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Gratitude: Almighty Thanks

Abstract: This paper examines the everyday practice of thanking God for athletic victory. The argument extends beyond the trivial observation that athletic victory, in producing feelings of individual pride, compels religious-minded athletes to extend thanks to the deity merely because they are pleased. I suggest instead that public declarations of gratitude to God are sites of cultural reproduction which enable the victorious competitor to reconcile the dualism of agency and structure while simultaneously giving voice to the doctrine of manifest destiny.

No victor believes in chance.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)

Professional athletes in the United States are among that nation’s most enthusiastic practitioners of the custom of expressing gratitude to God. Each weekend, rising up like sacrificial offerings on the airwaves, mass mediated pleas for strength wend their way heavenward, rising up like sacrificial offerings on the airwaves, as coaches, players, and managers cling to the hope that their petitions for divine ministration will culminate in triumphant cries of gratitude. No casual observer of sports can fail to notice the ubiquity and the constancy of this process. In the televised post-contest interviews that constitute an integral part of the world of mass-produced sports, the obligatory articulation of gratitude to the deity has become one of the most common ways in which an account of the day’s battle is prefaced. The infectious hyperbole of the color commentator, and the X’s and O’s of the former coach turned analyst, play increasingly subsidiary roles to the divine (but invisible) grace which energizes the victors. The game may begin with a coin toss but it would seem clear from the comments of the excited victors that random forces played no part in determining the outcome of the contest.

It might seem that the manifest contradictions embodied in the practice of thanking God for athletic accomplishment would militate against its performance. But the putative logic of this assumption has certainly been exploded by the nearly mundane pervasiveness of religious observance in American sports. “Prayer huddles” and pre-game worship have now become staple routines at many college and professional football games despite a gathering of voices that have been raised in opposition to such practices.1 That the practice of thanking God for athletic triumph appears to be a growing trend suggests, as Marjorie Garber has observed, the evolution of a cultural symptom, one which speaks to the social dynamics of salient values which often are hidden from immediate view.2 For Garber, a central issue is the unspoken ‘Christianization’ of religion in American sports. Hence it is not just the overt religiosity about which she raises concerns, but the covert translation of spiritual belief into the lexicon of a Christian, civil religion.3

The history of sports in the United States is littered with the names of Christian athletes and coaches, and often the connection between faith and state were anything but unspoken.4 During the Vietnam War, Evangelist Billy Graham claimed that “people who are carrying the Viet Cong flag around the country are not athletes. If our people would spend more time in gymnasiums and on playing fields, we’d be a better nation!”5 Overt religiosity on the field and in the locker room has increased steadily since the nineteen-sixties, and Graham’s mixture of piety and theology has been superceded by the proclamations of athletes who see virtually every aspect of their performance as a signal that God has set them apart from their competitors. Given such divine attentiveness it can hardly be surprising that the religious athlete should feel grateful when he wins.

In itself, though, an expression of gratitude to God could be explained merely as a proclamation of the victor’s joy—after all, the word ‘gratitude’ finds it source in the Latin gratus, or ‘pleasing’. But if we limit our analysis to the emotional experiences of the victor, we risk overlooking much that is significant in a procedure that brings infinite power to bear on finite destinies. In other words, if we look only at the agent’s action but not at the structural properties of belief, we can fail to notice the diachronicity of fellowship, and the relation of this experience to secular principles. Gratitude is, after all, a social event in the most elementary sense of its dyadic configuration. Brought to the airwaves in the post-game interview, it becomes a mass-mediated concern of obvious social significance.

Expressions of gratitude to the deity can also direct our attention to issues beyond individual desire, such as the relation between contingency and structure. This is because public utterances of divine thankfulness constitute specific sites of cultural reproduction; they bring into existence the very doctrinal principles by which they are legitimated, and they legitimate those principles in making manifest the belief system they constitute.6 This is not a theological position but a sociological observation. Although it is natural to want to express gratitude to others for their aid, the “naturalness” of this impulse may be equal parts culture and biology, instantiating an act of ritual deference that betrays the unspoken presence of hierarchical formations of power. In this respect, gratitude is a form of social lubricant which, like most aspects of etiquette, conceals more history than it reveals in any individual moment of articulation. As the philosopher Knud Løgstrup has written:

