Episode 57: Diana Butler Bass and a new model of gratitude

We've all seen how a pyramid structure of debt and loyalty is the way gratitude is often used in the public square. Diana Butler Bass studied this public system, and says:

"It led me into some really interesting historical exploration of how hierarchically structured political systems, whether it was Medieval Europe or Ancient Rome or 19th century American south, often deploy gratitude as a mechanism to elicit loyalty. Gratitude has often politically been used in these sort of hierarchal pyramid shaped structures by people in upper classes, people in authority to make sure that the folks underneath them say thank you, and as part of that gratitude directed up to the people on the top, are loyal."

But this is a warped version of gratitude. Bass suggests a new framework. A more circular model that happens around the table. This non-hierarchical practice of gratitude is found in nearly every religious tradition, and it is a healthier and more life-giving model for us individually and communally. 

If you want to read more about this topic, Diana's book, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, is available on Amazon.

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George: Normally when we think of gratitude, we think about it as a personal practice, an experience just for ourselves. But, how might gratitude be expressed and experienced in community? We'll be talking with Diana Butler Bass about that. She wrote the book Grateful. Stay tuned for Good God.

George: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'd like to welcome back to the program Dr. Diana Butler Bass.

Diana: Hi there.

George: Diana, glad to have you again. We got to talking in our first episode with you about your new book that is called Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. Mostly in that episode, we talked about gratitude in a more personal way. And yet, much of the direction you're taking this book and challenging us all to think about is the social and political aspect of how gratitude needs to be reconfigured, rethought about in order for us to have a healthier society, not just to be healthy as individuals. Part of your contention is that we've been operating off of a latent hierarchal system about gratitude that needs to be shifted to a different model. Tell us about those two models that you're talking about.

Diana: The journey from writing a personal book about gratitude to writing one that included the public was fascinating, actually, because, you know, I read a lot of other books about gratitude and there are some really good ones out there. The best ones all say that gratitude has a communal component, that it really is a practice that will take you out of social isolation.

George: Yes.

Diana: But then, that's where thy leave it. That's it. It's just like, "Okay, do this and you're going to find yourself more communally connected." I just got really interested in that. I thought, "What would that look like? If we had a public practice of gratitude, where does gratitude show up communally?"

George: Right.

Diana: This might be a little controversial, but I was writing this book mostly during early 2017, so it was the first few months of Donald Trump being president. You know, so much contention and division. You know, I was not a supporter of President Trump and I was feeling the pressure of that politically. There was a lot of stuff swirling around me, you know, as writing this. I started noticing as I was thinking about communal gratitude that the president talked about gratitude quite a bit. When he talked about it, it was usually a demand for thanks from the American people or from some specific group.

George: From Canada for ...

Diana: There was a set of tweets demanding gratitude from Canada about the Keystone Pipeline, or then calling the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico an ingrate for not thanking him, or asking ... Asking, it wasn't really an ask, it was kind of a demand, the UCLA basketball players who the State Department got out of jail in China. Saying, "Do you think they're going to thank me? No, they're not going to thank me."

Diana: I started noticing this, and I went, "Where does that come from?" That led me into some really interesting historical exploration of how hierarchically structured political systems, whether it was Medieval Europe or Ancient Rome or 19th century American south, often deploy gratitude as a mechanism to elicit loyalty. Gratitude has often politically been used in these sort of hierarchal pyramid shaped structures by people in upper classes, people in authority to make sure that the folks underneath them say thank you, and as part of that gratitude directed up to the people on the top, are loyal.

George: Yes.

Diana: It's deployed as, "I've given you X, you must give me Y."

George: Right.

Diana: That's a very, very deep historical pattern in western society. One that, at various times in history, some great thinkers have noticed and tried to undermine. Wasn't until I wrote this book, for example, that I knew that Adam Smith was actually worried, so here we have the great father of ...

George: Founder of capitalism.

Diana: Founder of capitalism, basically, saying that if you deploy gratitude in this way, it will actually eventually undermine the capacity of a society to have a capitalist economy.

George: Right.

Diana: Because, he saw it as dangerous in terms of obligation and loyalty, whereas you needed to spread gifts and abundance around this way, instead of this way.

