Category: News and Events

Blog author: mhornak
Friday, April 20, 2012

Have you always wanted to interact with one of Acton’s staff members? Do you have questions or ideas related to Acton’s foundational principles that haven’t been answered? Do you want the chance to participate in an intellectual discussion organized by Acton?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this is your chance!

My ongoing reflection on the Hunger Games trilogy from Suzanne Collins continues with today’s Acton Commentary, “Bread First, Then Ethics.” This piece serves as a sort of follow-up to an earlier commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” as well as an essay over at First Things I wrote with Todd Steen, “Hope in the Hunger Games.”

In this week’s commentary, I examine the dynamic of what might be understood to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as depicted in the Hunger Games (HT to Hunter Baker for his reference to Maslow). In general, “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” Or more succinctly: bread first, then ethics.
Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsThis dynamic is captured nicely in a brief dialogue in the film between Katniss and Peeta. Peeta expresses his frustration at their situation: “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”

To this Katniss responds bluntly: “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Survival first, then she can worry about making ethical stands or moral gestures. Bread first, then ethics.

In today’s piece, I conclude that “the pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters.” The situation is a bit more complex than this, however. What we should understand by “first” in this sense is not necessarily temporal, but rather a priority of purpose or significance.

There’s a certain element of truth to something like Maslow’s hierarchy, even if one might quibble with the details. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral,” or “First comes eating, then comes morality.” A church teaching that ignores the physical needs of people, or only on the life to come, is truncated and flawed. Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel makes this point quite well.

Indeed, as the Puritan Richard Baxter observed,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

So seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added as well. Do not allow for material goods to become a distraction, or even an idol, that steals attention away from our focus on “pardon and spiritual blessings.” But don’t let our focus on “spirituality” become otherworldly and disembodied.

The gospel is good news for the whole person, body and soul. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.

Work: The Meaning of Your Life“When conducting Business as Mission, the primary purpose has to be to expand the Kingdom of God,” said Joseph Vijayam, founder and managing director of Olive Technology, a Colorado Springs-based information technology services provider. “Profits and an increase of shareholder wealth are an important result of a solid business that is well executed and are essential for the survival of any business, but they need not become the very purpose for existence.”

Vijayam invites Christian business leaders to reflect on the place of profits in the context of Tax Day here in the US: “I am not challenging business owners to stop making profits, but instead to look at those profits in a completely new way.”

In a piece for Comment magazine last year, “Reforming Economics,” I argued, “For too long a view has held dominance that has portrayed profit as a purpose or end, rather than as a means or a consequence. That is to say, the pursuit of profit is acceptable when it is couched within the broader framework of and constrained by the norm of service of others.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty released an Easter week statement titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” The document outlines recent threats to religious liberty in the States and abroad while endorsing an upcoming  “Fortnight for Freedom” to defend what it calls “the most cherished of American freedoms.”

We suggest that the fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, be dedicated to this “fortnight for freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.

This thoughtful and well-reasoned statement is a necessary read not just for Catholics, but for all concerned with religious liberty. To read it in its entirety, click on the link above.

The pope turns 85 today. On the website of Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at this most prominent of “status-quo challengers.”

While regularly derided by his critics as “decrepit” and “out-of-touch,” Benedict XVI continues to do what he’s done since his election as pope seven years ago: which is to shake up not just the Catholic Church but also the world it’s called upon to evangelize. His means of doing so doesn’t involve “occupying” anything. Instead, it is Benedict’s calm, consistent, and, above all, coherent engagement with the world of ideas that marks him out as very different from most other contemporary world leaders – religious or otherwise.

Benedict has long understood a truth that escapes many contemporary political activists: that the world’s most significant changes don’t normally begin in the arena of politics. Invariably, they start with people who labor – for better or worse – in the realm of ideas. The scribblings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped make possible the French Revolution, Robespierre, and the Terror. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Lenin and the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia without the indispensible backdrop of Karl Marx. Outside of academic legal circles, the name of the Oxford don, H.L.A. Hart, is virtually unknown. Yet few individuals more decisively enabled the West’s twentieth-century embrace of the permissive society.

Read “Benedict XVI: God’s Revolutionary” by Samuel Gregg on Crisis.

I had the privilege of giving the opening lecture last night for the “Limited Government and the Rule of Law” conference taking place here in Grand Rapids this weekend. The talk was on “Christian Origins of Limited Government,” and was followed by an excellent Q&A session.

One of the questions had to do with economic consequences or effects of the Fall into sin, particularly with respect to the curse. There are of course myriad implications for economics from the curse, starting first with the recognition of the toilsome nature of labor in the fallen world:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

Presumably this means that human work isn’t as productive as it would be otherwise. One practical effect of this is scarcity. Fallen work doesn’t produce as many goods and services as non-fallen work; and it would seem there are in fact both qualitative and quantitative consequences for the fruits of human labor. The noetic effects of sin would have some implications here, as well, as it may be that Adam’s insights into the nature of the world were adversely effected. Where he had previously known the nature of things by immediate perception, this insight may well have been clouded. Certainly, as Abraham Kuyper notes, we no longer possess that direct insight that Adam had before the Fall.

So if we understand economics to be, at least from one perspective, reflection on the dynamic between limited resources and unlimited needs, wants, or desires (as Victor Claar described it in his talk on envy earlier this week), then we have clear implications for economics on the scarcity side stemming from the curse.

But I would also argue that the curse has impacted the other half of the dynamic as well. Our desires have become disordered, inordinate, and confused. We want the things we shouldn’t, and we want the things we should want more than we should want them. The acquisitive, grasping, desiring side of human nature is unmoored from and detached from its natural human limits and orientation. We see evidence of this disorder in the aspect of the curse that is applied to the wife: “Your desire will be for your husband, / and he will rule over you.”

So if the curse was the introduction of scarcity into human life, it also was the introduction of desires no longer appropriately limited by obedience to God’s will. Economics in this fallen world deals directly with these (and other) consequences of the curse.

Dismal science, indeed!

Herman Selderhuis

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. For the Winter 2012 Religion & Liberty issue, now available online, we interviewed Reformation scholar Herman Selderhuis. Refo500, under the direction of Selderhuis, wants to help people understand the meaning and lasting significance of the Reformation. Selderhuis and Refo500 are already playing an essential role in promoting the anniversary and Acton is honored to be a part of that endeavor as well.

For myself, Reformation study was critical to my own spiritual formation. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand is just one book that has had a lasting impact in my life.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Witness by Whittaker Chambers. We have a superb article by Richard Reinsch on the deep influence of Witness and its relevance today. Reinsch authored the exceptional Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary in 2010. I reviewed the book in a past issue of R&L.

James Franko contributed an essay from a classically liberal perspective on “A Case for Limiting Caesar.” I’ve contributed a review of Mark Tooley’s new book Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century.

The “In the Liberal Tradition” figure is Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson, of course, would do much to shape the notion of rights in the American colonies.

Let me also say something about the expansion of Rev. Robert Sirico’s column for this issue. We have excerpted a passage from his new book Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. It will be available from Regnery in May of this year. Anybody who is an admirer or feels they can learn something from Rev. Sirico will cherish this publication. It really serves to remind us all just how much the Acton Institute and its mission makes sense.

There is more in this issue. Check out the editor’s notes for all the details.