Finding God In


“Thanksgiving opens the door to spiritual growth. If there is any day in our life which is not thanksgiving day, then we are not fully alive. Counting our blessing attracts blessings. Counting our blessings each morning starts a day full of blessings. Thanksgiving brings God’s bounty. From gratitude comes riches—from complaints, poverty. Thankfulness opens the door to happiness. Thanksgiving causes giving. Thanksgiving puts our mind in tune with the Infinite. Continual gratitude dissolves our worries.” (The American Spectator • 2009 09 11)

by philanthropist, Sir John Templeton


The Importance of Gratitude

Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher, entrepreneur, and commentator who is currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Senior Fellow of The Trinity Forum. Among his recent books are Beauty and Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation.

Moving from charity to justice—from gift to rights—has social costs

Senior Fellow Roger Scruton gave this address on 23 June 2009 for Trinity Forum Westminster, a new initiative of Trinity Forum Europe for the Parliamentary and political community in the UK. In the religions that are familiar to us, the idea of grace is of fundamental importance. The term (Latin gratia) translates a variety of words in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Sanskrit, but all the sacred texts seem to point in the same direction, affirming that God’s relation to the world as a whole, and to each of us in particular, is one of giving. God’s grace (as contained in the person and acts of his Son) is acknowledged in the liturgy of the Anglican Church, when we say together ‘the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us now and evermore’. The great prayer of the Catholic Church, based on a poem in the New Testament, greets the Virgin Mary with the words ‘Hail Mary, full of Grace, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’ The Koran opens with the verse that forms a refrain in the life of all Muslims: bism illah il-rahman il-rahim, in the name of God, full of grace, full of graciousness, as Mohamed Asad translates it, and the root rhm is shared with Hebrew, used often in the Old Testament to denote God’s concern for us, His recognition of our weakness, and His abundance of gifts.

People brought up in a religious community are aware that much has been given to them, both materially and spiritually. They will feel an instinctive leaning towards John Bunyan’s sentiment, in entitling his autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. It was St Paul who described himself as ‘the chief of sinners’: but if this title was earned by St Paul and by Bunyan, what of you and me? Most people who have examined their own lives with the eye of judgement have come to Bunyan’s conclusion—that there is no way in which they can be forgiven for all that they have done without the grace of God, on which their rescue depends. The idea that the world is sustained by gift is second nature to religious people, who believe that they should be givers in their turn, if they are to receive the gift on which they depend for their salvation.

We live through gift, and we acknowledge gifts by giving: this thought is often expressed in his writings by that most generous of givers, Sir John Templeton, to whose Foundation we owe this gathering and the opportunity to join in exploring the deeper aspects of existence. The same thought has been fundamental to the Jewish faith, imposing a form of life on the Jews that has increased the burden of their divinely imposed mission. The public-spirited character of Jewish communities is both an example to the world, and also a stimulus to hostility. The sight of people who live by giving is deeply offensive to those who are unable or unwilling to give in their turn. It is one cause of the anti-semitism which has blighted Western civilisation, and which is resurging in the world today. We should therefore be aware that the concept of grace, on which Christian civilisation is founded, has its roots in the Jewish worldview. Grace is the concept that unites our faiths, and which denotes the source of the reconciliation of which we all stand in need.

The Nature of Gratitude

But, as we know, we are entering a new period of human history, in which religious faith is not the normal condition into which children are born. Young people grow up without those rituals, such as grace before meals, which rehearse the distress of their ancestors, and which remind them of their amazing good luck in finding food on the table and comfort all around. Gratitude, if it occurs at all, is for special occasions, when some individual makes a point of stepping in to help them. And many things that were once seen as gifts are now seen as ‘rights’, for which it would be inappropriate to feel gratitude, since if you have a right to something it is, in a sense, already yours.

Gift supposes ownership: I cannot give you a thing unless that thing is mine. In giving it to you I relinquish ownership, while demanding nothing in exchange. Gratitude is your acknowledgement of this: your recognition that I have deliberately incurred a loss, in order that you should receive a benefit. And we normally expect the relation between us to be changed by this. We assume that you will bear in mind the good that I have done you, and be prepared, in the right circumstances, to reciprocate. Of course, the opportunity to reciprocate may never arise, and the truly generous person, the one who takes pleasure in giving and who regards giving as a good in itself, will not think that he is, through his giving, securing some future benefit. The greatest gifts are those which can never be reciprocated, like the gift of health that the doctor makes to a poor patient, demanding nothing in return, or like the gift of life and nurture that a mother makes to her child, or like the gift of his own life that a soldier makes, when he dies in battle for his country.