George: Right.

Diana: Absolutely fascinating to see that in Adam Smith, and it also shows up in John Locke, it shows up in some of our great literature. Jane Austen writes a lot about this.

George: Well because, all of these, whether you're talking about capitalism or John Locke's Enlightenment is a critique of a gentrified world in which the lord of the manor takes care of the serfs and the like, and so this is a radical democratization ...

Diana: That's correct.

George: ... that we're talking about in one way or another, which actually points toward a Biblical vision of how we're supposed to become people of God in a different way around a table, which is your alternative model. Right?

Diana: Yeah, so it was absolutely fascinating to see that there was this historical precedent for what the new president was doing, was not something I had ever been terribly aware of politically, but I certainly am now. Anybody who follows the president on Twitter is well aware of the fact that he deploys gratitude more like the ...

George: The pyramid structure.

Diana: The pyramid structure of, as you say, the feudal lords or the 19th century southern masters, the patriarch class. You have this happening in 21st century culture.

George: Yes.

Diana: As soon as I realized that this was a problem western society and a problem now, because of who I am, I started thinking about those Biblical stories.

George: Right, right.

Diana: You know, one of the best Biblical stories of course is in the Hebrew scriptures. I mean, here we have it in Genesis, is that people build a pyramid to try to reach God.

George: Exactly, exactly.

Diana: That becomes a story about how God then takes that pyramid down. You get the story of the Tower of Babel.

George: Yes, of Babel.

Diana: And, the tower falls. That story is sort of paradigmatic of a lot of stories like that in the Hebrew scriptures. You get, of course, the people of Israel in Egypt, a pyramid shaped society.

George: Yes.

Diana: God takes them out of that to freedom. When God moves them out of the pyramid into freedom, God does not set up a pyramid in Israel. God instead takes them to a land of milk and honey where the dream is that everyone would have their own vine and fig tree.

George: Exactly, exactly right. In fact, the whole history of Israel involves a period of monarchy which is presented Biblically as a mistake.

Diana: Well, I mean, here I am talking to a Baptist pastor about this, but you know this.

George: Right.

Diana: This becomes another one of those central stories about abundance and scarcity.

George: Right.

Diana: Is that, if they live in a world of scarcity, pyramid structures are the political response to that.

George: Right.

Diana: You have to have one person on the top who's going to make sure that resources and goods are distributed throughout, and everybody needs to be loyal to that one person. But God, as a God of abundance is trying to do something else.

George: Yes.

Diana: Is trying to create this alternative land where everyone has access to goods and fruit of the land.

George: Right.

Diana: You get this wonderful thing that happens then further down in the Hebrew scriptures, where the people of Israel, they start having some success. They look around and they are surrounded politically by pyramid shaped societies; Mesopotamia to the north and Egypt to the south. They say, "Hey God, wake up here. We want to be like the neighbors and we want a king."

George: Right.

Diana: Mesopotamia has a king, Egypt has a pharaoh, we want a king. God literally says in that chapter in Samuel, "No, you really don't." The people of Israel say, "Yes, yes we do." God says, "Well, if you have a king it's going to result in higher taxes, more violence. There will be injustice and unfairness, there will be great inequalities. There will be wars. Your children will not be safe. You don't want a king." God literally lays out exactly what a pyramid shaped society does in terms of injustice, and the people of Israel say, "No, we want a king." God says, "All right."

George: Yeah, and I think this is part of the trick of learning how to read scripture, is to read it in such a way that you can recognize that everything is not there as a positive example to us of what we're supposed to do. You know?

Diana: Right.

George: Sometimes, like with our own children, God allows us to have things that we know are not good for us, but we learn through this experience. When we go back to this, it's really about recognizing this is a cautionary tale.

Diana: Right.

George: But, because we are people of hope and we have a sense there is a future God is patiently bringing about in the world through long suffering love, we have seen that even movements toward democratic human rights and self government and things of that nature are the product of moving away from that. You know, it doesn't happen in a straight line and we go back and forth, we have autocratic leaders right now, but in the long run this is where we're moving.

Diana: You do worry about theocracies of all sorts are always this.

George: Exact, they're always that, absolutely.

