The Marvel of Acton University

By John McKinley Jan. 24, 2017 9:00 a.m. Culture, Theology

The Acton Institute is a think tank located in Grand Rapids, Michigan to produce many initiatives connected with freedom of religion, economics, and politics. These three areas of thought and practice are usually segregated, but Acton brings them together. The largest initiative is the annual Acton University, a four-day conference in Grand Rapids to draw the strands together with diverse conversation partners.

Seated next to me are Catholic priests from the US, western Europe, Africa, and South America. In the row in front of me, I see a man with a yarmulke. I find out later that he is transitioning from serving as a rabbi to teaching history and politics at a university in NYC. The speaker before us is an Orthodox priest from Naples, Florida. The questions at the end of the lecture show some evangelicals are also participating, an Assemblies of God pastor, a theology professor from Asbury seminary, and others.

In another session, the speaker is a Muslim from Turkey, telling us how to understand the history of Islam and the complex array of Islamic interpretations that are in play today. He distinguishes Dubai and Indonesia from Saudi Arabia. I find this experience amazing that so many otherwise disagreeable people with fiercely opposed opinions of important matters of theological doctrine can spend four days thinking together about important matters of common cause.

Acton Institute does not aim at ecumenism, but unity occurs in refreshing and challenging ways. Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals find themselves speaking of the same deep reality of transformation through Christ in the presence of Muslims and Jews. As much as we might find common cause in matters of alleviating poverty, and striving for religious, economic, and political liberty, diverse Christians find deeper common cause in how these things relate to the gospel.

At dinner, I notice that Catholics at the table with me cross themselves after we pray, and the Jewish scholar abstains from the meal because he is keeping kosher. The distinctiveness of religious convictions among the 1,100 people joining for Acton University is retained, often with humor and mutual respect. The unity is surprising in the presence of the sharp and careful differences. The topics of economic and religious liberty are large and serious enough for us all to benefit from the best thinking available, even if the ideas are outside our religious tradition.

One of the high points was an evening plenary address by a Nobel laureate in economics. With fiery Christian passion, this scholar traced the development of quantum physics and detailed comments about Einstein’s discoveries of relativity. Then, he turned to point to a harmony with the Christian idea of faith as the evidence for things not seen. Science at the deepest level is based on faith in quantum physics that are not seen, but truly experienced. Christianity at the deepest level is similar experience of an invisible reality.

This vigor and rigor to turn over all the rocks and press all the way to the end of the questions makes Acton University appealing and credible. These participants exemplify the Christian endeavor to integrate faith and learning for a free and virtuous society. I would wish for greater harmony and closer agreement on theology, not just economics and political theory. But Acton starts with areas of common cause for the good of the world. Not content to leave people to stay within our faith traditions or academic disciplines, the Acton Institute gathers people for the common causes that affect us all.

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