The Beshara Lecture 2017: George Pattison

Nothingness and Gratitude: Themes of Spiritual Life

Nothingness and gratitude are basic themes in religious or spiritual life evidenced in all the world’s main religious traditions. Being religious, it seems, means knowing oneself as nothing before God and, at the same time, being grateful to God for all that we receive from Him. This seems elementary. Yet, logically, it also seems somewhat contradictory. Why? Because in order to be grateful I have to be someone, that is, someone capable of receiving divine gifts, someone who has something to thank God for, who has a life, an existence, a being that is owed to God—and, if God has taken the trouble to put me here, to make me the person that I am in the time and place in which I am, who am I to say that I am, after all, ‘nothing’?

This could seem like quibbling over words, but what is at issue here lies at the root of some of the defining differences between religions, as popularly perceived. In non-esoteric Jewish, Christian, and Islamic monotheism we are presented with the image of a personal creator God who has made the world and all that therein is and who has made each and every creature in that world to be what and as it is as a specific part of the whole plan, cosmological and historical. In this perspective, whatever problems there may be in clamping an Aristotelian framework on to scriptural monotheism, the medieval theologians of all three traditions were perhaps intuitively right in seeing a certain analogy or fit between the Aristotelian view of the human being as a certain kind of substance, a real ‘something’ or entity and the scriptural view of God as creating and entering into relation to concrete individualized persons whose actions in historical time are of decisive importance for their eternal salvation. In contrast to this view, Buddhism and Vedanta contextualize what they perceive as the nothingness of the individual self within a cosmological and metaphysical framework in which (versus Aristotle) nothing has any essential substantial being; everything is a play of relationships grounded (if ‘grounded’ is still the right word) in limitless emptiness. The difference perhaps is analogous to the difference between Newtonian and Quantum physics, between a universe made up of things and a universe in which, ultimately, ‘things’ are a perspectival illusion, a play of light on the great ocean of becoming.

But this is not just a matter of difference in world-view or cosmology. It also has implications for how we conceive of religious life itself. If we follow the line of scriptural revelation, everything hinges on what these concrete, historically active persons whom God has created do in and with the lives that God has given them and whether or not they are faithful in all the detail of their social and individual lives to the covenants he has made with them through Noah, Abraham, and Moses—and, in the Christian version, through the life, passion, and death of Jesus Christ. In these terms, religious life requires not only knowledge of ourselves and of God’s will for us in general terms, but of the quite specific doctrines and demands concretized in scripture and tradition. On the alternative view, Buddhist, Vedantist, or other, all that happens in concrete historical time is entirely relative and salvation comes not from doing the right things but from realizing that nothing that we do or could possibly do has any permanent effect on the way things are. Rather than striving to fulfil the law or to be active in love, spirituality becomes a matter of letting things arise and pass away without attempting to impose our narrow individual will upon them, letting it all be. It is the difference between action and non-action or between a religious ethics of moral demand and an ethics of compassion.

It seems plausible, then, that our two words ‘nothingness’ and ‘gratitude’ epitomize two essentially different religious world-views and two essentially different conceptions of religious life. Certainly they would fit well with some of the typologies of religion popular around the middle of the twentieth century that modelled the religions of the ‘West’ and ‘East’ on, respectively, the ‘gratitude’ and ‘nothingness’ paradigms, the former being often described as ‘prophetic’ or ‘ethical’, the latter as ‘mystical’.

In what follows, I don’t want to go as far as making any grand claims about global religion, not least because I think that when we look away from the headlines to the actual practice of religion in daily life and individual spirituality, there are so many exceptions to any rule we are likely to come up with as to undermine any broad generalizations we may make about either ‘West’ or ‘East’. Indeed, it is a matter of fact that West and East have been in some degree of mutual interaction for several millennia and at quite an intense level for several hundred years, as evidenced by the way in which some of the great propagators of ‘Eastern’ religion in the West—Vivekananda, Iqbal, and D. T. Suzuki, for example—interpreted their own traditions through the lens of Western idealist philosophy. That they then re-presented these interpretations to Western readers as offering balm to the one-sided distortions produced by Western rationalism may be mildly ironic, but it chiefly serves to show the impossibility of cultural isolationism in the modern world. As far as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are concerned, the picture is further complicated (or perhaps illuminated) by the way in which all three have deployed the inheritance of classical philosophy, notably, Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism, in developing and interpreting their own theologies. Even with regard to Platonism itself, we find scholars debating whether the mystical element of Plotinus is an expression of authentic Platonism or, as some claim, evidence of an alien ‘Eastern’ influence.

