Not by Nature But by Grace

By Gilbert C. Meilaender

University of Notre Dame Press. Pp.136 $25.

Review by Abigail Woolley Cutter


We might turn to a Christian book about adoption expecting to find practical advice for adoptive parents, or perhaps a reflection on the personal experiences and questions of children who were adopted. On the other hand, we might expect a theologian and ethicist such as Gilbert Meilaender to write a lengthy philosophical tome leaving no ethical stone unturned. But even though Meilaender is both a scholar and an adoptive parent, neither of these imagined projects describes what he is up to here.

Instead, what we have in Not by Nature but by Grace is a brief orientation to thinking theologically about adoption and related issues at our precise moment in history. In hopes of offering a framework adequate to address adoption in light of recent changes in sexual norms and reproductive technologies, Meilaender’s theme is the distinction between “nature” and “history.” In other words, he is interested in the relationship between, and the relative claims of, biological kinship and the ongoing commitment to parent a child. This framework sets up his approach to questions like, “Should adoption be considered a second-best way to form a family?” “Should adoptions be open?” and “Should abandoned embryos be adopted?”

There are many possible ways of speaking of adoption that would obscure the importance of either biological kinship or a family’s shared history. Meilaender gives several examples from literature and contemporary thought that he believes go too far in one of these directions. To avoid either extreme, Meilaender proposes the three-fold Barthian structure of creation, reconciliation, and redemption. This approach acknowledges the goodness and original claim of biological parenthood, the real loss incurred by both child and biological parent(s) when this original tie must be severed, and the total dignity and equal worth of an adoptive relationship.

Meilander repeatedly asks: “Who is served?” His answer is that adoption should be viewed not only as meeting the needs of children, but also as assisting birth parents. Finally, adoption is a gift and a joy to adoptive parents. This same question (“Who is served?”) becomes Meilaender’s most important tool for discerning the answers to complex questions such as whether single people, same-sex couples, or parents of a different race or nationality should adopt (each of which he addresses briefly), or whether Christians should encourage gamete donation or embryo adoption (which he addresses more extensively). In each situation, he acknowledges the claim of biology as a good of creation, the loss that is incurred when such a tie is broken, and what redemption might be in each circumstance — looking first to the good of the child.

While much more could certainly be said about adoption, Meilaender has given us a way of beginning that gets us much farther than we might have expected at the outset. In particular, we are challenged to think about the grace of human life. We are asked to recognize each person’s life as a superabundance and a gift — not something we are owed, and certainly not something we can manipulate for our own purposes without robbing the person’s dignity. We are then even invited to see ourselves, whether adopted by our parents or not, as adoptees, because “flesh and blood will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Nature is not enough for any of us, and we all depend on God’s saving grace. Baptism becomes the symbol that ties together the many layers of thinking here: not only is each Christian adopted by God, but when a child is offered to God in baptism, every parent-child relationship is redescribed as an adoptive one.

While Meilaender does an admirable job of considering theological and logical links between the issues he considers, I might have wished for more attentiveness to Scripture and history. I found myself wondering how a Christian might relate to, or challenge, Old Testament experiences of childnessness as a tragedy. Elsewhere, I wondered: Does the story of Hagar have any bearing on matters related to surrogacy? And where Meilaender asserts that assisted reproduction through gamete donation is a problem because it introduces asymmetry in parental relationships to the child and a third party in the project of reproduction, I wished for an accompanying discussion of the Holy Family. Does the Virgin Birth have anything to say about nature, grace, and the formation of families?

Other pertinent questions have to do with historical shifts in the role of children in families, and even the role of humans on the planet. Is our attitude toward procreation and adoption affected by the shift from thinking of children as producers to thinking of them as consumers? Should ecological concerns have any bearing on our thinking about procreation and adoption?

Of course, one book cannot be expected to address everything. In fact, the brevity of this volume likely means it can be even more useful than it would be otherwise. Since it is small, accessible, and thoroughly theological, it would be an excellent resource for beginning a conversation on adoption and assisted reproduction among pastors or seminary students, who may be asked to counsel other Christians. It would also be good reading for prospective parents who are asking ethical and theological questions as they discern how to open their homes to God’s children.

Abigail Woolley Cutter is a Ph.D. candidate in Christian Ethics at Southern Methodist University.

About The Author

Dr. Abigail Cutter moved to Bristol, Tennessee, in 2023, and serves as assistant professor of theology at King University in Bristol, TN. She enjoys the music and many trails of Appalachia with her husband and two young children.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.