In the times of turmoil in which we live, various candidates suggest themselves as ways of capturing the essence of our epoch: the age of anxiety, the age of identity politics, the age of polarization. All touch on some obvious aspect of our current struggles. But perhaps a better title might be the age of ingratitude. This captures a deep but often unnoticed pathology of our troubled era.
Take, for example, the books, blogs, and tweets devoted to being unthankful for anything and everything. We might dub this the Ingratitude Industry, not only because of the sheer quantity of ungratefulness, but also because of the lucrative careers that are made by selling ingratitude as a commodity. Strange to tell, Christianity—a religion predicated on divine grace and corresponding human gratitude—offers numerous examples. Many a career has been made in recent years by attacking the churches and institutions of “white evangelicalism.” And many such careers belong to those of whom we would never have heard if they had not obtained their degrees or platforms from the very “white evangelicalism” that forms the raw material of the commodified ingratitude they now sell to the public as prophetic utterances.
But the Ingratitude Industry is not confined to erstwhile religious types. As an immigrant, I love my homeland, but I also love the land that has given me a home. It seems to me odd, therefore, that so many Americans are obviously and vocally ungrateful for their country. Odd, too, that so many of these anti-American Americans want to throw the borders open—not, as one might expect from their rhetoric, to allow those of us trapped in such an apparently irredeemable and systemically racist country to escape from it, but to let others enter the same. Others who, it seems, would be rather grateful for the opportunities for which many Americans have such contempt. Ingratitude in such circumstances is not merely ugly. It is incoherent. But so is it always with those who insist on biting the hand that feeds them.
The fate of the language of privilege is also significant here. Privilege is now a bad thing, a very bad thing, something for which one is supposed to feel guilty and for which one is expected to do perpetual public penance. I, for one, refuse to oblige. Yes, I am privileged: I grew up in a home where my mother and father loved each other, stayed together through thick and thin, and provided my sisters and myself with opportunities that had been denied to them because of their own working-class upbringing—most obviously, the opportunity to study at college. Mine was thus a privileged childhood—but my mother and father did not build their marriage and family at the cost of those of somebody else. They worked hard to love each other and to provide a loving home. I was the recipient of privilege. But the appropriate response to such privilege is not to feel guilty. It is to feel gratitude. To do otherwise would be to sin against my parents.
I suspect the same applies to many others. Are there abusive pastors, corrupt institutions, and evil parents out there? For sure. But many are not so, and most of us, if not all, have been the beneficiaries of countless acts of quiet kindness and patience from Christian pastors and organizations and friends. But gratitude for the many fine and kind Christian people, loving parents, and generous institutions out there doesn’t sell books or attract pageviews. It doesn’t build platforms as does the confected anger of both political extremes. And so we express little gratitude for these hidden lives—lives, I suspect, that are far more typical of reality than the simplistic blanket categories used in the sales pitches of the Ingratitude Industry.
There are numerous human attitudes that mark us off from the rest of the animal kingdom. Jealousy, envy, revenge: We can anthropomorphize animal behavior to fool ourselves into thinking that these phenomena can be found among rats or wolves or aardvarks. But in so doing we are simply reading the psychology of human intentions into instinctive animal behavior. And gratitude falls into this category. To be grateful is a human trait. More than that—to be grateful is to be human. For in gratitude we acknowledge that we are not isolated, autonomous individuals but are dependent upon others, a dependency in which we find joy and for which we are thankful.
Perhaps no modern philosopher captured this so beautifully as Sir Roger Scruton, in one of the last things he ever wrote. Dying of cancer at the end of a year that had seen a vicious and cynical campaign to ruin his reputation, he declared:
Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.
We live in an age marked by infantile ingratitude. And if Scruton is right, that means we live in an age when we do not really know how to live at all. Ingratitude has dehumanized us.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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