I shall largely focus in this lecture on materials drawn from the Christian tradition, because that is the tradition to which I myself belong as a religious practitioner as well as the tradition to which most of my scholarly work most directly relates. However, not only for the reasons I have just indicated regarding the permeability and mutual interaction of major religious traditions but also because I have personally been in receipt of innumerable insights and assistances from non-Christian traditions, I regard this ‘Christian’ focus as being without prejudice or privilege with respect to other traditions. Indeed, the very first theological lecture I ever heard was by the great Goan Jesuit Raimundo S. Pannikar, whose own theology involved a fusion of Hinduism and Christianity and, later, Buddhism. I was also early on struck by the thinking of John S. Dunne, an American scholar of religion who died in 2013 after a career spanning 55 years spent entirely at the University of Notre Dame, one of the most prestigious theology faculties in the United States. In the 1960s and 70s Dunne developed the idea that we can best understand our own tradition when we have experienced ‘passing over’ into another tradition before returning to where we began and seeing it transformed by the light of what we have experienced elsewhere. We can, of course, say that that this is true of life in general, which it is; home is never as sweet as when viewed from abroad. But that doesn’t make it less true in religion, as many seem to think. As I have said, our historical religions have been passing over, into, and out of one another for many centuries, and we should be, we are, entirely free and well-advised to be doing the same ourselves.

Turning, then, to my specifically Christian sources, it is immediately striking that, despite my opening comments, there are, nevertheless, strong and widespread currents of Christian spirituality in which the language of nothingness and being nothing is well to the fore. Probably the best known example is that of Meister Eckhart, as in his sermon on Matthew 5.3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ in which he states that the truly poor person ‘is someone who desires nothing, knows nothing and possesses nothing’.[1] Commenting on the poverty of desiring nothing, Eckhart warns that ‘as long as you have the will to perform God’s will, and a desire for eternity and for God, you are not yet poor. They alone are poor who will nothing and desire nothing’. This leads into one of Eckhart’s more theologically controversial passages, culminating in the often cited injunction to ask God to free us from ‘God’. In this condition ‘we must will and desire as little as we willed and desired before we came into being’.[2] In other words, we must be as entirely dependent on God as we were in the moment in which we first came into being or even the moment in which the idea of our particular individual existence first arose in the mind of God. Likewise, knowing nothing means ‘that we should be as free of self-knowledge as we were before we were created, that we should allow God to do what he will and that we should be entirely free of all things’.[3] We must even surrender the idea of their being some special ‘place’ within us in which God acts in a particular way. Instead, we must let God himself ‘be the place in which he can act’. ‘[I]f God finds us this poor, then God performs his own active work and we passively receive God in ourselves since God works within himself’.[4]

But not only are we to count ourselves as nothing. Even more radically Eckhart speaks of God himself as nothing, as in a sermon on Acts 8.9 ‘Paul rose up from the ground and with open eyes saw nothing’. Eckhart offers a fourfold interpretation of what is being said here, of which the first is perhaps the most far-reaching: ‘[W]hen he rose up from the ground with open eyes he saw Nothing and the Nothing was God; for when he saw God he calls that Nothing’.[5]

Of course, Eckhart’s teaching was on the outer verge of what was officially allowable within the medieval Church and after his death a number of his teachings were formally condemned, culminating with the proposition that ‘all creatures are a pure nothing’. Nevertheless, despite Eckhart’s condemnation the theme of becoming nothing continued to find expression in Christian spiritual writings in the centuries that followed. We find it in the writings of Johannes Tauler, one of Eckhart’s closest followers, in the anonymous Theologica Germanica, in the Flemish John Ruusbroec (1293-1381), in whom we read that:

… contemplation is always accompanied by an exercise which is devoid of particular form or mode. This is a life in which we ourselves come to nought, for where we go out of ourselves into darkness and modelessness that is unfathomable, there shines the simple ray of God’s brightness always, in which we are grounded and which draws us up out of ourselves into the supra-essential being and the immersion of love. And this immersion is always linked with and followed by a modeless practice of love, for love cannot be idle, but it wants to know and taste to the full the unfathomable richness that lives in its ground. And this is a hunger unstilled … One cannot leave it, nor grasp it; one cannot do without it, nor obtain it; one cannot speak about it, nor be silent about it, for it is above reason and understanding and above all creatures. But we should look into ourselves: there we feel that the Spirit of God drives us and kindles us in restlessness of loving, and consumes us to nothing in his own self, that is in the supra-essential love we are united with and possess more deeply and more widely than any other thing.[6] (The Sparkling Stone, ‘Modelessness’)

Important here is how Ruusbroec connects nothingness and love, a point to which I shall return. At the same time, it is undeniable that such teaching continued to be suspect in the eyes of church officials. Another significant spokesman for the importance of nothingness, the seventeenth century Spanish theologian Miguel de Molinos wrote, somewhat succinctly, that ‘The path by which to walk to that high state of the reformed soul, by which one immediately arrives at the highest good, at our first origin and our highest peace, is nothingness’.[7] But Molinos, like Eckhart, would be condemned and his teaching, called ‘Quietism’ by its opponents because it asserted that the soul could become entirely passive in relation to God, would be the focus of one of the most bitter controversies within early modern Catholicism. No mainstream theologians took the side of Molinos in this dispute, although the French Bishop Fénelon came close, as when he wrote that ‘There are only two truths in the world, that of the allness of God and the nothing of the creature, so for humility to be true it is necessary that we pay continual homage to God by our lowliness and remain in our place, which is to love and to be nothing’.[8] But his writings too would be condemned, though less harshly.

Within Protestantism, the early seventeenth century witnessed the remarkable authorship of Jacob Boehme, an uneducated shoemaker from a provincial town in Eastern Germany, who fused Christian teaching with elements of Kabbalah to create a vision of dynamic theogony in which God himself comes to be as emerging out of a primal nothing, what Boehme calls the Ungrund, the non-ground, that is the sole primordial reality. Where classical Christian teaching spoke of God creating the world out of nothing, Boehme seems almost to turn this on its head and depict God and world both proceeding from the nothingness of this original Ungrund. Again, predictably, Boehme faced considerable opposition from Church authorities, although his writings exercised a broad though often obscure influence on a succession of thinkers in the following centuries, including (in Britain) the Anglican spiritual writer William Law and William Blake.

The nineteenth century saw a huge surge of interest in both Boehme and Eckhart, indeed, until then many of the texts we now know to be Eckhart’s were either unknown or assigned to other authors. This rediscovery undoubtedly contributed to what we might call a revival of the lost or abated history of nothingness within Christianity and it is in this context that we find a writer such as Kierkegaard making nothingness a central theme of his spiritual writings. In one of his religious discourses, ‘To desire God is a human being’s highest perfection’, Kierkegaard tells a story about the self that grows dissatisfied with merely being an instrument in the service of obscure desires, a part of the world or nature, rather than a self-directing centre of conscious freedom. When the self tries to master itself, to take its life in its own hands, it discovers that this is not so easy. In fact, Kierkegaard seems, to think, it is downright impossible, since no one is stronger than their own self. The outcome, as he describes it, is like a wrestling match between two exactly equal combatants. In such a situation, the self cannot do anything more than fight itself to a standstill, an impasse, in which it effectively annihilates itself and, he adds, this ‘annihilation is his truth.’[9] ‘He who is himself altogether capable of nothing, cannot undertake even the smallest thing without God’s help, that is to say, without being aware that there is a God’[10] and ‘he who … knows from himself [his own experience] that he can do nothing at all, has every day and in very moment the wished-for and incontrovertible opportunity of experiencing that God lives.’[11] To know that he is nothing is his truth, it is ‘truth’s secret’, entrusted to him by God: in the acceptance of his nothingness he comes to know God.