Diana: They're always this, and the fascinating thing, of course, is throughout the Hebrew scriptures the Christian, I think, political vision is a way from this, because that's what Caesar was, and I think in Islam as well, which is a very decentralized kind of ...

George: In most sects of Islam, that's right.

Diana: Is mostly about this, it's about the people.

George: Right.

Diana: You have this ideal if you are going to have a theocracy, it shouldn't be a pyramid. It should actually be the fullness of the people living together in prayer, in humility, in gratitude, and sharing the goods of the whole of the earth. That's what the theocratic vision of scripture really is. But, because of, I think, human corruption and power and how we view ourselves wrongly so often, we think that theocracies should be like that.

George: Yes.

Diana: We have created through time, mostly in western civilization, over and over and over again this kind of structure, and then religion takes a big hit when these kinds of structures start failing. Because people say, "Oh, well the king was divinely appointed," or, "the slave holders that used the Bible to justify what they were doing in the south." When these structures prove themselves to be unjust and prove themselves to be wrong, which they always are.

George: Right.

Diana: Not a single one survives in the Bible.

George: No.

Diana: Not a single one ever has a good reputation any time in history, they always come out on the losing side of history. When religion is complicit with that vision, religion fails too.

George: Yes.

Diana: Whereas, there is actually an alternative vision for faith and religion in those scriptures for society.

George: Well, and that alternative vision is epitomized in the weekly worship of the people of God as Christians when they gather around the table. Right?

Diana: Right.

George: We call that the Eucharist.

Diana: Thanksgiving.

George: That is the thanksgiving, and all the people are invited to that table, or should be. You know, our churches, that's a whole other thing, right, as to whether you are welcome at the table of the Lord. As if it's our table, it's really the Lord's table. But, when we come back from the break, I want us to pursue that a little more because if we want to have hope for our wider political society, it seems that our religious institutions, we can talk specifically about the church in this case, are supposed to model for the rest of society what is possible, as this small society, as this small community. What's the trajectory of that as a community of gratitude that could translate into a politics of gratitude? We'll come back from the break and pursue that together.

Diana: Great.

George: Okay.

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George: We're back with Diana Butler Bass, and Diana, we were talking about the table, specifically in the Christian church, the Lord's table, the communion table as being a model that is an alternative to the hierarchal model because it's ever celebrating the abundance of God's provision. That's a Christian symbol. It's not the only religious image of that, because other religions as well have similar concepts. Talk about some other images from religions of the world that also share that notion of the table.

Diana: I think that is really important to do these days, especially in the United States in a society that is becoming every more deeply religiously pluralistic. As a Christian, I think about the Christian stories a lot.

George: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Diana: But then, they immediately call me into thinking about how that same concept echos through other world religions.

George: Right.

Diana: In Judaism of course, you have Shabbat. Every week ...

George: Every week.

Diana: ... the family gathers around the table that celebrates God's abundance and says thank you. Then in Islam, I've never been and I hope that I go sometime, is during Ramadan. Every evening you fast, and then there is the celebration of provision.

George: Right, Iftar meal. That's right.

Diana: Yeah. Then you get to the end of it, and there's a huge feast of abundance.

George: Feast of Eid, yeah, that's right.

Diana: They have that concept as well. Outside of monotheistic western kind of religions, you have the Sikh community has these amazing meals that they offer to the whole community, and that they are really meals of abundance, celebration, and gratitude that are opened up to the whole world. Hinduism as well. You bring food ...

George: Food and flowers, and yes, all of that, right.

Diana: ... the food and the fruit of the earth to the temple, and those are offered to the gods, but then those offerings to the gods are turned into a meal, yeah.

George: Shared, the people, right, right.

Diana: Yeah. In all of these different traditions that are very much part of the American landscape, there's that same insight.

George: Yes.

Diana: Is that, we live in an abundant world, that the universe has enough for all, that God or the gods provide all that we need, and that our response to those gifts is sharing and gratitude. When you get to that point, you say, "Oh my gosh, every single world religion has the idea of a shared table and meanwhile, we're having sort of this huge fight right now with whether or not pyramid shaped economic and political structures should be ruling over us."