This means that all gifts are arrayed on a spectrum of interest, ranging from those which belong to a strategy of reciprocation, and which are hardly gifts at all but simply uncompleted bargains, and those which are detached completely from the possibility of some future return, and which are to be seen as sacrifices. Anthropologists have made a study of gift-giving cultures, in which gift has become ritualised, as a way of securing peace and good-will between neighbouring tribes and families, but in which reciprocity is minutely calculated, so that each gift must be met in due course by a return which is of equal value. Failure to reciprocate, in such a culture, may lead to anger, remonstration, and even war.

To us, looking on from the secure standpoint of a legal order that has emancipated itself from such simple rituals, the gift-giving culture may seem to be very far from anything that we understand as giving. It may seem little different from the rights culture that we know from our own surroundings. Still, that is not entirely true. There is, in the gift-giving culture, a display of gratitude at the moment of gift, and a kind of rejoicing that warms the hearts of those involved. On the gift day the tribe does not merely put aside old quarrels; it feels a renewed surge of affection towards its neighbours. This affection is a kind of moral capital on which it may draw in times of conflict. It delays belligerence, providing the breathing space in which offences can be rectified before it is too late.

The Power and Place of Reciprocity

We have some familiarity with this from an equivalent ritual in our own communities, which is that of the round of drinks in the pub. This ritual is, of course, disappearing; but many of us remember it from our youth, and here and there in country districts some trace of it remains. Men gather, usually on a Friday night after receiving their wages, and treat each other to drinks, each person offering to buy a round for everyone. Drinks were (and to some extent still are) priced accordingly, so that the cost of providing for one person would be roughly the same as that of providing for another. By the end of the evening, when everyone had bought his round, each would have laid out the same amount of money, roughly the amount he would have spent by buying drinks only for himself. But think how differently the company would feel towards each other, if each person had paid only for the drinks he consumed, and never turned to his neighbours and said ‘what are you having?’ or ‘this round’s on me’.

Again, the ritual replenishes the bank of affection, helping to create the barrier to belligerence on which close-knit communities depend. And the participant feels, at the moment of giving, an outrush of affection towards each of his companions in turn. He is confirmed in his social membership. Those who hold back from the ritual, who for whatever reason do not reciprocate or refuse the gift that is offered, are regarded with suspicion, like Peter Grimes in the magnificent pub scene in Benjamin Britten’s opera.

The round of drinks is a gift-giving ritual which depends upon reciprocity for its effect. It does not exist in order to generate profound friendships or to prepare people for the great acts of sacrifice. It has quite another social function. But we should recognize that, just as in the gift-giving culture of the Trobriand islanders, the element of giving is all-important. And the warmth arises not only in the recipient but also—and more fully—in the giver. This is something that we know in our hearts but which, for some reason, we are always forgetting. When you give something to another, however cool your relations may be prior to the gift, you feel a surge of affection in the giving, an affection which the act of giving itself brings into being. When I give something I am present in the gift: it comes from me and is a symbol and an outgrowth of the free self that is the moral heart of me. The gift comes wrapped in affection, an outgoing of me to you which is created by the very act of giving. Even if the gift belongs to a context of ritual and reciprocity, it is something more than a bargain or a contractual exchange. It is I, going out to you.

It should not be forgotten, however, that this kind of affection needs to be renewed, if it is to bring stability and reliability to human relations. Societies which depend upon ‘favours’ rather than legally enforcible contracts are notably given to conflicts and blood-feuds. As products of the clear-headed anglophone culture, who see law, contract, and promise-keeping as the foundation of social order, we are suspicious of favours. The gift culture of Southern Italy is repugnant to us, especially when conjoined, as it inevitably seems to be, with the code of omertà; and the granting of favours is unacceptable in politics.

In this frame of mind we are apt to look with suspicion when gifts intrude into relations that ought to exist on a more legal and publicly accountable footing. Gift privatizes a relationship; and some relationships ought not to be privatized—so we think, at least. Arabs tend not to see things in that way, and you could not conceivably carry out any kind of diplomacy in the Middle East if you did not make gifts or if you showed yourself reluctant to receive them. In many Arab cultures to refuse a gift is to give deep offence, and in certain parts of the Middle East it is vital not to admire or praise anything in another person’s possession too effusively, for fear that he will make a gift of it.

