Grateful (Diana Butler Bass) -- A Review

GRATEFUL: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. By Diana Butler Bass. San Francisco: Harper One, 2018. Xxxi + 224 pages.

                What are you grateful for? Are you even grateful? While many of us grew up learning that it is proper etiquette to say thank you for gifts, even gifts we really don't like (you know the sweater that a relative gave you that is really hideous!), we might not be very good at saying thank you. That is especially true when it comes to sending thank you notes. Whether or not we are competent at expressing our gratitude, surely there is something to be thank for, even in moments of difficulty. Especially if we find expressing gratitude difficult, not because we’re ungrateful, but we just find it difficult to give expression, perhaps we need a word of wisdom from one who also struggles with gratitude. Diana Butler Bass confesses “I have always struggled with gratitude. I wanted to be grateful, but too often I find myself with no thanks” (p. xiii). It is out of those struggles that she writes this book on “the transformative power of giving thanks.”  

Diana Butler Bass is a gifted writer. I've read most of her books, which tend to focus on religious or spiritual matters. I have found them to be thought-provoking and even inspirational. Diana brings to her books scholarly expertise in the history of American Christianity as well as deep experience in the church and in the broader religious world. So, even when I struggle with what she writes, I find much of value to draw from. In the past many of her books have focused on church life and analysis of religious trends, but this book is different. It is more spiritual in nature, and less religious. Whatever your spiritual or religious or non-religious vantage points, I think you will find this book to be inspiring and a book that speaks to our times.  

Bass is a religiously and politically progressive. It is no surprise that she would express disappointment at the election of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s electoral loss in November 2016. It was during this electoral season that she began writing this book.  She admits struggling with being grateful during this season, making it difficult to write a book on gratitude. Yet, that is the book that emerged, despite, as noted above, she struggled with gratitude and has her entire life. Like many in our generation, She grew up with the expectation drilled into her of the importance of sending tangible signs of gratitude. That is, writing thank you notes. She did them reluctantly, and then attempted to impose the same discipline on her daughter with equal difficulty (she gave up where her mother did not). Despite these struggles, she understood that gratitude is important, and perhaps even transformative as a spiritual practice.

This is a book of spirituality, and I use the word spirituality purposely. While she writes from a Christian perspective, she intends this book to have a wider audience than the Christian audience. That broadening of audience has been in the making for some time. We saw inklings in Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, where she described three ways of living the life of faith, one being Spiritual but not Religious. As I read her next book—Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution, I discerned a move into a more spiritual but not religious vantage point (though she remains active in the life of the church and speaks regularly to church groups). While I admit that I struggled with that book, I still found it to be thought-provoking. That spiritual perspective is present here as well, though I found myself more in tune with this book than Grounded. That is not meant to be a critique of Grounded, just a note about my own point of engagement.  

The point of Grateful, as I read it, is that we humans know that it’s important to be grateful, but like Bass we struggle to express it. We know it can be transformative, and most people have something to be thankful for (She mentions a survey that suggests 78% of people have felt grateful about something within the past week), but at the same time surveys and news reports demonstrate that many of us are anxious, fearful, angry, and resentful. So, what gives? How can we be thankful and resentful and anxious at the same time? Perhaps we're grateful on a personal level, but find it difficult to express gratitude in circles larger than the immediate one. So, how do we move beyond the immediate circle to a broader one?

It may be good for us to be grateful, but gratitude can’t be imposed on us. For gratitude to be transformative, it must be more than gratitude for material goods. This would be “cheap gratitude,” to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke of “cheap grace.”  Cheap gratitude is an "understanding of thanks [that] is polluted by our toxic dissatisfactions as we praise God for material possessions instead of the good gifts of nature and neighbor" (p. xx). While gratitude is often understood "as a commodity of exchange," of debt and duty, with recipients being put into debt to their benefactors—a quid pro quo form of relationship—that is not what she has in mind. Instead, this is a "gift and response" relationship. She writes that gifts precede benefactors, so the universe, life, air, friendship, love, these are all gifts. There are signs of abundance. From a Christian perspective, God is the giver of every gift, and we are recipients of these gifts that come freely to all. For that we break out in thanksgiving. 

As Bass understands gratitude, we experience it on two levels—the individual (me) and the communal (we). At both levels, we experience gratitude in terms of emotions and ethics. While she breaks them down into personal and communal, they are interrelated. The way in which we emphasize me or we, emotion or ethics, will influence the way we experience gratitude.

These components—We and Me, Emotions and Ethics—define the format of the book. There are four parts to the book, with two chapters per part. Part One is titled "Me: Emotion—Gifts and Thanks." As one might expect, she explores how we feel gratitude. She speaks here of the heart. She notes that we open our hearts "to the constant flow of receiving and responding that happens all around us all the time makes us more generous" (p. 27). Part Two focuses again on "Me," but this time in terms of Ethics. Here she talks about developing habits of gratitude, about being intentional about gratitude. This was the kind of gratitude she was raised with but struggled with—the duty you might say of expressing personal gratitude. As difficult as it might be, it is important to develop intentional forms of gratitude. These are the two sides of the personal/individual. They are important and essential. But they are, by themselves, insufficient—so we move on to the communal.

Part three focuses on We, but with a return to the emotional side. The two chapters in this section explore the importance of joy and celebration. Gratitude is relational, social. "It is about being with one another, in life together" (p. 99). It is festive. Our religious festivals, are expressions of this principle. The Eucharist (Lord's Supper) is itself a sign of thankfulness. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for giving thanks. It is, she suggests a feast upon gratefulness. She bemoans the fact that the national celebration of Thanksgiving has in recent years become increasingly individualistic, which is unfortunate because it has the potential to bind us all together across religious/non-religious lines. 

Finally, Part four speaks of We in terms of Ethics. The subtitle is "Community and Politics." The book is written during the first year of Donald Trump's presidency. Many of us are profoundly disturbed by what is transpiring. It makes it difficult to be grateful on a large scale. There is great anxiety out there, and yet gratitude might have transformative benefits. She opens this section by telling the story of her participation in the Women's March that occurred the day of the presidential inauguration. Being part of this effort, gathering with thousands of women (and men), brought a sense of gratefulness, gratefulness for the community that gathered to resist forces that might affect our lives. In this section she turns to the intentionality of practice, and that includes political involvement. In the chapter on Circles of Gratitude, she describes the power of moving from quid pro quo to pro bono. That is, moving from "this for that" to "for good." This is a different form of reciprocity, one that is not debt producing, but debt relieving. She writes that "gratitude begins with a profound awareness of abundance and builds communities of well-being and generosity" (p. 165). She envisions here a politics that is committed to the common good, not just the good of the benefactors. 

In an age of anxiety and resentment, when it seems the most difficult to be grateful, this is a word of wisdom and grace. It is not a call to duty. It is a call to tap into those deeper reserves of the Spirit. While Diana Butler Bass writes for a wider audience than the Christian one that has nurtured her, the message is deeply reflective of the best that is Christian. So, this is a book for our times. I expect to return to it time and again, especially as a preacher. I do recommend it heartily! 


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