The Louisville Institute

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Interview with Gary Anderson, author of Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition

Gary Anderson

Gary A. Anderson received a 2010 Sabbatical Grant for Researchers award to support his project A Treasury in Heaven. We interviewed Gary about his 2013 book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition.

LI: Tell us about yourself and your current work.

GA: I am a biblical scholar (Notre Dame) whose primary expertise is in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament -- but I am very much interested in the history of reception of the Bible, in both Judaism and Christianity. This project expresses all those interests.

LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?

GA: The project followed from my previous book (Sin: A History) wherein I argued that the metaphors used to describe sin underwent an enormous change in Second Temple Judaism that exercised a profound influence on the NT and early Christianity. That would be the emergence of the metaphor of sin as a debt to be repaid (think of the "our father" prayer: "...forgive us our debts..." in the original Greek). As soon as debts were thought of in this fashion it was logical to think of meritorious actions as "credits." If sins oblige us to repay how do we store credits? And so the idea of a treasury in heaven was born. It begins in the Daniel 4.27, continues in Tobit and Sirach, and flowers in the preaching of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. In this book on charity, I pick up where my book on sin left off. What is the treasury in heaven: how did it originate and what did the early church make of this concept?

LI: What would you like us to know about your book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition?

GA: It has long been acknowledged that Jews and Christians distinguished themselves through charity to the poor. Though ancient Greeks and Romans were also generous, they funded theaters and bathes rather than poorhouses and orphanages. How might we explain this difference?

Simply put, the poor constituted the place where one could meet God. This sacramental view of charity varies considerably with the ways in which relief for the poor has been imagined in modern times. Though contemporary concerns for social justice were by no means absent from early Jews and Christians, the poor achieved the importance they did because they were thought to be “living altars,” that is, privileged places where one could meet God.

Alongside modern admiration for this achievement there are worries about its motivation. The Biblical basis for privileging the poor contains an element of self-interest. Charitable giving is believed to fund a treasury that assured the donor of his or her place in the world to come.

But such a focus on the moral agent is misleading. The primary function of the heavenly treasury was not motivational but ontological: it describes the true nature of the world God has fashioned. If the world was created through charity, then it stands to reason that charity would reward the world as well. Belief in a heavenly treasury is more metaphysical than moral: its purpose is to bring to the light of day the goodness of created order. Charity toward the poor, then, makes a statement about the character of the world God has created.

In brief, the biggest take-away would be this: whereas we moderns think about charity toward the poor primary in terms of social justice and improving the economic conditions of the underprivileged, the biblical writers would want to add that charity is also a metaphysical concept. When understood aright it constitutes a statement about the type of world God has made and the type of God who governs that world.

Interview with Susan Windley-Daoust, author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying

Susan Windley-Daoust

Susan Windley-Daoust received a 2011 Sabbatical Grant for Researchers award for her project The Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Childbirth, Disability, and Death. Susan shares with us about her book Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying (Lectio Publishing, 2014).

LI: Tell us about yourself and your current work.

SWD: I am an associate professor of theology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, a Catholic liberal arts school. My doctoral work was in systematic theology; I am also a trained spiritual director and an active layperson in the Catholic Church. I am married, a mother to five children, and generally very busy. Right now I’m completing a popular text called Giving and Receiving Birth: A Spiritual Theology of Childbirth. Soon I hope to write a book on spiritual direction and the theology of the body.

LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?

SWD: If the human body was created to serve as a sign that points to God, then every primordial human experience witnesses to that. How does childbirth, impairment, and the process of dying point the human being to God? How can we perceive that? What prevents us from perceiving that?

LI: What would you like us to know about your book Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying?

SWD: In Catholic circles, the theology of the body is a bit of a phenomenon. Standing on the shoulders of others, Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II crafted and introduced a theology that speaks to the “language of the body.” The popularity of this perspective skyrocketed within ecclesial circles. As George Weigel said, the theology of the body is “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries….a theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.” Indeed, this school of thought has become deeply polarizing: many enthusiasts either claim it has changed their lives or dismiss it as irrelevant idealism. I began reading theology of the body literature with skepticism, but was impressed by its integrated vision of the theology of creation and redemption, as well as its organic critique of modern sexuality.

Many of the “popularizers” of theology of the body—and they are needed, because the original texts are extremely dense unless the reader has advanced training in philosophy and theology—have focused on its application to sexuality and marriage. This is certainly appropriate given that John Paul II focused half of his work in these texts on that topic. But the other half is important as well: what does it mean to be human, an ensouled body? What does it mean to understand our incarnation as a pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness? Would the polarization be diminished if we paid more attention to theological anthropology? My book addresses what it would mean to perceive the body as a sign that points to God: in the process of giving birth, in living with an impairment, and in the process of dying. Essentially, there is a phenomenology of those primal experiences of embodiment in dialogue with the theology of the body’s particular insights on creation and redemption.

I think the work is important because this is a theology that touches people where they live. Parents often say that giving birth is one of the deepest spiritual experiences of their lives. People often cry out “Why?” when faced with an unexpected impairment—or begin to rethink how we are all impaired, limited, in ways when we stand coram Deo (in the presence of God). The prophetic work of hospice shows that dying can be, and often is, a deeply spiritual experience for those dying and those accompanying them. It connects the growing art of spiritual direction with the classical work of theological reflection in ways that help us understand what it means to be human. And as I tell my students, how you answer the question of what it means to be human determines how you will answer every other question in life—every single one. I’m grateful to have had a chance to contribute to that ageless enterprise.