Kierkegaard offers variations on this theme in a number of passages. One that he uses on several occasions is that of the sun being reflected in the sea, but, as he points out, this can only happen when the sea grows still and quiet. ‘When the sea exerts all its might,’ he writes, ‘it is impossible for it to reflect the image of the heavens and even the smallest movement means that the reflection is not quite pure; but when it becomes still and deep, then heaven’s image sinks down into its nothingness’.[12] He finds an eminent biblical figure for what this means in human terms in the sinful woman of Luke Chapter 7, who bursts in on Jesus when he is at a dinner party at the house of Simon the Pharisee, falls at his feet and begins to wash his feet with her tears, to dry them with her hair, and to anoint them with. When the assembled Pharisees express their shock and disapproval, Jesus comments that ‘her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, since she loved much.’ To her, he adds, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ and ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7. 47a, 48b, 50b) In one of a number of passages that he devotes to the sinful woman, Kierkegaard describes her as someone who was entirely taken up with one thought: ‘everything else had become indifferent: everything temporal, earthly, worldly, honour, dignity, good times, the future, family, friends, the judgement of others, and she bore every care lightly, whatever it might be, almost as if it were nothing, because only one thing unconditionally concerned her enough to care about it: her sin’,[13] although, as Kierkegaard shortly afterwards comments, this is not quite right, because the one thing that really concerned her unconditionally was ‘to find forgiveness’.[14] Added to this, she is also described as someone who realized that, in relation to this, her one all-consuming concern, her one great passion was that ‘in relation to finding forgiveness she was herself able to do nothing at all.’[15] ‘She enters in. She fully understands that she is herself able to do nothing. Therefore she does not give herself over to passionate cries of self-accusation, as if this might bring her closer to being saved or make her more well-pleasing to God; she does not make an excessive fuss and, truly, no one could have accused her of that. No, she does nothing at all, she is silent—she weeps.’[16]

In the 20th century, (and partly thanks to Kierkegaard) nothingness would become a major theme of existentialist philosophy, although as we find it in Heidegger and Sartre it seems to have a very different meaning from what it had in the Christian mystical tradition. For Sartre in particular, ‘nothingness’ is precisely the characteristic of human subjectivity that annihilates the world of given experience in order to reshape that world according to its own freedom. As such it becomes a marker of radical dualism and the separation from the human subject from its entire world. Nevertheless, another major existential thinker, Martin Heidegger could turn to none other than Eckhart and, specifically, Eckhart’s notion of Gelassenheit in order to clarify his own view as to how we should orientate ourselves in relation to the world. Gelassenheit is not such an easy word to translate but means something like ‘being let be’, that is, being let be into a state in which we ourselves let be, letting whatever arises arise and whatever passes pass, and no longer imposing our own constructions of subject and object onto the flow of life.

Heidegger was from early on in his career in close contact with several Japanese scholars, and the interface between existentialism and mysticism resurfaces in a movement such as the Kyoto School in Japan, in which traditional Buddhist concepts of nothingness are reinterpreted through existential philosophy. In Kyoto School thinking, the individual’s experience of his or her essential nothingness is simultaneously a revelation of the nothingness that is the one true reality of all things, ‘absolute nothingness’. God, on this view, is not the ‘object’ of (religious) experience but the ‘place’ (basho) of experience and, as such, no-thing: yet it is on the ‘basis’ of this no-thing that all that is occurs. The emptiness revealed in the experience of Satori is not something on the far side of human life, an ‘other shore’, to use the language of traditional Buddhist teaching, but an ‘absolute near side’, a nothingness in which we ourselves, along with all things, are always already placed.

