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An Agnostic Grace

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A family saying grace at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving-time made me think about the custom of saying grace at mealtimes to give thanks to God. Unitarian-Universalism encourages people to develop rituals that accord with their own personal beliefs, so I wanted to come up with a way of “saying grace” that would be appropriate for an agnostic like me, but that would also be appropriate in an ecumenical context where some who do believe affirmatively in God are also present. In my own case, my Mormon Christian relatives are very accepting of my beliefs, but I also wanted to be sensitive to their beliefs. Here is what I came up with.

To begin with, the invocation of a possible God or Gods is combined with a mention of the mealtime occasion:  

May the works that we do, sustained by this food, bring us closer to, and glorify, the God or Gods Who May Be.

This is then followed (in line with the Mormon custom of extemporaneous content in prayers) by expressions of one or more of the following:

  • Gratitude: (We are thankful …)
  • Hopes: (We hope …)
  • Concerns (We are concerned …)
  • Worries (We are worried about …)
  • Thoughts (We are thinking of …)
  • Additional wishes (May …)
  • etc., in no particular order

Finally, in a context in which the gathering includes mostly agnostics and Christians:

And we remember Jesus Christ, symbol of all that is good in humankind, and thereby clue to the God or Gods Who May Be. Amen.      

Let me comment on some of the choices I made in the language above:

  1. I thought it important to put the emphasis on doing good works (working toward “saving the world” in whatever ways we can, however small) rather than on the food. So the good works are mentioned first. 
  2. The phrase “Who May Be” has two different interpretations. I am a teleotheist: a theology I explore in my post "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life." Teleotheism is the belief that God comes at the end of history rather than at the beginning. So I interpret “Who May Be” as a future possibility. But it can also refer to a present possibility.    
  3. To me, the phrase “God or Gods” with its key word "or" is important as an affirmation of agnosticism. In Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life,” I propose this definition of God: "The greatest of all things that can come true.”  Even by this definition, it is unclear whether there is one God or many, since there could be multiple judgments by different people about what “the greatest of all things that can come true” is. To count as multiple Gods, these different Gods would have to be logically compatible. Also, given our lack of knowledge, if God is the greatest of all things that can come true, it seems reasonable to me to characterize God grammatically as a “who” rather than a “what,” even if that may ultimately turn out to be stretching the English language. In any case, “God or Gods Who May Be” should have some acceptable interpretation to most of the others in the gathering, if they come with an ecumenical spirit.   
  4. The final sentence, "Amen" is a traditional ending to prayers in Judaism, Christianity and often in Islam. It is from Hebrew and means “So be it.” In addition to that meaning, it has the practical function of indicating that the ritual is completed.  
  5. The theological background to the rest of my ending is in this passage from "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life," in which I am exploring what the "greatest of all things that could come true" might be:

Let’s start with the easier question of what an ideal human being looks like.  Here I look to Jesus.  Not the historical Jesus, but the imagined Jesus who is the projection of every good human trait, as valued by our culture.  It makes all the sense in the world to ask “what would Jesus do” even if one believes that the historical Jesus was only a man, since “what would Jesus do” is a good shorthand for what our culture thinks a good person would do.  This is an example of the way in which many of the highest ideas of goodness in Western Culture are embedded in religious language. 

From a Christian perspective, while “we remember Jesus Christ, symbol of all that is good in humankind, and thereby clue to the God or Gods Who May Be” falls far short of affirming the divinity of Jesus Christ, it accords at least weakly with the standard Christian teachings that Jesus Christ came to earth as a revelation of God the Father, and an example to humankind of how to live, and it accords with the statement in Genesis that humankind was created in the image of God, so that human goodness gives us a clue to the goodness of God.  
       
To give a backstory for why I would want to create a ritual like this, let me tell you my beliefs that  
  1. We should each adhere to the truth as we see it, rather than trying to believe in a "noble lie," and
  2. Human beings need religion even if there is no God. Here is why: 
     
Religion is the “everything else” category in our existence in human societies and as individuals after parceling out the things people understand fairly well about human life—just as “natural philosophy” used to be the “everything else” category after parceling out as natural sciences the things people were beginning to understand fairly well about the natural world.
There is still a great deal we don’t understand well enough about our existence in human societies and as individuals to parcel out as generally understood social science knowledge. I am defining “religion” as encompassing all of those areas touching on our human existence where we are still groping for answers and for the meaning of things (or for a meaning of things), even if one has ruled out supernatural answers.     

I can now say that this way of saying grace is road-tested. In the last week, I have had occasion to say grace in this way twice, and found it suited those occasions well. It felt more natural in practice than it may seem on this page.            
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