Regardless of how varied the communication between persons may be, it always involves the risk of one person approaching the other in the hope of a response. This is the essence of communication and fundamental basis of ethical life.7

Gratitude can be a way of reducing the risk of communication by making visible the gift of an ethically tolerable intent. And this ethical impulse may be conditioned by the wish to willingly ascribe one’s success to the actions, the supports, or the mere presence of one’s community. This may lead to paradoxical consequences in that individual accomplishment may be the prelude to its own neutralization (that is, I must first accomplish something in order to exchange my pride for humility by thanking my community of supporters and aides). Nevertheless, it is apparent that gratitude—including gratitude expressed to God—does not evade completely its dependence on social and cultural codes of ethical conduct which serve to strengthen the community through the absorption of the individual’s triumphs.

In the following paper I discuss the phenomenon of publicly thanking God for athletic victory by looking critically at some of the latent implications that are contained in this practice. I then reflect on the significance of these implications in the domain of social theory. In developing a critical interrogation I also place the everyday practice of thanking God for athletic accomplishment in a wider context than that which is delimited by the beliefs of the individual devotee. I am not ignoring the theist’s agency in the act of expressing his gratitude; however, I am suggesting that utterances of the sort under discussion must be adequately contextualized as forms of cultural reproduction in which the social meanings of these expressions come to the fore. As Marshall McLuhan once wrote, “a game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time.”8 Such transformations must be examined from a social rather than a merely individualistic perspective.

Whole in One

Payne Stewart, golf’s winner in the 1999 U.S. Open, was quick to express his gratitude to God in his post-victory television interview, thanking the almighty for his triumph even before he mentioned his wife, his family, or his caddie. Stewart’s sincerity and humility were both charming and disarming—and, from all appearances, genuine. A popular and talented competitor, Stewart’s tip-of-the-hat thank-you to God seemed to sanctify his victory even though in acknowledging the lord’s hand in his triumph Stewart risked discrediting his own talent. His appreciative glances skyward suggested that God had picked him from the field of competitors, and yet his humility signaled his unworthiness for such an honor. In being unworthy, it seemed, he had become worthy.

This opposition between pride and humility is a central theme in the ritual of public expressions of gratitude to God, a theme that represents neatly the uneasy union between the (private) sin of pride and the (public) virtue of humility. For the religiously-minded athlete, graciousness in victory—usually articulated as gratitude for victory—is constituted from the denial of luck (or fate) and the affirmation of Divine involvement. Recognizing that talent may have taken him only past the first nine holes, the victor must find some source other than mere chance to account for his success on the day. Hence the duality of circumstance and intervention.

There are several other dualities involved in the practice of expressing gratitude to God, including the alliance of the public (gesture) and the private (belief); the conflation of athletic perseverance (effort) and divine selection (grace); and the venerable dualism of agency (free-will) and providence (destiny). Each of these polarities has its place in the process of publicly giving thanks to God for athletic accomplishment, just as each suggests the presence of an unresolved tension between contingency and structure. Hence the cultural values that are reproduced in the process of thanksgiving are far more complex than are revealed by limiting ourselves to the notion that gratitude is merely an expression of pleasure. Gratitude is a social event; it has a public character that works to span the chasm of agency and structure. And in becoming a public declaration, pronouncements such as Stewart’s statement of gratitude perform a highly evocative communicative task in bringing order to chance and in fashioning necessity out of chaos.

Hence we need to attend to the public aspect of Stewart’s thanks. That his expression of gratitude was a media event, suggests that it reflected social values dear to the core of public consciousness. Not the least of these values is individual accomplishment. But even in acknowledging that Stewart’s expression of gratitude brought into view the singularity of his personal conquest, we can note also that in giving thanks to the deity he was able at the same time to deflect the accolades of his admirers towards the heavens. Thanking God may appear on the surface to constitute a way of refusing to take credit, but it is still a creditable practice. Even as the athlete proclaims his agency in standing before the microphone to accept the praises resulting from victory, he belies his words in describing the cause of that triumph in something outside of the conditions of his own performance. This attribution is a powerful public expression of a form of humility that is itself an elevating kind of grace. After all, what are we to make of the victor whose public declaration of indebtedness to God is offered with such obvious confidence that divinity has actually played a decisive part in his accomplishment? To give God the credit for one’s sports triumph is simultaneously to proclaim one’s special standing in the eyes of the deity.

