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Acton University

Well, dear hearts, I must abuse your charity for moment. It’s odd that I don’t find as much time to blog while I’m at home than I do when I’m away on my different travels, but that is the case. Besides, not much is going on at home to relate to you.

However, since Tuesday evening, I have been in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending “Acton University,” a 4-day series of presentations, discussions, and exchange of ideas put on by the Acton Institute. I was able to attend last year, and I was invited back again this year, and even asked to give a presentation, which (I think) I did successfully this morning, have talked on “Orthodoxy and Environmentalism.” The pace here is brisk, and there is a prodigious amount of learning and talking and thinking going on, so much so that it’s hard to keep up with it all.

On  Sunday afternoon, I leave for Europe, and I’ll doubtless have lots of time in airports to blog some more, and say more about Acton. In the mean time, the abuse of your charity is this: If I blog about Acton University while I’m here, I can be entered into a drawing to win a new iPad 2. The Acton folk are very savvy economically, and have provided a sufficient incentive to get dozens of us — if not hundreds of us — to blog about Acton U. Hence, this post. I will probably say more about what I’ve done & heard here, but that will have to come later. In the mean time, I just need to get this post out so I can put myself in the drawing. Forgive me for taking advantage of you in this way.

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.

On stewardship, particularly the environmental kind

I was privileged to attend Acton University 2010 in Grand Rapids, MI, last month, thanks to the kindness and generosity of the good folk at The Acton Institute. It was a 4-day intellectual feast, the likes of which I had not participated in, in a very long time. While there, I took a series of 3 lectures on environmental issues. I chose those lectures for a few reasons: one, because I am interested in the subject; two, the more I read Orthodox statements on environmental issues the less my heart is at peace about them; and three, I am invited to participate in a conference this coming September in Montana, sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, which will present free market ideas on environmentalism to religious leaders. I felt it would be good preparation for the FREE conference to attend the environmental lectures at Acton. My time was very well spent.

There are many particulars from my time at Acton University on which I could comment, but in this post I want to think out loud about one recurring impression I got from the lectures, from one of the after-dinner speakers, and from a variety of casual conversations. I was struck, repeatedly, by how often it was said that God owns the world.

Now, I don’t dispute that God owns the world. Ben Phillips, whose lectures on “Biblical Theology and Environmental Ethics” and “Evangelicals and the Green Movement” I attended, laid out very clearly the Biblical basis for God’s ownership of all of creation, and I believe both Dr Phillips and the Scriptures.

At the same time, I kept remembering a distinction which I recollect from SS Diadochus of Photike and Basil the Great (it’s probably a patristic commonplace drawn on a verse of Scripture, but I can’t remember other references off the top of my head). The distinction is this:

There are 3 relationships we can have with God:

  • that of slaves, in which we are motivated by fear of punishment/hell;
  • that of servants, in which we are motivated by desire of reward/heaven; and
  • that of sons, in which we are motivated solely by love of the Father.

It is this distinction in relationships that gives me pause about the idea of stewardship, for stewardship is a function of a master-servant relationship. Therefore, it seems to fall short of the more perfect relationship, that of sons.

(Perhaps stewardship is precisely “economic” in both senses of economics and oikonomia and it can’t be expected to function in a Father-son relationship.)

I am less at ease when I think of environmental stewardship, for the presumption of the stewardship model is that the earth, and everything in it (and everybody in it?), belong to God as a possession or a property. On the other hand, I can’t help remembering that the end of the Apocalypse is not a Master calling in His chattel (slaves) or his property (servant/stewards), but rather it is the marriage feast of the Lamb.

And here I don’t know where to go. My sense is that the emphasis on God’s ownership of creation shows a lack of imagination, a failure to take into account other metaphors that describe the relationship between God and his creation.

Perhaps it is a simplification that, to my mind, isn’t adequate precisely because it over-simplifies what is, in fact, a complex reality.

Perhaps stewardship is the governing idea and Scripture has been made to serve that idea via a sort of “proof-texting.”

Again, I don’t know where to go. I hope my dis-ease makes sense. I invite your comments.

Fr.M.+