However, this Buddhist claim that the individuals’ experience of their own nothingness reveals the truth of beings as a whole and as such pinpoints a certain ambiguity in the language of nothingness as we found it in the Christian tradition. For it is after all possible to interpret this language as perhaps only an especially vivid or even extravagant way of saying what Paul already said in his letter to the Galatians, that ‘if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself’ (Gal 6.3). Here, it seems, being nothing is not a philosophical statement regarding the true cosmic or ontological condition of being human, but a moral recommendation that we should not think excessively highly of ourselves, that we should, in a word, be humble. Understood in this way, speaking of the annihilation of the self seems much less problematic within the framework of a Christian point of view. It is simply the ultimate expression of the logic of humility and as such resonates with a virtue that Christian writers of all schools and centuries have insisted on. In the late medieval treatise The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis that was (and remains) a classic source for devotional practice, à Kempis states that ‘A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons’.[17] For the seventeenth-century Anglican Jeremy Taylor, it is ‘the great ornament and jewel of Christian religion; that whereby it is distinguished from all the wisdom of the world’.[18] Strikingly, it is in commenting on humility that Bishop Fénelon makes the comment about being nothing previously cited. The connection is made clear in a fuller version of that same passage: ‘All the saints are convinced that humility is the basis of all the virtues because it is nothing other than the truth. There are only two truths in the world, that of the allness of God and the nothing of the creature, so for humility to be true it is necessary that we pay continual homage to God by our lowliness, an remaining in our place, which is to love and to be nothing’.[19]

We seem, then, to have two lines of understanding nothingness: one, which we might call cosmological or ontological, the other making it a matter of attitude. In the perspective of scriptural theism, it is only the former that is likely to become suspect; the latter is not only acceptable, but repeatedly endorsed and emphasized: ‘remember, man, that you are but dust, from dust you came and to dust you will return’.

But can such a neat division really hold? Bishop Fénelon not only connects nothingness with humility but, in his philosophical writings, goes on to offer a view of the human self as founded essentially in nothingness. Although we are capable, he says, of knowing the infinite, we ourselves are a ‘nothing’: Behold the prodigy that I always carry within me … Being nothing … I am a nothing that knows the infinite’. The radicality of this view was noted by his contemporaries, including the philosopher Malebranche, who wrote to none other than Mme de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, that ‘The point on which almost the entire work depends is that the habitual state of the soul is a pure nothing …’[20] But this, in Malebranche’s view, is to undermine the whole basis of any science that assumes (with Aristotle) that each thing that exists is what and as it is by virtue of being a particular substantial entity. Fénelon’s vision of the nothingness of the self, by way of contrast, points, at least by implication, to a world that is not constituted as a complex of interacting entities but a world in which the relationship itself is prior to the relata, the things to be related. The physics of the seventeenth century were, maybe, on Malebranche’s side in this dispute and Fénelon’s position could be made to look like nihilism, but today we have learned to be less Aristotelian, at least in our science.

Leaving questions as to the interface between spirituality and physics to one side, it is striking that Fénelon’s theology also illustrates what I have suggested is the either/or character of the relationship between nothingness and gratitude. As we read through his spiritual writings we will find much that emphasizes the dependence of the human being on God, but this does not play itself out in terms of gratitude. The reason for this can be found in Fénelon’s advocacy of what is known as the pure love of God. We have heard Ruusbroec make a connection between nothingness and love in speaking a ‘modeless practice of love’ and we find this connection again in Fénelon. The key idea in the doctrine of pure love is that we are not to love God for the sake of the rewards and punishments that he can bestow but for his own sake. This idea was sometimes illustrated in seventeenth century literature by reference to a medieval legend of a Palestinian prophetess who was seen walking about in the city of Acre carrying a pail of water and a vessel containing a fire. When asked why she was doing this, she replied that it was because she wanted to extinguish the fires of hell with the water and burn paradise with her fire so that no one would love God for the sake of winning heaven or avoiding hell but solely for the love of God Himself. This legend perhaps lies behind the words of a well-known hymn attributed to St Francis Xavier beginning: ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby, Nor yet because who love thee not are damned eternally’; and ending: ‘Not from the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward; but as thyself hast lovèd me, O ever-loving Lord. So would I love thee, dearest Lord, and in thy praise will sing; solely because thou art my God, and my most loving King’. Fenelon’s own dramatic illustration of this doctrine is given in a thought-experiment in which he imagines a soul at the instant of death realizing that God has resolved to condemn it to hell or to oblivion but nevertheless, in that very same moment, loving God without qualification, free from all considerations as to whatever benefit it might have from its love.