George: Right.

Diana: This is our politics at this moment.

George: Right.

Diana: Is that, our deepest longings, especially for anyone who is in any of these faith traditions, is for this table of abundance. Meanwhile, our politics is moving into directions of inequality and the elevation of a few over the many, the increasing shift of resources from all of us to the top of the pyramid, and really authoritarian kinds of political directives. We think that there's a divide. It's not a divide between Republicans and Democrats. This is a divide between the deepest longings of the human heart for community and for, not in a sense getting what we deserve, but for living well into the world as the universe as God intends, versus this system of corruption that is taking the heart away from all of us.

George: Yes.

Diana: That is where the theological or spiritual rubber meets the road, I think. We need to address this head on; the structure of the pyramid and the longing for the table.

George: So, I think that that's true, certainly in our wider political life. But, I also think it's necessary for those of us who are part of religious communities to recognize that, if we want to speak with moral authority to the wider world, we have to get our own house in order, too, and do a searing critique and honest review of how this has become true of our own ecclesial life in Christian settings and in other traditions. I don't want to speak to everybody else's tradition, but I can certainly speak to ours. It feels like we are suffering from some rightful loss right now of the prosperity of our Christian churches and communities as we have developed them because we have tied ourselves to these pyramid structures.

Diana: Yes we have.

George: People are saying, and I don't think it's just people's desires, I think this is the spirit's work in the life of the church, to say God will not rest if you keep trying to build Babel in the churches themselves. Eventually, this is going to come down on you, so you might as well participate in the work of dismantling in order to participate in the work of shared abundance at the table again. But, this is part of what all our denominations are struggling with right now. It's a narrative of decline, of collapse and all of that. But, don't we deserve it to some extent?

Diana: It's interesting, because when you're around people in religious traditions and they're talking about what's going on in the United States right now, they talk about the rise of the nones and how all these people are leaving behind ...

George: Right, none is by the way, N-O-N-E-S, not ...

Diana: Yes, not the sisters.

George: Not the dear sisters, that's right. Nones being those who identify with no particular religious tradition.

Diana: Right.

George: Go ahead.

Diana: What happens in that narrative is that people who are in religious institutions, religious communities tend to blame the people who are leaving.

George: Right.

Diana: "Oh, it's their fault. They're lazy. They don't understand religion. They don't care. They're self centered." Whatever it is.

George: Right, right.

Diana: I really think it's more of what you've just explained. Is that, what if it's the fault of people in religious institutions?

George: Right.

Diana: Not because we're all bad people or that our institutions are horrible. Certainly many of them are making some very significant mistakes at the moment, but there's also a lot of really good churches and there are really beautiful traditions in the midst of all that, and synagogues and mosques as well. But, the problem becomes is that, even good churches have oftentimes succumbed to these pyramid shaped structures. It might not be a formal one. You can think about a pyramid shaped structure in Christianity, and immediately one's mind goes to the Catholic Church.

George: The Catholic Church, right, sure.

Diana: You say, "Well, there's the problem," and I think it actually is a big part of the problem of what's happened over there. But, then you have the more, what I call the modified pyramid structures, like the Episcopal Church.

George: Right, your own tradition now.

Diana: Which is where I go to church. We like to talk about how we're open to the table, but you know, when things really come down to it, oh, the bishop decides.

George: Yes.

Diana: That happens over there. Those are the obvious ones. The less obvious ones are the ones that claim to be about the people, but when you get in the door of the particular church ...

George: Oh, careful now, you get to my Baptist, right into my Baptist grill. Yeah, exactly.

Diana: Well, we set up these kinds of hierarchies within even free church settings.

George: Sure.

Diana: They might be based on the preacher becomes essentially the bishop of a very large congregation for example, or you set up racial or gender hierarchies within a particular church so that men have power and women don't, or white people have power and the new Latino and Latina members of the church don't.

George: Right.

Diana: We ...

George: Gay and straight, yeah. Right?

Diana: Yeah, gay and straight, there's all kinds of these pyramids that even get set up within denominations and institutions that claim to be non-hierarchal.

George: Right.