But here we should make a clear distinction between two kinds of gift: those which are part of creating and cementing individual ties, and those which are gifts of charity—arm’s-length gifts, the purpose of which is to provide help where help is needed, but not to create a debt or a bond of individual affection. There is an interesting contrast here between the anglophone culture and the culture of the European continent. Figures for private charitable giving for 2006 showed the United States at the top of the list, with charitable gifts from individuals and private companies amounting to 1.67 percent of GDP; Britain was a long way behind, but nevertheless second on the list with charitable giving at 0.73 percent of GDP. Canada is in third place, followed by South Africa and the Republic of Ireland. Germany and France were way down the list at 0.22 percent and 0.14 percent respectively, and Italy and Spain were off the map altogether. Countries with strong gift-giving routines may be very poor at charitable giving, and conversely countries with strong private charities may be suspicious of the privatisation of public life that occurs, when gift-giving takes precedence over contract and law.


I want to say a little about charity, since it is so fundamental both to the Christian worldview and to the institutions that have grown from it. Charity, or caritas, is the Latin term with which the Vulgate translates agape—the Greek word introduced by St Paul to describe the special love for others to which Christians are commanded, and on which the Christian community is built. Many theologians and philosophers have discerned a deep meaning in this word. The Greeks had made eros—sensual love—fundamental to their worldview. Plato argued that eros is only apparently directed towards other human beings, and that, in itself, it aspires towards God. It is on the wings of eros that we can rise to the heavenly sphere where we belong. St Paul was introducing a more Hebrew conception, when he praised faith, hope, and agape as the three virtues of the Christian life.

Agape does not raise us to God, but comes down to us from God. It is received as a gift, and then distributed by each of us to our neighbours, as another gift. Hence C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, called it ‘gift-love’. It fills the world with the spirit of gift—but not a personal, exclusive, or jealous gift, like erotic love. It is a gift that makes no demands; agape pursues the interest of the other and not that of the self. Eros is the opposite: jealous, possessive, wanting pleasure for the self, and often indifferent to the other’s well-being. Eros can decline to the kind of love described by Blake, when he wrote

Love seeketh only self to please,

To bind another to its delight;

Joys in another’s loss of ease

And builds a Hell in Heav’n’s despite.

Of course eros can rise above that condition: but in the Christian view it is something to be disciplined. Eros is to be turned in another direction, by infusing it with agape—with the love that redeems and liberates. (For the Christian this transmutation of the erotic into the agapic is the work of marriage, and it is why marriage is a sacrament, and not just a deal.)

Agape has been considered, in our tradition, as the securest form of love, since it comes down to us from God. Hence it has a special place in law, with charitable giving enjoying fiscal privileges that are withheld from merely personal favours. Education, religion, and the relief of poverty have all been recognised since the Elizabethan Statute of Charitable Uses as causes that the State should respect and which should be exempt from onerous taxation. In our country and in the anglophone world generally, education and the relief of poverty have been treated as forms of giving, through which successful people can benefit their less successful fellows.

Now the proper response to a gift, even a gift of charity, is gratitude. That has been the traditional response of British and American people to the receipt of education, health-care, and other such benefits. People who feel gratitude also wish to express it. The easiest way is to give in one’s turn. By giving you pass on and amplify the good will that you received. Thus it is that, in America, where the tradition of giving is very much alive, and the state has not yet extinguished the desire or the need for it, people give to their old school, to their university, to the hospital that cured them, to the local rescue service that saved them, and to the veterans who fought for them. They give without seeking or expecting recognition, but simply because the desire to give is a part of gratitude.

This is one small illustration of what St Paul had in mind, in telling us that, of faith, hope, and agape, ‘the greatest of these is agape.’ The gift which comes down to us from God is one that is given by each of us in turn. The Christian community is filled by the spirit of gift; and gratitude is the contagious form that giving takes, as it spreads through a whole community. Religious people will see here the workings of Grace—a way in which God makes himself known in the actions of people. But it is not only religious believers who experience gift-love, or the need, on receiving it, to give in their turn.

From Charity to Justice

However, we cannot ignore the fact that gratitude is vanishing from our world. The state has taken over many of the functions that were previously performed by charities—not least education, health-care, and the relief of poverty. And the state deals on impersonal and equal terms with its citizens. It has no favourites, and it is governed by the rules—anything else is received by the citizens as an injustice. Hence charity is replaced by justice as the ruling principle upon which social benefits are distributed.