All of this was, of course, controversial in an age in which religion was a significant form of social control. When challenged as to why he insisted on sending his servants to Church although he did not himself believe in God, the 18th century rationalist Anthony Collins replied that it was so he would not be robbed or murdered in his bed. In other words, Church existed in order to instill the fear of hell into the lower orders or, perhaps, encourage them in virtue through the hope of heaven. If, however, we are to love God for God’s sake alone, there seems to be little place for gratitude, since it is not for the gifts God has given or may in future give that we are to love him; the God-relationship has nothing to do with what has been called a gift economy in which the giving and receiving of gifts is a primary means of establishing the networks of obligation that hold society together—the kind of economy of which The Godfather provides a vivid example! Nor is it perhaps coincidental that Adam Smith, the great theorist of a market economy, was especially effusive in praise of gratitude seeing it as a key factor in holding complex societies together.

The worry that such gift economies are inherently violent was perhaps what led behind the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s argument that for a gift to be truly a gift, there must be no giver, no recipient, and no gift. At first this sounds like nonsense, but the point is really not as paradoxical as Derrida made it appear. For if a gift really is to be a gift then it must be a gift, that is, it must not put the one who receives it under any obligation to the giver; consequently, the giver of such a gift must conceal their own role as giver so as not to oblige the recipient; in fact such a giver must even conceal his or her own knowledge of being a giver since that might allow them to entertain the idea that the other is under some obligation that could, in principle, be called in at some later stage. ‘Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, a text that Derrida cites in support of his own position. By the same logic, the recipient should not even be aware of what is given as a gift.

If all this sounds rather abstract, let us think about a kind of experience we probably all had as children when some visiting uncle or aunt gave us a present of, let’s say, a tie or a doll. Unfortunately for Uncle Ken or Auntie May, it wasn’t a tie or a doll we either liked or wanted. We hung our heads and did not burst into spontaneous thank-yous. Our parents, perhaps aware of our discomfort but also mindful of propriety, insisted that we say ‘Thank you, nicely‘ to Uncle Ken or auntie May for the ‘lovely’ present. Eventually, we forced out a reluctant, muttered ‘Thank you, Uncle Ken’, ‘Thank you, Auntie May’ and familial honour was satisfied. In such events, social order is gained at the cost of individual integrity: there is coercion and there is violence, even when all is smiles. But this is precisely the case of a gift that has to be seen as a gift, in which the giver is identified as a giver, and the recipient as a recipient, obliged to give thanks for what the giver has so graciously given. In such gift-giving, we are in no doubt as to who holds the reins of power. Derrida’s logic is an invitation to think otherwise.

Yet gratitude, it seems, is not in itself an unworthy moral emotion. Some of you may recall the old evangelical hymn that urged congregations to ‘count your blessings, count them one by one (repeated), and it will surprise you what the Lord has done’. Recent psychological research suggests that the systematic practice of gratitude really does contribute to greater happiness. In one experiment, conducted over 10 weeks, participants were divided into three groups; one group were asked to write about 5 things they were grateful for in each week, the second to write about 5 hassles they’d experienced that week, and the third about 5 events or circumstances that had affected them in the same period. The results suggested that ‘Participants in the grateful group felt better about their lives as a whole and we more optimistic about the future than students in both of the other comparison groups. In addition, those in the grateful condition reported fewer health complaints and even said that they spent more time exercising than control participants did’.[21]

Gratitude, when not forced, would seem to reflect and encourage a positive attitude to our lives, to be an expansive emotion, enhancing openness to what life has to offer. But how does this relate to the kind of forced gratitude that we are so often inducted into as children?