The public enunciation of ostensibly personal, religious sentiments is a remarkable cultural phenomenon in Western societies, one that owes much to the penetrating glare of mass-mediated scrutiny. Under such conditions the private domain can be annexed in the interests of state entertainment in the guise of a nearly celebratory acknowledgement of the porous boundaries in which the personal is enveloped. “By a curious reversal,” Bauman has said, “that private sphere which stood out for its right to secrecy, has been redefined in one fell swoop as a sphere with the right to publicity.”9 This would suggest a potential contradiction in trivializing that which is most profoundly cherished by the believer at the nucleus of his personal being through its conversion into a media spectacle. If the public sphere comprises the televisual notoriety of the momentary hero, then the conflation of the personal and the public can be explained given the individualizing nature of our mass-mediated world. “Casting members as individuals is the trademark of modern society,” claims Bauman. Moreover,

modern society exists in its activity of ‘individualizing’, as much as the activities of the individuals consist in the day-by-day reshaping and renegotiating of the network of their mutual entanglements called ‘society’. Neither of the two partners stay put for long. And so the meaning of ‘individualization’ keeps changing, taking ever new shapes—as the accumulated results of its past history set ever-new rules and turn out ever new stakes of the game. ‘Individualization’ now means something very different from what it meant a hundred years ago and what it conveyed in the early times of the modern era – the times of the extolled ‘emancipation’ of humans from the tightly knit web of communal dependency, surveillance and enforcement.10

The push for individualizing the members of the mass-mediated society of advanced capitalism also means that an incessant process of packaging and labeling is made possible. The victorious athlete shows not only his triumphant countenance on the screen, but he reveals at the same time a possible site for further capital accumulation in the fetishistic features of his own face. The attendant risks are well known to those media and culture critics who regularly bemoan the usurpation of the everyday by the commodity form. Privacy is just another commodity; so too is faith. The athlete’s proclamation of gratitude to God may be an act of faith at one level, but it is the unveiling of the private self at the same time, and the transformation of that faith into a commodity for sale. And as faith becomes a kind of media-speak, its symbolic potency is reinvigorated in the commodity form of celebrity, an often ironical conflation of fame and notoriety. Hence the dichotomy of the private and the public winds up subjected to that curious reversal to which Bauman refers. In making a statement of his unworthiness, Payne Stewart denies his accomplishment as an individual; and yet, in being elected by God for this victory, his humility (and his individuality, consequently) is reinvigorated.

Such announcements are not only proclamations of individuality, but they are simultaneously demonstrations of one’s Christian affiliation. The secular individuality conferred by victory can be the foreground for the larger backdrop of sacred communality. Indeed, the victorious athlete’s public declaration of humility often is bound up with the fact that in testifying to his association with other believers, he is also sharing his accomplishment with a like-minded community of worshippers. Faith is, in this context, the production of shared beliefs in the form of public texts. Taken as a rhetorical act, Stewart’s display of thankfulness devalues his accomplishments in the secular domain, only to elevate them in the spiritual realm by tying them in with sacred praxis. The triteness of thanking God is infused with sociological import as the victorious competitor becomes something of a conduit for grace.

All of which leads me to suggest that the apparent predictability of the proclamation of gratitude is tempered somewhat with the realization that it serves several hidden but important functions: overcoming the logical contradiction between pride and humility; limiting the scope of secular fate by domesticating divine intervention in the interests of everyday praxis; and establishing the edifice of a common structure for otherwise alienated, individuated spectators.

This final feature, the ethic of building community that spans the divide between the secular and the sacred, risks trivializing the spiritual domain by placing God in the secular roles of coach, fan, and umpire. God advises, encourages and judges—more to the point, perhaps, he also decides. This claim for God’s penchant for decision-making is itself a decisive aspect of the ritual displays of public gratitude to the deity, leading to two key issues. First, the claim that God makes a decision (or a determination) that privileges one of the competitors, necessitates the further claim that a causal sequence of determination is identifiable. This is reducible to argument that at T1, God decides, so that at T2, his choice is realized in the mortal sphere of finite temporality. But I am not intent on pushing ahead with logical deduction. Rather, the point I am suggesting here is that in making a public declaration of gratitude to God, the victor presupposes that a causal chain of determination can be discovered in the fact of his victory. Gratitude inverts fate. This is a point I will return to later.

