, light and dark. God would represent first of all the possibility of being grateful despite everything, for the happiness we’d had amidst so many damages; for any glimmer of possibility, any convalescence, any chance.

One could easily object that such thanks needn’t be addressed to “God,” a name carrying much baggage and prone to misinterpretation and misuse. Thanks could be addressed to the universe or whatever else provokes wonder at our ‘abandoned’ existence. The objection is valid, worth the challenge. But using the name God needn’t imply what it has traditionally—a being who planned all this, wanted all this, the agent cause of all that is, including the worst. All of that could be discarded, so that God would no longer be conceived as the guarantor of order, but rather analogous to what emerges improbably out of disorder, like our lives. It may be a godless universe, dominated by entropy and death, but yet improbable moments and thankfulness for them do/did exist, however briefly. When our wonder and appreciation at the it was’ seeks something ultimate—not to explain the reason for existence, to make sense of suffering, or even justify it, but merely to offer a gesture of thanks—perhaps humans stumble upon this non-religious, almost ‘natural’ function for the name “God” in human language, as that which possibilizes the improbable (and from a certain perspective everything we’ve ever observed, known, and experienced was improbable, a gift).

Oklad (cover) of the Trinity icon by Andrei RublevBy invoking God, I do not wish to reduce the puzzle: whom to thank? Let it linger as an open question. My only insistence here is that this desire and need to give boundless thanks is profoundly human. It corresponds to the fragility of our situation; to the depth of our own receptivity regarding everything we experience; to the feeling that all the phenomena of life are gifts we receive, as if from nowhere; and to the ‘unendingness’ or infinity we sometimes feel in those subtle moments when we’re overwhelmed by the beauty of the whole in spite of it all—a beauty and profundity we perhaps name “the presence of God.” Such thanks is motivated by a saturation or excess of this emotion, when it overflows all the containers, aware of finitude and limited time, aware as well of the possible absurdity of addressing it to anyone at all.

Hopefully it’s clear: boundless thanks in no way excludes concrete gestures of thanks to concrete others in our lives, ’empirical’ actors and factors that help us, challenge us, or somehow contribute to our journey in life. Rather, “God” would be whom one thanked for those factors and actors: for their very improbable ensemble and consequential impact on us. After all, none of them could claim total control over their having-been-there, their having-existed; none were the unique cause of themselves. God thus thanked for fortuity, chance, encounter, trial, discovery, event, understanding, all together in a contingent network of links and significances. God thanked for what happened at every scale of reality and how it seemed or appeared to us epiphenomenally—how it exceeded all our plans, efforts, and knowledge. It is a thanks for that which no consciousness could fully grasp. Or rather: which consciousness knows it only grasps, and grasps best, in thanks.

In the last instance, maybe ‘reality’ is indifferent to human meaning, which is fleeting, not to last, not ‘necessary’ in any merely natural system. But this does not cancel the emotion we sometimes have—however absurd, contradictory, illusory, or wishful it may be—of a need to express boundless thanks for a life lived that, although it couldn’t be, somehow was. Gott sei Dank! May God be thanks, nothing more, nothing less.

—from Sept 1, 2018, Trieste airport
—published online Thanksgiving 2018
Images: Max Ernst, Birth of a Galaxy, 1969; Andrei Rubilev, cover of the Trinity icon, 1425

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1 Response to Gott sei Dank

  1. skholiast says:

    I knew of a Zen Roshi who remarked once: “When I first heard the Dharma, I realized, I was very, very grateful; I don’t know who to.”

    Ernst Tugendhat on somewhat the same question:

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