Not all targets of our reflexive contempt are well chosen. Expressions of mere gratitude in our monthly testimony meetings are dismissed as ‘thanktimonies’ because they don’t quite cover any of the things a public expression of religious conviction is supposed to be about. But I think this disdain is misplaced, like scoffing at children for riding bicycles when they could instead careen around the neighborhood in outsized cars in which they cannot work the pedals and see over the dashboard at the same time.
Publicly expressing gratitude is a useful step in the development of personal beliefs because it is accessible to everyone. In comparison, figuring out one’s relationship with deity, or with a scriptural text, or with the process of sin and repentance and atonement, is hard. Just what do we mean when we say that a church is true, or that a book is true? For many people, figuring out how to ground statements like that in their own experience and cognitive constructs is not simple. Expressing gratitude, on the other hand, is a way that most people can begin connecting their lived experience to a religious framework using the formulas and institutions of the Mormon community. Statements of belief that aren’t yet fully anchored in personal religious conviction can often feel hollow, cute at best, and cynical at worst. By contrast, even a young child’s expression of thanks can be authentic.
The ‘thanktimony’ is in any case preferable to its alternative, which is, in many cases, nothing at all. A moment of gratitude can help avert some of the worst excesses of self-centered unawareness. You know the type: ‘“What has the church ever done for me?” asked BYU graduate Jedediah Blogs. “After all those summers doing dull work in my Stake President’s law office, I lost all interest in becoming a lawyer.”’ Whatever path one’s belief may take as an adult, a couple decades’ worth of friendly unrelated adults looking out for one’s welfare shouldn’t be taken for granted.
It is true that some people will stand up in testimony meeting and say how grateful they are that their kids are all active returned missionaries who have married in the temple – and that is how it should be. The only other options are for people to give thanks for something besides that which they are most thankful for, or to force them into silence. That surely can’t be the way for a community to function.
Expressing gratitude lets us contemplate our own lives and recognize what others have done for us, or the advantages we enjoy by accident of birth. Gratitude helps us understand that we are not the heroes in this film: bad things happen to good people in ways that we can rarely help and almost never understand. The commandment to acknowledge God’s hand in all things doesn’t permit us to wait until we’ve got the moral calculus of the universe figured out. We have to be grateful, right here and right now, for whatever it is we have. And that, I think, is worth a moment of our time during Sunday meeting.