The second feature concerning God’s apparent decision-making speaks more to historical and political economic themes. Displays of gratitude to God are a part of a traditional motif in American culture insofar as they make an indirect allusion to the doctrine of manifest destiny. The belief in God’s perpetual attention to the United States has been a guiding principle in American social history for generations. Stewart’s expression of gratitude was thus consistent with the American mythology of spiritual election as explained in the narrative of the “redeemer nation.” God chooses America because the United States is a godly (or perhaps Christian) nation.11 And, of course, the United States is a godly nation precisely because God has chosen it above all others to carry out his divine mission in the world, a mission that includes both foreign policy and golf tournaments among other things.

There is an obvious tautology at work here in that the recipient of God’s beneficence, in being rewarded for his devotion, is able to set himself apart from others on the strength of his divine reward. Payne Stewart was deserving because he won; and he won, because he was deserving. At the same time, Stewart’s individuality is submerged in the appreciation he expressed to God, for this expression forges a bond of belonging with Christian viewers. These viewers can then read into Stewart’s humility a symbol of the promise of spiritual possibility. A hole in one can be a wholeness, indeed.

A Rhetoric of Gratitude

The rhetorical strategy that is involved when God’s intervention is invoked as a deciding element in athletic triumph fits fairly neatly the contours of a unique generic formulation. This form serves to place the victory in context by providing the winner with a graceful way of accepting praise by seeming not to accept it. It also serves as a way of situating athletic performance, prize money, fan adulation, and the other benefits of high-level sports competition in a morally acceptable framework. In fulfilling divine purpose, the athlete seeks to persuade by making his victory one small part of a grander, divine scheme. The athlete becomes the tool by which God makes manifest his supreme will—or, we might say that the athlete as agent is transformed into the athlete as agency. As an instrument of God, Stewart simultaneously asserted and neutralized his subjectivity. The re-framing of his 1999 U.S. Open victory as a testament to God’s ceaseless attention to our pathetic, human endeavors deflects our interest just long enough to enable the transubstantiation of pride into humility.

This re-framing process is also a crucial element in transforming the materialism of athletic success into a spiritual emblem of beatification—a movement from base to superstructure intended to reposition the value of victory in the domain of cultural and spiritual values and thereby avoid the taint of the secular economy. In assuming its quasi-religious appearance, the post-game celebration reconstructs the event into a sacred ritual through which the players achieve sanctification. Thus the game or the tournament becomes a rite of passage in the American civil religion. The contest is sacrificed –or offered up as a sacrifice—to the greater glory of the deity. Conceit is consequently sabotaged by the assignment of victory to God’s election. Commending God on his performance, as it were, helps to neutralize possible accusations of vanity.

But vanity is there nonetheless, of course, given that the athlete’s comments tend to indicate the belief that his victory was divinely ordained. Thanking God for your victory means knowing that God helped you to win. How could one know that? How could one know, for instance, what God was thinking, or what God actually wanted? “Knowledge” of this sort seems paradoxical in that it speaks of God’s mysterious behavior (“Who can know the ways of the Lord?”) even as it casts the victory in the context of God’s will being made manifest on earth. To thank God for one’s victory is tantamount to claiming that one knows what cannot, by definition, be known. Moreover, this knowledge is hardly inconsequential in that it places the victor noticeably in the ledgers of God’s master plan. Being chosen for victory bespeaks a designation that is dignified in its theological consequences. But its function—and here we enter the orbit of tautology, it seems—is precisely to undermine the accusation of conceit. To be elected for victory is to be raised up by God so as to be able to proclaim one’s humility.

But the claim to have knowledge of God’s intentions has other functions that are less psychological, less individualistic in nature. In one sense, the performance for which the petitioner gives thanks is sanctified at the moment that gratitude is expressed, and in being sanctified it is simultaneously transformed into a kind of para-theological symbol. Hence the accusation of conceit is thwarted by offering thanks to God even as the achievement is justified in this act of sanctification. This process of deification is far from random, however, for what is singled out as a mark of divine attention are the specific notions of victory, achievement, success—the goals, as it were, of capitalist ambitions. Hence the claim to have “knowledge” that God has determined one’s athletic triumph is supported from at least two sides at once: the domain of religious thought, and the civics lessons celebrating the cult of individualism. What are left to one side are those events which fail to measure up to the political economic ideal of capitalism. There is, therefore, an unarticulated presupposition at work here, a presupposition which gives credit to God for those events that bring fame, fortune, and success, and which ignores those times when individual triumph–regardless of effort—eludes us.