Diana: That's because we think that grace is scarce or salvation is scarce or religious power is scarce, and somebody has to control it. The number of times in my career, and I've worked mostly with churches, where I start talking with people about these things, they say, "But, what about order?"

George: Yes.

Diana: "What about authority? Oh, if you have a table, anything could happen." As soon as people start worrying about order or authority, they always go and wind up over here.

George: Yes.

Diana: Then I remind them, I say, "Well, do your kids come to dinner and throw food at one another?" They say, "Oh no, my kids are well behaved." I say, "Well, if you have a table that's based on love, you're not going to pick up the pie and slam it in your brother's face over Thanksgiving dinner." There are certain kinds of things that out of love, out of compassion, out of your relationship with one another, that you assent to around a table that makes everyone feel safe and everyone feel valued.

George: Yes.

Diana: It's not disorderly, it's just a different kind of order.

George: Right.

Diana: To kind of get people to move there and realize, "Oh yeah, the table is not about disorder, but it's about an order that emerges around relationships and around abundance and around sharing."

George: Well, I think when we think about this in our church, and there's a sign out in front of our church, I don't know if you saw it when you came in, but it says every body. We really want to mean that. We say it so that we will mean it more, it's kind of a practice, you know, of gratitude. But, we try to remind ourselves that we are not really a police force inside that church for who gets to be at the table. Our job is not etiquette. It's to recognize that this is not our table, it's the Lord's table.

Diana: Yeah.

George: Jesus is the host, you know. We are all guests at that table. I think part of the problem with religion is that you get to putting yourself in charge, somehow, of that which is not really yours to be charged, to be in charge of.

Diana: And, putting yourself in charge, immediately you think this.

George: Exactly.

Diana: Somebody's on the top, making a decision, the buck stops here.

George: Right.

Diana: Even if it's not necessarily setting somebody up as a bishop or a king, as soon as you have that language of charge, you're already moving towards that rebuilding the pyramid. Whereas, the language is, "What does the host ask of us," or, "what's expected of guests?" That's a whole different kind of language to put around it.

George: Right, right.

Diana: Yeah, I was a member of a church about 30 years ago in California, very transformative experience. An Episcopal church that almost died, and it came to life again by embracing the idea of everyone being welcome.

George: Right.

Diana: I remember about five years into that amazing experiment, I was talking to a woman who was on the church board, and she looked at me and she said, "Yeah, you know, all are welcome. Our doors are open. This is the church for everyone." I'm not so sure we understood what that was really going to mean. Here were these people who were so open minded and wanted the community to really be reflective of the whole vision of God, and when they got into it, they realized, "Wow, this is actually much harder and a bit scarier than we anticipated." The temptation then was to go back, sort of fix up the pyramid, make it a little bit more firm. But, they didn't. They kept re-exploring this territory and trying to understand what it really means to be community. They're 30 years into that experiment, and they've really learned a lot along the way.

George: Well Diana ...

Diana: Still an incredible, vital church.

George: Whether this book or any of the others you've written, there are some consistent themes about calling on people of faith to live in faith. That is to risk, not to play it safe, to be on a journey of adventure, to explore, and to trust that when you do that, you'll experience more good things and joy there by walking into that way of living than by conserving and holding and protecting and trying to play a game of a few against the many. Over and over again I hear those themes coming through, and we're indebted to you for not only being a describer as a historian, but also a prescriber by pointing to seeds of hope and directions for us. Thank you for your work.

Diana: Well thank you, it's been a joy. You know, this is my 10th book, and I don't think I could have described the trajectory of it any better than you just did. Probably one of the things that makes me happiest in the last couple years is that I started asking a question about what makes a good church, and I've wound up with all kinds of amazing readers who are Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and secular people who are asking questions about what does spiritual community look like in a post-religious age.

George: Uh-huh(affirmative).

Diana: That's been amazing. The emerging question for me is not what makes a good church, but what makes for a really good world.

George: Wonderful.

Diana: I think that gratitude has everything to do with that.

George: For God so loved the world.

Diana: Yes, indeed. It was God's concern centrally with Christians, and we forget that.

George: Wonderful. Well, thank you for being with us Diana. God bless you in your work.

Diana: Thanks so much George.

George: Okay.

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