But while charity deals in gifts, justice deals in rights. And when you receive what is yours by right you don’t feel grateful. Hence people who receive their education and health-care from the state are less inclined to give to schools and hospitals in their turn—something that is borne out vividly by the figures concerning charitable giving that I mentioned earlier. The spirit of gratitude retreats from the social experience, and in countries like France and Germany, where civil society is penetrated at every level by the state, people give little or nothing to charity, and regard gifts with suspicion, as attempts to privatise what should be a matter of public and impartial concern.

This connects with an important feature of socialism, as traditionally understood in Europe. Socialism grew from a hostility to private property, socialists believing property to be a source of inequality, and inequality the root of something called ‘domination’—the power that one person has over those who depend on his decisions. This hostility to private property has persisted into our times, and it goes with a hostility to gift, which is, after all, the principal way in which a person expresses himself and his freedom through property.

Through hospitality and the giving of goods and services you make your property into an expression of yourself, a way of relating to others, a way of filling your world with affection. And in the socialist mentality that is unfair, because it means that some people have a better and fuller life than others. Out of the original socialist hostility to property, therefore, there arose another, more secretive but equally virulent hostility, to giving. Giving creates its own circles of influence and privilege; it is not impartial, not bound by the rules. It is the enemy of equality, since it discriminates. As a result of this hostility gifts are now heavily taxed, and institutions like private schools and private hospitals which are gift-giving and gift-receiving networks are always on the verge of being closed down by socialist governments.

We should be aware of the cost of this, and it’s a cost that we witness clearly in France. When gifts are replaced by rights, so is gratitude replaced by claims. And claims breed resentment. Since you are queuing on equal terms with the competition, you will begin to think of the special conditions that entitle you to a greater, a speedier, or a more effective share. You will be always one step from the official complaint, the court action, the press interview, and the snarling reproach against Them, the ones who owed you this right and also withheld it.

The Culture of Ingratitude

Is it not obvious that that is the way our society too is going? Agape, the contagious gentleness between people, survives only where there is a habit of giving. Take away gift, and agape gives way to the attitude that Nietzsche called ressentiment, the vigilant envy of others, and the desire to take from them what I but not they have a right to.

Moreover, ingratitude grows in proportion to the benefits received. When those good things, like food, shelter, education, for which our ancestors had to struggle, are offered as rights, and without cost or effort, then they are ‘taken for granted’, as the saying is, which means quite the opposite from ‘taken as gifts’. In such conditions there arises what we might call a culture of ingratitude—one that does not merely forget to give thanks, but which regards thanks as somehow demeaning, a confession of weakness, a way of according to the other person an importance that he does not have.

This thanklessness is growing around us today. It is written on the faces of pop-idols and sports stars; it is announced in all kinds of ways by the media and by our political representatives. And it is one reason for the radical decline in public standards. Politicians are unlikely to behave as they should, when they feel that they are acting on behalf of an entirely thankless public. And policemen are bound to degenerate into thugs, when they no longer receive thanks for the dangerous service that they render.

But the situation is not hopeless. Within the culture of ingratitude pockets of thankfulness can grow. Everyone who has suffered some major calamity, be it illness, loss, or some sudden reversal of fortune, feels, on pulling through, a great surge of gratitude. And gratitude comes in two forms. First, you are grateful for pulling through—you are still alive, still functioning, still able to love. Secondly, you are grateful for the experience itself. Here again the religious person would be disposed to speak of the workings of Grace. You can be grateful for something bad: grateful for the affliction that awoke you to the truth about yourself, that enabled you to confront it, to overcome it, to understand. You are grateful to have learned that life is a gift, and that to receive it fully you must give in turn. As William Law expressed the point, in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: ‘whatever seeming calamity befalls you, if you can thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing’.

It seems to me that this is the way we learn gratitude—not from abundance, but from dearth, not from comfort but from affliction. And in learning gratitude we come to see that the things which war against it are after all only temporary. We are already seeing that the educational, health-care, welfare, and pensions systems of the European democracies are breaking down. This universal provider will soon cease to provide; the normal and natural condition of society, as a condition of scarcity and deprivation, will replace the habitual abundance. And once again people will recognize not only that they depend on others to give to them, but also that they must learn to give in their turn.

Reprinted with permission from The Trinity Forum's "Provocations" (