It is remarkable to note that this selection process was described over four hundred years ago by the French writer Michel de Montaigne:

For a Christian it suffices to believe that all things come from God, to accept them with an acknowledgement of His holy unsearchable wisdom and so to take them in good part, under whatever guise they are sent to him. What I consider wrong is our usual practice of trying to support and confirm our religion by the success or happy outcome of our undertakings. Our belief has enough other foundations without seeking sanction from events: people who have grown accustomed to such plausible arguments well-suited to their taste are in danger of having their faith shaken when the turn comes for events to prove hostile and unfavorable…. In short it is hard to bring matters divine down to human scales without their being trivialized.12

One could say that Montaigne is describing an event-full faith, the conviction that one’s faith is proven in the way that certain events unfold. So, too, the modern athlete describes his faith mainly in respect of the fulfillment of his desires. Hence victory sanctifies one’s belief which, in turn, is the putative cause of the victory. The tautology is a secure structure. Self-sustaining and self-serving, it operates as a sort of lexical armor to shield the believer against the illogic of his own belief.

But this notion of event-full faith can be problematic. For instance, given that for devout believers God’s will “will be done,” the concept of gratitude for any specific outcome may strike some readers as pointless. What we want of God, and what He delivers, can differ completely without his attendance to our needs wavering in the least. This is due to the fact, as theologians argue it, that God’s response to our invocations is guided by infinite wisdom, a situation that enables him to answer our petitions not necessarily with the response we desire, but with the response that is appropriate. It is clear from such reasoning that God (the Father) knows best. But this explanation omits a considerable number of ancillary worries and follow-up questions, especially in the domain of what we ordinarily think of as evidence. Once we encounter the post-victory gratitude speech, some of these questions become thorny indeed.

For instance, was Stewart thanking God for a particular act of intervention while on the links – straightening out an errant drive, perhaps? This would seem unlikely, for it would amount to the claim that Stewart was thanking God for having performed a miracle. And no matter how many strokes below par Stewart actually finished, it seems doubtful that his play at the U.S. Open defied any laws of nature. A second possibility is that he was grateful that God determined that this year’s winner would be Payne Stewart rather than another golfer. This is certainly plausible, but it begs the larger question why Stewart rather than one of the other competitors was chosen. Is God capriciously drawing straws, or does he have a plan? If the former is true, then no thanks are required since no choice was involved. But if the latter is the case, then thanking God for having made the choice that He made only emphasizes the tautological character of giving thanks for what was inevitable from the outset. Moreover, to suggest that God chose Stewart over the other competitors is, however we look at it, a statement concerning both Stewart’s worthiness and the unworthiness of his competition – at least, this must be so if we are to avoid the opposite view in which God acts on unaccountable whims. How these respective conditions of worthiness and unworthiness are determined is a mystery.

Perhaps Stewart was simply grateful that his efforts were being directed personally by God. This seems to be the most promising interpretation, but there are difficulties here, as well. Considering that the performances of all the golfers in the tournament were also being overseen by God personally, the initial persuasiveness of this explanation tends to evaporate. In addition, as I suggested earlier, there is something disconcerting in the unstated implication that God makes choices. Such a view is hard to reconcile with the doctrine of God’s omniscience, for an all-knowing being would not (or could not?) make choices. Omniscience implies foreknowledge, and foreknowledge obviates the possibility of having to choose.

At this point I seem to be losing my footing on the banks of theological determinism, and I would rather avoid that water-trap at the moment. Besides, there is a ready response to the points I have just raised: faith. As the theologian Paul van Buren has written, “faith seems to be able to absorb a great deal of negative evidence.”13 The logical niceties I have outlined are hardly fatal to the body of belief. What is difficult to escape, however, are the contradictory interpretations that belief in the power of religious invocations establishes. This is the difficulty that van Buren also wrestles with in his interesting study. As he argues in a passage immediately following the above citation:

We cannot, without contradiction, say that God makes a difference in this world, and also that whatever happens in this world, God still loves us. The reason for this conclusion is that to affirm one thing is to deny its opposite. To affirm that God’s love makes a difference in the world is to deny that no difference in the world results from God’s love. This challenge of falsification is designed to show that a nonfalsifiable claim cannot also be a claim about the state of affairs in this world. The claim that God loves us, no matter what happens, is unable to stand up to the challenge and is therefore hollow.14

