Smart coaches know you take what the defense gives you. Might be good advice for faith communities at Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is when faith communities often get ornery. They object to opaque references to God. However, given the world we live in, the wisest course of action might be to take what the defense gives you. It’s what G.K. Chesterton suggested.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was an Englishman, satirist, and an “orthodox” Christian. In The Maniac, he writes, “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery, you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.” Chesterton believed ordinary people maintain their sanity by always having “one foot in the earth and the other in fairyland,” what he called “the twilight.” By “twilight,” he recognized the mystical can be murky or confused, but if that’s what the defense is giving you, you take it. Sane people, Chesterton said, have “always permitted the twilight.”
This is a way of saying it’s better to have one foot in something close to mystical reality than none at all. Pantheism for example is closer to theism than naturalism. If pantheism and naturalism are the primary options, some awareness of pantheism, however confused, is better than none.
Faith communities ought to chew on this over Thanksgiving dinner. Since smart coaches know to take what the defense gives them, what does our present day world give faith communities to work with? What is our societal stance regarding the sacred?
The late Philip Rieff wrote that we live in an “unprecedented present age without moralists and religions.”1 In every previous age, a sacred canopy ordered society’s social life. The first canopy covered the earliest pagan religions to “the complex rational world of ancient Athens to the enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia.”2 The second canopy was the great monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But Rieff said we live in a “third culture” where the canopy is becoming a fiction. Example: half of all U.S. emerging adults no longer self-identify as “Christian” and 15 percent of all adults check “no” religion.3 This third culture is what many faith communities often fail to recognize. They operate as if the second culture still rules or can be reinstated. That’s doubtful but does explain why many faith communities get ornery at Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving sprang from the second culture. The giving of thanks at Plymouth Colony in 1621 was an echo of the breaking of bread at the heart of Christian worship, writes British journalist and historian Godfrey Hodgson in his A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving. The feast celebrated the mystical reality that death precedes life. Keeping one foot in the material world and the other in the mystical made the giving of thanks meaningful. But that happened under the canopy of the second culture. The Pilgrims took what the defense gave them.
Within 100 years, the third culture was coming. Thoughtful Christians like John Leland took what the defense now gave them. He was a Baptist who worked with Jefferson and James Madison on religious freedom in Virginia: “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or 20 Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.” Madison took such sentiments to heart, and, late in his long life, at Montpelier, he continued to ponder the mysteries of religion and politics. Leland took what the defense gave him, recognizing some awareness of the mystical was better than none for Madison. This is, in fact, how our modern understanding of Thanksgiving developed.
In the early 1860s there arose a campaign to create a national day of thanksgiving. Lincoln wanted the country to render thanks “with one heart and one voice” but acknowledged that many Americans were “habitually insensible” to religious feeling. The solution was not to scrap the mystical but instead call on what Benjamin Franklin described as America’s “public religion”—the belief in a God who created the world. The 1863 proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday appealed to the “Nature’s God” of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln in effect took what the defense gave him—but this stance upsets “second culture” faith communities.
What ought to be more upsetting is how time doesn’t stand still. Nor does it go backwards. A surefire way to lose a game is to ignore the defense and try to force your game plan. In football, if the defense opens the game with “eight in the box”—meaning they have eight players on the line to stop the run—it’s willful stupidity to keep running the ball. Real leaders first define reality. The third culture is reality.
The same coach who said to take what the defense gives you also added: “and eventually they’ll give you the game.” There is no going back to the second culture. If faith communities want to play the game and win, they have to stop objecting to opaque references to God at Thanksgiving. Take what the defense gives you. It might make some aware that we cannot be grateful in any meaningful way without the mystical, or “without connecting it with theology,” Chesterton wrote. Of course, nothing’s guaranteed and Chesterton acknowledged that people can be grateful “without connecting it to thought.”4 If however gratitude requires keeping one foot in the material world and the other in the spiritual, surely sane faith communities can live with a murky mystical world if that’s all the defense is giving us at this time.
1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 7.
2 Rieff, Deathworks, p. xxii.
3 The study was conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment.
4 C.K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (New York, NY: Sheed & Ward, 1936), pp. 341-48.