Thanksgiving and the Origins of the Religious Sense

The Fall Harvest

The Sense of Dependence

According to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834), religion begins with a sense of dependence, which is a universal human experience. The religious sense begins with being acutely aware of the fact that humans are contingent or dependent beings, living creatures. Think, for example, about how radically dependent just one human being is! That person comes into the world, breathing the air or oxygen that he or she did not create. Then that same individual drinks water, which is not of his or her own making; rather, it comes from the earth. Then he or she eats foods, such as meats and vegetables, that are prepared by vendors and arranged on the shelves and isles of a food store or supermarket, which he or she did not make. Then that person wears clothes, which, usually, are made by others. Then the individual drives an automobile or takes some form of transportation to go to work; none of which is of his or her making. Then, after work, that person returns home, turning on the lights and using other forms of electricity, which he or she did not create.

Even when a person becomes wealthy, say, by designing some kind of popular computer software or creating a best-selling product, he or she depends on others to buy it. Without them, that is, without a community of persons purchasing the item, he or she would not acquire wealth. Thus, wealth is created through a series of mutually interdependent relationships. In short, whether a person is aware of it or not, he or she is a dependent creature.

Therefore, the notion of being self-made; self-reliant, depending only on oneself; and independent, in need of no one nor anything, is an illusion, which will, eventually, be shattered by the reality of human experience itself. Reality has a way of humbling the proud. To be human, then, is to exist in dependent relationships with other human beings and the good things in life, which are necessary for survival.

The Sense of Need

The second aspect of religion is the human creature’s sense of need. In a real sense, human beings themselves are needy creatures. Not being totally sufficient unto themselves, humans constantly have needs, such as the need for water, food, oxygen, security and shelter; the need of a family or community, which includes love and friendship; the need to make a living, with a sense of financial security; and the need for knowledge and wisdom to navigate through life’s problems or difficulties.

The Sense of Gratitude

The third aspect of religion is gratitude. In addition to their biological, social and intellectual needs, human beings have spiritual needs; the greatest of which is to be in communion with God. That is why, for example, Christians, being acutely aware of their creaturely needs, thank God for meeting them, saying,

“We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.”1

The attitude of Christian dependence, then, should be far different from those who attribute their talents, possessions, wealth and strength to themselves. As St. Paul writes, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Corinthians 4:7b, NIV). In other words, all that is good in life – such as a persons’ talents or skills and possessions – comes, ultimately, from grace, God’s grace.

The Fading Memory of God’s Goodness

There is a tendency, with the passing of time, for the memory to fade, forgetting whatever may be good in a person’s life, including life itself. Perhaps that is why in the Jewish Scriptures, especially the Book of Deuteronomy, the Jewish people are repeatedly told to “remember” or “do not forget.” For example, the sacred author writes,

“10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good … he has given you. 11a Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God….12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when … your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God….” (Deuteronomy 8:10, 11a, 12-13, 14a NIV).

Seneca (circa 5 B.C. – 65 A.D.), the ancient Roman philosopher, is right: “It is ungrateful to take no notice of a kindness …, but it is the height of ingratitude to forget it.”2

Remembering as a Form of Mental Discipline

It requires discipline to remember or call to mind the blessings of life. It seems as though it were easier to be ungrateful than grateful. Ingratitude is a kind of insensitivity, taking the gift of life itself for granted. Thus, only by remembering whatever is good in a person’s life will he or she be inclined to be thankful. No human life is so poor nor so rich as not to be thankful. At present, a person’s life may be less-than-ideal, what he or she wants it to be. But he or she can be still be thankful for what is, while hoping for the good that will be. Surely, on this day, there must be something for which or someone for whom to be thankful or both. There is always some reason for being thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!


1.The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 American ed. (New York, N.Y.: The Church Hymnal Corporation/ The Church Pension Fund, n.d.), p. 19.

2. Seneca, quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas. 1947. Summa Theologica. II-II, Q. 107, Art. 2, Arg. 3. Translated from the Latin by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Benzinger Brothers, Inc. Dominican House of Studies. [Web:] [Date of access: 21 November 2018].