Van Buren is claiming here that no matter what happens in the world, the theist interprets all eventualities as evidence of God’s love. This is why van Buren presents his analysis of contradiction in the form of the falsifiability claim, which he derives from the philosophy of science. “If God’s love is real,” he says, “then it must be possible to imagine a course of events which would falsify an assertion of God’s love” (p. 28). If it is not possible even to imagine a situation in which the assertion could be falsified, then the claim, for all intents and purposes, is bereft of value. For instance, if someone claims to love you, then it must be possible to imagine various things they could do and say that would falsify that claim–behaviors that they could perform, or words that they might utter, that would show that they don’t really love you. For if nothing they might do could falsify their claim of loving you—or, if everything they did was proof that they loved you, including some truly horrible deeds—then the concept of love would be meaningless. The claim “I love you” must be falsifiable in order to be of significance. In a sense, it is the otherwise-ness of things that renders them humanly valuable, the differance that produces significance. Or, to put that more plainly, love draws its import from its not being not-love. The falsification thesis, therefore, establishes that the possibility of difference is the source of meaning. As Gregory Bateson has said, meaning is all about a difference that makes a difference (a single letter misplaced in a word can make a difference by being different from the letter that was intended).15 Falsification entrenches this principle of communication in the foundations of discourse and meaning.

For the theist, according to van Buren, falsification of God’s love is unimaginable. The reason for this is that if all events are determined by God’s love, then no events are not determined by God’s love. To claim that God has ordained your athletic victory is, according to van Buren’s reasoning, to utter a statement that is hollow. If I win, it is because God so decided; if I lose, this, too, is because God so decided. Hence God’s hand in determining athletic success is nonfalsifiable. It is a statement which, from a logical point of view, expresses nothing. A victory or a loss is all the same from the standpoint of divine intervention, for whether we achieve X or ~X, our results prove that God has played his part. Just as the winner was chosen by God, so too the losers were chosen. Hence, I should be as inclined to celebrate my loss as evidence of God’s concern in my affairs as I should be inclined to celebrate my victory.

History is Written by Winners

But this feels all wrong, almost disrespectful to the spirit of theistic gratitude. And yet if gratitude to God is expressed specifically for his part in determining the outcome of the competition, then one might reasonably anticipate that all of the competitors should be disposed to be equally grateful for whatever result they achieved. But they are not so disposed. A golfer will assert that God was responsible for his victory on a particular weekend, but, so far as I know, he never comes forward after missing the cut at other events to give glory to God for his sub-par performance. And I doubt that anyone really expects this. It may appear banal to point out that winners are grateful and that losers are not, but the pattern is itself noteworthy if only because it is repeated unfailingly in the post-game interviews in virtually every American professional sport. This predictable series of events suggests that what is ultimately important in expressions of gratitude to the deity is the victory, and not the part played by God. It is not so much that the athlete wants to thank God for being there for him; rather, he wants to make a public declaration of gratitude for winning.

Although in one sense, gratitude for divine help is the prosaic acknowledgement of fate, something deeper is also involved, what I would call the undoing of fate. This is an important element of the expression of gratitude to the divinity, for it is an essential technique in resolving the problem of indeterminacy. The theist’s difficulty with fate is its uncompromising anonymity. Fate, apparently, is the consort of the secular. By contrast, gratitude mobilizes the appearance of a sacred presence. Gratitude contains the presumption of deliberation; fate contains only obscure references to its own vacuity. Gratitude introduces intention into everyday episodes and thereby brings the secular nihilism of fate to a halt. When an athlete publicly voices gratitude at having triumphed, that voice speaks to an audience of believers in their own powerlessness.

Expressing gratitude to the divinity assigns causation by positing a determinative source from whence success begins. It transcends the caprice of fate and thereby introduces temporality into the interpretation of otherwise unpredictable events. This is because we are grateful for the intentional causation that is implied in choosing. Choices must occur in time; they must unfold as we proceed in order that they not be bound up in cosmic determinism. God must trouble himself to choose a winner. Were it otherwise—that is, were God to set the entire panoply in motion and sit back so that fate would merely unfold–then the foregone eventuality of individual accomplishment would mean nothing. The doctrine of fatalism is decisive on this point: we say “it couldn’t have been otherwise” when the fatalistic mood is upon us. The infinity of strict determination obviates the significance of gratitude, rendering it banal and unreflective. But the finite intersection of specific intentions makes choice and decision a possibility, and for these one may well be grateful. Fate suggests only a kind of beneficent collateralism; divine interest suggests a personal helping hand.