One way of making sense of this is to distinguish between two very different kinds of gratitude, between what the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has called ‘gratitude as thankfulness and as gratefulness’.[22] Gratitude as thankfulness is precisely gratitude for gifts that are presented to us as gifts, gifts that require thanks to be given to the giver. Now even though (despite Derrida, Uncle Ken, and Auntie May) we can envisage situations of this kind in which thanks is not forced and in which the giver generously renounces any present and future benefit or payback from the gift, gratitude of this kind is always going to be limited in scope; if life deals me a good hand, if I have repeated experiences of such gifts, I may, over time, develop the kind of overall openness and optimism that the experimenters reported in their subjects. Nevertheless, in principle, such gratitude extends only so far as the gift, but not to life as such. Gratefulness, by way of contrast, is a basic attitude to life as such and as a whole, what Brother David called ‘transpersonal universal gratitude’. Now, depending on our understanding of moral psychology, we might think that the best way to develop such transpersonal universal gratitude is through repeated, especially childhood, experience of thankfulness, arriving by a kind of Pavlovian conditioning at a more generalized view of the world as something to be grateful for. Conversely, we might think that only if we have a basically grateful orientation towards the world will we ever be capable of whole-hearted gratitude for any particular gift we might receive.

Leaving that debate to one side, we might now be in a position to see why an exponent of the pure love of God might have serious reservations about figuring the God-relationship in terms of being grateful for a series of particular gifts since it makes the God-relationship into a kind of economic exchange. Gratefulness, however, does not seem to conflict with a pure love of God in the same way; in fact, we could understand it as a way of affirming that what we love in loving God’s love is intrinsically good–that there is joy in it. We may be nothing, even the universe as a whole may be nothing in the sense of having no underlying or unifying ontological principle—but the event of our existence and of the universe as it arises in, and through, and around us, is an occasion for gratefulness.

Something like this seems to me to be implicit in a beautiful passage from one of Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses. Now it might at first seem to me that the passage is promoting thankfulness since, in the manner of the evangelical hymn, it lists a series of blessings for which we might thank God, the giver. However, it is also striking that Kierkegaard (who in his own way elsewhere affirms the pure love of God) does not use the word ‘thanks’ but ‘joy’. The passage is a meditation on the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount that we should be like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air that take no thought for the morrow, that do not work, and yet are fed and clothed.

‘Can anyone really be serious in thinking that what the bird and the lily are joyful about or that what it is to be like them is nothing worthy of joy?’ writes Kierkegaard.

So, the fact that you came into the world, that you exist, that ‘today’ you have got what you need in order to exist, that you came into the world, that you became a human being, that you can see – just reflect on the fact that you can see – that you can hear, that you can smell, that you can taste, that you can feel, that the sun shines on you and shines for you and, when you grow weary, the moon comes up and the stars are lit; that winter comes and all of nature changes its garb and takes on a strange new role – and does so to please you; that spring comes and the birds return in numerous flocks – and do so to give you joy; that the green shoots spring up, the woods grow beautiful and present themselves as a bride – and do so to give you joy; that autumn comes and the birds take their departure, not because they count themselves as precious but, no, so that you will not grow bored of them, as the wood puts away its finery for the sake of the next time, that is, so that it will be able to give you joy the next time: is this nothing to be joyful about? …Learn from the lily, then, and learn from the bird, for they are masters in the art of existing, of being today, of being joy. [23]

Now, of course, Kierkegaard is writing before Darwin and we could well accuse him of the so-called pathetic fallacy that sees nature as in some way existing for the sake of human needs and as motivated by emotions like those we recognise in ourselves. However, I think that this is to take too seriously the rhetorical strategy of the passage. I’m fairly sure Kierkegaard is aware that nature is not just there for the entertainment or edification of human beings. What is at issue is not ‘nature’ but the attitude we take not only to nature or to the world, but to ourselves and our life in the world: in this sense, the main point is the point made right at the start of the passage: ‘just think that you exist – is that not reason for joy’.

