The Acton Institute (www.acton.org) was begun through the vision of two men in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1990. It exists for the study of democracy and liberty in order to promote a free society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. Acton’s major contribution is in training young professionals such as ministers, lawyers and business leaders, often while they are engaged in their graduate studies. The goal is to help such young leaders learn how to think clearly about the virtues of a free and faith-based society. This includes demonstrating why the “good life” requires both liberty and virtue.
I am attending my second Acton University, this time as an active Acton blogger. This means that I will be writing about various subjects related to this event over the course of the next several days. I will seek to report in a first-person manner on the overall event as well as provide you with some reflections upon the workshops that I attend and the people that I encounter.
Issues such as globalization, environmental stewardship, the role of government, world poverty and trade inequities are standard subjects for an Acton University gathering. Acton’s excellent faculty, which is made up of people who work at the downtown Grand Rapids “think tank,” as well as adjunct professors who are imported from various universities and ministries, is engaging and passionate about their work. Acton’s faculty is Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. This means that Acton is one of those very important places where the new ecumenism of the trenches is taking place in America in a healthy and effective way.
Acton stages three-day events to introduce young adults to a distinctly Christian approach to life and liberty that feature a faculty of five or six and a student group of only about 30. These events are called: “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society.” I attended one of these, as a guest who sat outside the discussion circle, several years ago in Connecticut. It was a memorable time and through it I was brought into the Acton orbit and became a friend of this important ministry. (By the way, if you are a young adult graduate student you ought to consider one of these small gatherings. You can usually receive scholarship support to attend. Check it our and try to go.)
For several years Acton has had one central annual gathering in downtown Grand Rapids that features many speakers and a broad range of topics that are addressed in both plenary sessions and seminars. This year the Acton University---a symposium on faith, economics and liberty---is being held June 12-15. There are approximately 275 registrants for this year’s school. 93 of these come from 41 countries outside the United States. The diversity of the people obviously is impressive and Acton does not intentionally pursue "diversity" as an end in itself. The goal is to demonstrate how truth, all truth, is connected.
Last evening the co-founder of Acton, Father Robert Sirico, delivered a clear and compelling address titled: “Distinctions and Definitions for a Christian Anthropology.” The burden of Ft. Sirico’s message was to demonstrate how our view of human persons must be rooted in God because we make no sense to ourselves until we see ourselves in relationship to God. Human freedom and responsibility, in other words, must be rooted in conscience or the result will be some form of collectivism, socialism or totalitarianism that destroys real human initiative as well as personal, social and religious freedom. The danger is to try to build or sustain a just and free society without the virtues, i.e., a society that prizes either freedom and/or community without the virtue that comes from a God-based anthropology. Siricio rightly argued that no human is simply the sum total of their constituent physical parts. He pointed us to Psalm 8 and said, “When you can answer the question ‘What is man?’ then you have the basis for addressing the questions that truly matter.” He added, “Man is the only being created for himself.” (He did not mean by this any denial of our being created for the glory of God but rather that no lower creature was made to live consciously for himself unto God!)
The evening ended with a focus on our becoming part of a modern resistance movement. Our first act of resistance, noted Father Sirico, has to be rooted in our personal moral formation. The second, which must clearly follow it, must be rooted in our intellectual life. The first is much more subtle and delicate but without it our resistance will always break down. This is what gives us and our actions real virtue.
Father Sirico concluded his address by showing how Christians resisted Nazi totalitarianism during the Second World War in Europe by making choices about life that honored men and women as creatures made in God’s image. We then saw video clips from a forthcoming movie on the Dutch Resistance during the holocaust. To our surprise the woman who is featured in the movie, an 87-year old Grand Rapids lady, was brought on stage and shared some of her story and answered questions. It was a magnificent moment. The audience was moved deeply. I found the most challenging aspect of her story the answer she gave to a student’s question regarding how and why she got involved in resistance. She answered, “I had one Jewish friend who was in trouble. I decided to help my friend and then from there it became a five-year involvement in resistance and rescue. I never planned on this at all.” This dear lady lost her fiancé, and many of her friends, to the Nazi death camps. She faced almost certain death every day for two-plus years, from 1943-1945, and lived in continual fear. But she chose to live this “resistance” lifestyle from the age of 20 to 25.
Diet, our Dutch guest, reminded us that this all began, while she was a very normal young woman in love with a very normal young man, because she “loved one person” enough to care and get involved in saving her life. Father Sirico then reminded us that every virtue begins somewhere, with some simple but virtuous single action, with some choice that we consciously make. The question we asked, as we left last evening, was quite simple: “Who is my neighbor and how do I express genuine virtue toward my neighbor?” This is where all true freedom and virtue begins, in knowing who we are and why we are here.