Gratitude deals in causation and temporality. Both the causative force and the mode of causal determination can be vague, but the principle of influence is unquestioned. As gratitude is offered, so too is the tangibility of propitious influence singled out. In respect of its temporal aspect, gratitude interposes a beginning moment in the otherwise empty stillness of pure duration. Whereas gratitude directed to the impassive cosmos is a wasted gesture, the thanksgivings that are proffered to the temporally-situated and interested deity instantiate and affirm our individual worth. Gratitude’s functions thus include the substitution of intentional finitude for the unaddressed infinity of fate.

In expressing his gratitude to God, the athlete positions himself as a subject of divine interpellation. He is hailed by the deity, the proof of such appellation being discovered—tautologically—in his victory. Expressions of gratitude to God for athletic accomplishment thus appear to function mainly as a way of domesticating blind determinism in service to the doctrine of manifest destiny—or, at least, as a way of making that doctrine tangible in the mass-mediated world of professional sports. In one respect, it is the claim of God’s attention to the minutiae of daily life, and the trivial events of sporting competitions, that makes his interest significant. Despite its banality, thanking God for your victory is an act replete with social importance.

1 For instance, Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly complained in a 1991 article that stadium audiences were virtual captives and, as such, were being subjected to the religious beliefs of athletes who publicly proclaimed their religious views by praying during and after professional football games. Reilly cited in particular his dismay with the New York Giants who had knelt and prayed as an opposing kicker attempted a game-winning field goal as time expired. “Is praying for someone to blow it very Christian?” he asked. See Reilly, Rick. Save your prayers, please. Sports Illustrated (February 4, 1991), p. 86.
2 Garber, Marjorie. Symptoms of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.
3 This is not to say that professional athletes never give praise in other than Christian voices, but the stigma associated with some non-Christian religions makes such public declarations a risky venture as NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets discovered. Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim, had refused to stand during the playing of the American national anthem, arguing that for him to offer homage to anything other than God was a sacrilege to his faith. He was suspended by the league and publicly denounced as behaving in a treasonous manner. And when Sandy Koufax decided to stay off the pitching mound on Yom Kippur during the 1965 World Series, he was seriously criticized in the public media.
4 See Elliott J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, A Brief History of American Sports (1994). New York: Hill & Wang.
5 In William Martin, A Prophet Without Honor: The Billy Graham Story (1992). New York: William Morrow, p. 347.
6 This position clearly owes much to Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration. Structuration describes social life as one in which human agents instantiate both the constraining and enabling dimensions of social structure in bodily activities. When I decide upon a course of action, I rely on the internalized knowledge of the ways and means of performing that action that is given to me in the systems and structures my culture holds dear. But what is equally important is that in performing that action I also bring into existence, so to speak, those very systems and structures. As Giddens writes, “ ‘Structure’ [is] the medium and outcome of the conduct it recursively organizes; the structural properties of social systems do not exist outside of action but are chronically implicated in its production and reproduction.” Gratitude is a conduct that is both medium and outcome. See Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984: 374.
7 Løgstrup, Knud. The Ethical Demand. Translated by Theodor I. Jensen. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971: 18.
8 McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Mentor Books, 1964: 211.
9 Bauman, Zygmunt. In Search of Politics. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999: 64.
10 Bauman, Zygmunt. The Individualized Society. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001: 45.
11 See, for example, historian Tuveson, Ernest. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
12 Montaigne, Michel de. Essays (1580). Translated by M. A. Screech. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987, p. 242 – 243.
13 van Buren, Paul M.. The Edges of Language: An Essay in the Logic of a Religion. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972: 27.
14 Van Buren, 27-28.
15 Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantyne Books, 1972: 453.

Author: Gary McCarron is a Lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University where he teaches courses in popular culture, advertising, and discourse analysis. He is the author of a number of articles dealing with the intersections of philosophy and cultural studies.

Published inIssue 2.2Issues
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