The constant temptation when gathering to talk about a subdiscipline is that we will lose sight of the first things.
That temptation is exacerbated when that subdiscipline is a pragmatically oriented one, an area of the world in which we are trying to act(rather than simply think about) in ways shaped by Scripture.
Dan Cruver, who started this here conference, wasn’t about to let that happen. In an excellent talk expanding on Psalm 36, he shifted the frame of reference away from what God desires of us to who God is.
Cruver’s theological account focused on God as giver. He is the one whose supply is boundless and whose streams never run dry. Highlighting the metaphor of the spring in verse 8, he argued that the boundless giving of God is what fundamentally grounds the orphan care and adoption movements.
There are gods, Cruver argued, who are needy and who take. Such gods lurk in the life of the unrighteous person of verses 1-4. Yet there is but one God who gives, and allows us to to drink from the river of God’s edens, or delights, and feast on the abundance of God. This self-giving of God takes its primary expression in the person of Jesus, who gives himself for us on the cross.
God causes us to feast on the abundance of his house. Cruver didn’t develop the horizontal dimension of this theme, but it’s worth mentioning. If Peter Leithart is right, generosity in the Old Testament is tied to feasting and celebration.
Especially in Deuteronomy, generosity to the poor is coupled with festivity. When Israelites bring the tithe (tenth) of their harvest to the Lord’s house, they celebrate with meat and strong drink, but are exhorted to remember the Levites, who have no land of their own (Deuteronomy 14:27). Every third year, a portion of the tithe is given to the alien, orphan, and widow who “shall come and eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). At the annual feasts of Pentecost and Booths, too, the celebrants welcome those with no resources of their own (Deuteronomy 16:10-11, 13-14). Again, the rights of both owners and non-owners are honored. Landowners rejoice in their abundance, but the landless poor share the abundance. The successful are not pilloried or punished, but the Lord commands them to open their hearts and their tables to the unsuccessful.
Cruver argued that what orphans need is Christians who drink of the Niagra Falls who is Jesus. Such drinking empowers and ennables us to move out and give to others. This is a fruitful line of reasoning. But in focusing on how God’s giving might motivate our care for the orphan, he did not fully explain how it might shape our care for the orphan. Is there, for instance, anything unique about the self-giving of God with respect to adoption or orphan care?
One potential way through: the broken economies that contribute to the orphan crisis are sometimes (often?) afflicted by unhealthy forms of taking. Reframing economies around giving may help get at some of the structural reasons behind orphan care, and Christians may have unique resources to articulate those sorts of alternate economic ideas that are directly tied to the theological framework Dan moved toward.
At any rate, more to come. Fantastic talk, and very provocative.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.