Belated reflection on Acton University
I was privileged to attend Acton University, the 4-day conference sponsored each June by Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, MI. Illness and vacation have kept me from posting some thoughts about my experiences there. Per their own website,
Acton University is a unique, four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society. Guided by a distinguished, international faculty, Acton University is an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and integrate rigorous philosophy, Christian theology and sound economics.
There were over 400 in attendance, faculty, students, clergy, seminarians, from over 50 countries, most all of them Roman Catholic and Evangelical, but with a small sprinkling of Orthodox (may our number increase!).
A first-timer, like myself, attends four foundational lectures on Christian anthropology, Christianity and the idea of limited government, the economic way of thinking, and foundations of a free and virtuous society. Subsequently, I was free to attend lectures on environmental issues that interested me (and which contributed to my starting this blog).
Listening to the lectures, I was repeatedly struck by the breadth of learning and the familiarity with the whole fabric of Western culture that the presenters and participants had at their command. I have not participated in a discussion like this since my days at the University of Dallas. My admiration for Acton and the quality of the people it brings together is unbounded.
At any rate, as I listened to the presentations, I began to wonder what I, as an Orthodox Christian, had to bring to the table. Certainly, with regard to a Christian response to environmental issues, I do think that Orthodoxy has a number of themes and/or perspectives which I heard no mention of by the Evangelical presenters. These I will save for later posts on this blog, because they form the substance of what I want to present here on this subject.
I think, too, that on foundational issues, like Christian anthropology and fundamental ideas of a virtuous (if not a free) society, the Orthodox familiarity with–and respect for–the patrimony of the Fathers’ teaching is something we can certainly offer. (During informal discussions, I found people not merely tolerant of my Orthodox views, but positively eager to hear what I had to say.)
On the other hand, I don’t think there is much that is distinctively Orthodox that we can contribute to discussions of a free society, limited government, or to economic freedom. (Please correct me if I am wrong, but) until recent times, the broad political situation of Orthodoxy has been imperial (Roman & Byzantine), tsarist, dhimmitude under the caliph or Turkish millet, and Communist. If there have been significant Orthodox contributions to economic thought, I am unaware of them.
In view of my experience at Acton, I think that Orthodox Christians have much to offer theologically to non-Orthodox forums–and we should be willing to offer what we can–, but that we have much to learn from others about in which we are weak. In this respect, a real humility and willingness to “step out of our comfort zone” and acknowledge the expertise which others — and other disciplines — can provide can be enormously enriching, not only personally, but to the Church as well.
Now, up to this point, all of this is rather academic (literally and metaphorically). However, the recent Episcopal Assembly gives me pause. Some of the discussion generated on other forums about the role of the OCA’s autocephaly and lay participation in the OCA’s governance leads me to think that the Anglo-American tradition of limited government and understanding of human freedom — such as what Acton upholds — are valuable to the Church, precisely because they promote human dignity, freedom and personal responsibility. They are ideals that need to be understood well, and articulated well, so that the Church can consider them well. In this respect, Acton Institute is an excellent resource.