I have not mentioned nothingness for some minutes, but what I hope to have done in this lecture is to set out a series of interlocking themes in spiritual life. I have suggested that it is possible to make connections between nothingness, gratitude and the pure love of God, since even though a self that sees itself and its world as nothing and therefore has nothing to thank God for may at the same time espouse a pure love of God that is not dependent on or limited to having something to thank God for. As such this pure love of God is the simple acknowledgment that the confluence of God, world, and self in the passing, insubstantial moment of existence is the matter of joy and, as such, unlimited transpersonal gratefulness. It is the human echo of God’s own judgement on the world he had created that it was good.

I have one further comment. At several points I mentioned that the idea of seeing human beings and their world in terms of nothingness undermines an Aristotelian view that approaches phenomena as defined in terms of the particular substantial entity that each is. It is striking that if we turn to Aristotelian moral psychology, we see that both humility and gratitude are rejected because they seem to undermine the self-sufficiency of a noble soul guided by reason and conscious of its own dignity and worth. The humble self, an Aristotelian would say, lacks a proper self-respect and gratitude is likewise demeaning because it puts a person in the position of indebtedness. These Aristotelian ideas, I suggest, may be alive and well, suitably transformed, in many contemporary ways of thinking about what it is to be a self, as in the privileging of autonomy, self-affirmation, and pride as hallmarks of human dignity. The position I have been outlining is therefore one that is at many points in tension with what many of our contemporaries regard as most valuable and important in striving to become who we most truly are. I hope, however, that they are so far from being incompatible with respect for the dignity of others as to put us in a better position to exercise just such respect since knowing ourselves to be nothing and being grateful for being just this nothing that we are, we cannot be competitors for any rights that others might want to claim. Fully to justify this last comment, however, would require another and perhaps a very different kind of argument.

This lecture was given at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, London on July 22nd 2017


[1] Meister Eckhart, trans. and ed. O. Davies, Selected Writings (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 203.
[2] Eckhart, Writings, p. 205.
[3] Eckhart, Writings, p. 205.
[4] Eckhart, Writings, p. 205.
[5] Meister Eckhart, trans. and ed. M. O’C. Walshe, Sermons and Treatises, vol. 1 (Shaftesbury: Element, 1987), p. 153.
[6] John Ruusbroec, trans. J. A. Wiseman, The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1987), pp. 171-2.
[7] Miguel de Molinos, trans. R. B. Baird, The Spiritual Guide (New York: Paulist Press, 2010), p. 178.
[8] Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe (ed. Le Brun), Œuvres, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1983), p. 690.
[9] S. Kierkegaard, trans. H. V. and E. H. Hong, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), , p. 309.
[10] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 322.
[11] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 322.
[12] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 399.
[13] The translation is my own, but the passage may be found in S. Kierkegaard, tr. H. V. and E. H. Hong, Without Authority, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 153.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., p. 155.
[16] Ibid., pp. 155-6.
[17] Thomas à Kempis, trans. L. Sherley-Price, The Imitation of Christ (London: Penguin, 1952), p. 29.
[18] Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living and Dying, together with Prayers containing the Whole Duty of a Christian (London: Bohn, 1860), p. 72.
[19] Fénelon, Œuvres, 1, p. 690.
[20] See Jean Letruit, ‘Une Lettre inédite de Malebranche à Madame de Maintenon contre Fénelon (Paris 2 octobre 1697)’ Dix-septième siècle, 2/2005 (no 227), pp. 333-8.
[21] Philip C. Watkins, ‘Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being’ in Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCulloch, The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 174.
[22] See David Steindl-Rast, ‘Gratitude as Thankfulness and Gratefulness’ in Emmons and McCulloch, Psychology of Gratitude, 282-9.
[23] S. Kierkegaard, trans. G. Pattison, Kierkegaard’s Spiritual Writings (New York: Harper, 2010), pp. 217-8.