By Scott Dickison
Marilynne Robinson, the gifted writer, novelist and Christian apologist, argues in her new collection of essays that for all our modern questioning and search for meaning we often fail to appreciate the “givenness of things.” I’m taken with this word, “givenness,” and she must be as well; The Givenness of Things is the title of her collection.
“Givenness” is a philosophical term that refers to that which is “assumed” or “granted,” as in the “givenness of human nature,” or the “givenness that the sanctuary choir will sound great on Sunday.” “Givenness” is what’s there when we start.
Robinson argues, and I think she’s right, that the dominant worldview today has an undo suspicion of the givenness of things in a way that previous generations would have found absurd. Nothing is assumed, everything is questioned, no matter how universal to the human experience — not even the most basic of human emotions. Not even love, or fear. Robinson wonders if the emperor has no clothes.
To borrow from Karl Barth, what passes as “objectivity,” in her mind, is often just someone’s “subjective” experience said in a loud voice. And for her, the word “subjective” is not dirty. Experience, she argues, especially that shared experience which points to the unfathomable complexity and beauty that marks life on this planet, holds truth enough to warrant not being written off in the name of some illusory project “exempt … from suspicion of bias and fallibility.” Some things are simply given.
For a Christian person, much in life is given, and this is true in at least two senses.
In the first sense, the sense that we’ve been using up to this point, the Christian worldview takes many things as givens. The love of God is a given. The grace of God is a given. God’s provision, mercy, hope — all givens. Perhaps even God’s sense of humor is a given. A Christian can assume all of these things as objective reality — as real and true as the day is long — and live her life accordingly. These are promises we can stand on, as the old gospel hymn puts it.
And the fact that we have so much to take as “given,” is itself an example of the givenness of things in the second sense: which is that so much of life, and even life itself, is a gift.
For the person of faith, the givenness of life is true not only in the sense that there are realities — love, mercy, hope, etc. — in which we can put our trust. The givenness of life is also true in the sense that life is a gift. It is not simply that all the goodness we experience in life is like an old piece of furniture on the side of the road that we can’t for the life of us imagine why someone just left there. Goodness is not a “found object.” The goodness in life we have known is more like a carefully wrapped box with our name on it and left under a tree. Or perhaps a home-cooked meal that’s there waiting for us when we open the door to a familiar house. Oh good, you’re here! Take a seat — we’ve been waiting for you. And look, I’ve made your favorite ….
Which is why the great medieval Christian writer and mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote in an often quoted line, “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.” It would be a cliché if it weren’t so true. So important is gratitude to the life of faith.
In fact, you could say that gratitude is where faith begins: in understanding that God is the source of all life and not “we ourselves,” as the Psalmist put it. That we do not find or discover or create for ourselves in the world as much as we receive what has simply been given. Or receive these simple gifts, we might say.
The givenness of life. The giftedness of life. One springs from the other, and taken together they’re the table and chairs to the great Thanksgiving feast — or maybe feast of thanksgiving — to which we’re all invited. All we’re asked to do is take a seat.