Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a familiar theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review.
While this model is open to question as
- it is individualistic based on psychology and ignores the social and political
- it may not work in practice as a ladder or pyramid up which people progress
- it seems rather "new agey" and about personal fulfilment rather than rooted in a Christian or Biblical theology of the human condition
- it focuses on need and has little recognition of assets which every human being brings into the world
Yet it does give us some useful categories and fits into the mission strategy put forward by William Booth, the first General of the Salvation Army “But what is the use of preaching the Gospel to men whose whole attention is concentrated upon a mad, desperate struggle to keep themselves alive?” However it should be noted the same Booth is quoted as saying.. “To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a University education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labour. You must in some way or other graft upon the man's nature a new nature, which has in it the element of the Divine.”
Until recently it was assumed that the British welfare state had the base of the triangle well covered, that no one would be left without basic needs being met. The church and it's mission was therefore to work higher up the hierarchy offering belonging through the fellowship of the church, and salvation through the gospel of Christ. There would be a measure at least of personal transformation, which Anna Ruddick in her study of incarnational urban mission suggests is the added value brought through faith in terms of a new sense of human significance even if personal circumstances are not greatly changed.
With the growing inequality that has resulted from the global neo-liberal project or recent decades, which has culminated in the new destitution of recent austerity programmes, churches have responded with a new emphasis on meeting basic needs. Food Banks are the most obvious example; in Lancashire alone we have over thirty handing out over 30,000 parcels a year, almost all started up and managed by churches. There are also numerous soup kitchens and community cafes, homelessness ministries, street pastors and charitable handouts of blankets and clothing all designed to address basic needs of those who are destitute and vulnerable. Some of these ministries also offer genuine love and belonging, and address the highest level spiritual needs by providing opportunities for prayer and worship, albeit sometimes in a rather full on, clumsy and heavy handed way.
My observation of church linked social action programmes is that they are often not so good at offering esteem and a feeling of accomplishment to their "service users". Indeed this label itself often sets customers apart from providers as people who need to have good done onto rather than fellow human beings with talents and gifts to share with the wider community. Nor are they always good at offering a hand up rather than a handout; sometimes it feels as though the primary need is for the good Christian volunteers to feel needed, that they are helping those in real need, and that it is convenient to keep the recipients in permanent childlike dependency. For some activities this is justified by the "unique Christian ethos" of the project and the assertion that only through the truth and power of the Gospel can the highest level spiritual need for salvation be properly addressed. At the extreme this becomes arrogance which ill behoves followers of the one who "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;" (Phil 2;6)" and breeds a rugged independence which prevents collaboration with other services that remain invisible from the depths of one's own silo.
In reality, even in the much reduced remnants of the welfare state, a wide variety of services remain, some statutory, some secular and not for profit, some in the form of social enterprises or private businesses working under contract, and some operating to professional standards but inspired by religious faith. The best of these, because of their professionalism and specialist expertise, can be much better than the churches at a holistic approach which leads to overcoming dependency and offering the hope of personal and community development and empowerment; while the worst can be dire, chaotic, coercive or conditional and entangled in red tape. Surely Christian social activists have much to gain by engaging with due diligence in this wider web of provision. I'm not totally sure that this is what Chris Baker of the William Temple Foundation means when talking about "entangled fidelities" . However, the potential gains range from economies of scale to better signposting and referral processes, to opening new paths to funding and resources and a seat at the table where policies are shaped, where we might use some power for the blessing of the weak and the promotion of the common good. In the messiness of such involvement sometimes we will find allies and a warm welcome, sometimes indifference or misunderstanding, and occasionally at least hostility and hatred.
The challenge of course is an old one, to remain realistically involved in the world as it is, while remaining faithful to the heavenly vision of the world that is to be. Or as Jesus himself put it “not of the world, but sent into it.”