Last week I spent four days in Grand Rapids, Michigan at Acton University. If you look for Acton University on the map you won’t find it because it is a conference, not a formal institution of higher education. However, the content is so broad and educational the creators began to call it a university.
Acton Institute is a think tank and non-profit organization that exists “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” They are known as free market advocates, but there is a lot more to it than that.
The ethos is profoundly Christian, but also wholesomely ecumenical. By that I mean that the experience is ecumenical in that we were talking about our differences and enriching our common faith without negating the real, and sometimes deep, differences in our understandings of the Eucharist, role of clergy, and polity. These differences remain, but an authentic dialog between Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and various stripes of Protestants (including a significant Baptist contingent) was made possible due to a commitment not to be contentious about the faith and a common interest in the topic at hand.
The conference is interdenominational, intergenerational, intercultural, and interdisciplinary.
One example of this was the informative discussion I had with an Orthodox priest about Alexander Solzhenitsyn. There were many points of difference, but I came away with a deepened perspective on the Russian Orthodox author. Of course, there were points where there was a lack of understanding as one Roman Catholic presenter noted that Catholics have the Nicene Creed while the Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession. The fundamental error in his statement went unnoticed by many, but I saw a number of folks shift uneasily as they decided to let it pass. The intent was good, so the conversation continued.
One night I sat at supper with the president of a private, classical school in Chicago. We had a great discussion on transitioning into classical education from conventional schooling. We also talked about environmental ethics, alternative energy, and the quality of the food. He is a retired journalist, so he shared some of his reporting experience, which spanned several decades. Another night I had a long conversation with a retired efficiency expert who had consulted with companies throughout the world. He was Dutch, but had recently become an American citizen.
Another night, I shared a table with some Nigerian pastors. They were amazed that we Americans could eat meat every night and cheesecake, too. Then, the bespectacled pastor asked me how he could get a pair of rimless glasses like mine, so we explored the wonders of online optical stores on a smartphone. His phone was nicer than mine. This was an international experience.
Then there were philosophers, historians, lawyers, engineers, housewives, pastors, firemen, soldiers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Actually, I didn’t see any of the last three, but they may have been there. It was a profoundly interdisciplinary event.
The highlights of the meeting was getting to meet Michael Novak, a well-known economist. Actually, I think the high point was when he asked me to get him some potato chips from the lunch line, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.
The best lecture I went to was by Peter Kreeft. The formerly Evangelical, now Catholic philosopher from Boston College. He is an expert on Aquinas and the Inklings. His talk on Truth, Beauty and Goodness in C.S. Lewis was true, beautiful and good on its own. It was a pleasure to hear him masterfully unfold his topic and answer questions with such depth, breadth, and clarity.
There were amazing conversations wherever you turned. People were talking about poverty alleviation efforts in their local cities, starting businesses, and funding charities. There was a fermenting energy bursting from every corner. It really is a wonderful thing.
Everywhere capitalists, yet everywhere there was concern for human dignity and the rule of law. There is an energy in the movement. A synergistic momentum that propels attendees out of the meeting looking for a hill to take and a person to help.
If you have a chance, you should go. It's an exciting place to meet people and consider future possibilities, and you never know where the road might take you.