Maslow and Spiritual Formation (Introduction)

As Pastor of Spiritual Formation I am interested in what spiritual formation looks like and how it is accomplished. In this regard, the Biblical worldview often comes in contact with other worldviews of our culture. The call of Christianity is to be formed in the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The call of humanism on the other hand, is to discover and be formed into our “true self.” One of the “founding fathers” of humanism, at least in the field of psychology, is Abraham Maslow. Many High School students learn about his famous pyramid of needs. As I reread this work myself, I noticed how his worldview interacted with a Biblical worldview in the areas of spiritual formation, values, and ethics. I plan to spend some time drawing on these connections. Here are some initial thoughts to get started:

First, we need a quick summary of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. The pyramid is a model of human motivation. It seeks to provide a framework for answering the question, “what motivates human behavior?” Note that the model is descriptive and not prescriptive. Maslow isn’t saying (here, anyway) that this is how we should be motivated. He is saying this is how people are motivated. However, for Maslow this model describes a normal and healthy individual. He later acknowledges that some people seem to contradict the pattern. In a few cases this might describe the “strong ones,” but in most cases a reversal of the motivations described in the model indicates psychological sickness.

At the “base” of the pyramid are our most basic human needs – physiological needs. These are the needs that must be fulfilled first. Maslow describes them as “pre-potent” needs. If an individual is not fulfilled in several needs at once, they will seek to gratify the more pre-potent needs before anything else. There are a total of five categories of needs. Here they are in the order in the pyramid.

Physiological needs: This includes basic physical needs such as hunger and thirst. Here Maslow is not just describing “being hungry”, but “starving.” According to Maslow, the rise of civilization has made this need imperceptible in most Western countries. That is, there are few people that are actually starving to death in these countries. In a telling Biblical reference Maslow says that the truly starving man, if he encounters bread, truly does “live by bread alone.” Also telling is the fact that Maslow includes sex in these most basic physiological of needs.

Safety needs: In its most primitive form this includes safety from an attacker. Again, since Maslow is writing from the perspective of a comparatively wealthy and safe society, he relates the safety needs to the need for financial stability, a predictable living environment, and the need expressed by children for predictable routine. He also includes the need for a coherent worldview that could be provided by science or religion.

Social needs: Next on the pyramid we see social needs. This includes the need to love and be loved and the need for relational intimacy.

Esteem needs: The penultimate category is the “esteem” need. This includes the need for having a positive image of the self. To his credit, Maslow expects this not only to be a positive view of the self, but also an accurate view of the self. However, given psychological humanism starts with a positive view of humanity, so long as pathological sickness is not present, this goal should be attainable by anyone.

Self-Actualization: The final need humans have, says Maslow, is the need for self-actualization. Put simply, self-actualization means “whatever a man can be, he must be.” It represents the goal of the individual to reach their full potential.

The only truly happy people, says Maslow, are those who are fulfilled in every need and are unimpeded from pursing the goal of self-actualization. Anyone who is lacking in any of the needs is seen to be sick.

As a stand-alone model for “how things are” this model is fairly benign – and in fact as a model can be quite useful in understanding how humans tick. However, the model has not just been adopted as a descriptive piece of psychology, but in fact as a set of values for individualistic secular humanism. Let me give a few examples.

Self-Actualization as the ultimate goal: Self-actualization is seen as the ultimate goal and the final thing that will lead to happiness. In our society, a very high value is placed on happiness. For instance, consider the phrases “just do what makes you happy” or “I just want my kids to be happy.” We also place a high value on health, not just physical health, but also psychological health and “wellness.” If, indeed, the only way to happiness and health is to have all of our needs fulfilled and be unimpeded to pursue self-actualization, then self-actualization becomes not just a “good” but a moral imperative. Hence, we are often encouraged to “be yourself.” Other moral imperatives are judged in accordance to this new moral imperative. Such commands as “perform your duty,” “obey God,” “defer to another’s good,” etc. are all understood only in relation to the ultimate goal of health, happiness, and self-actualization.

Sex as a basic need which is fulfilled prior to intimacy: Maslow does not spend much time on this, but he doesn’t have to. The implications of his ordering have obvious implications. Sex is seen as a basic need. Intimacy doesn’t come until later. That this has turned into a moral vision in our society is obvious. Teenage girls are pressured to fill their boyfriends “needs.” On television, in basically every instance, sex is a pre-requisite to “love” let alone marriage. The order often goes sex -> love -> marriage. Any deviation from that ordering (like love -> marriage -> sex) is the exception to the rule.

Devaluing of social morals: The only discussion of ethics or morality in Malsow’s “Theory of Human Motivation” comes in his discussion of frustrating needs gratification. The implication is that it would be “wrong” to stop someone from fulfilling their needs. This seems legitimate in most cases. It would be wrong to take food from a starving man. It would be wrong to attack someone (violating their need for safety). Fathers are told not provoke their children (violating either a safety or a “love” need). However, this reductionist view of morality leaves out most social morals. I’ve already a brief post on this here.

Self-Centered vision of Spiritual Formation: Finally, for those who want to retain some sense of “spirituality” and want to become more “spiritually fulfilled” this model encourages them to turn inward. To reach fulfillment, you must reach self-actualization. This means, so long as your other needs are fulfilled, the best way to find happiness, or to become a better person, is to start on a path of self-discovery. First, you must figure out who you really are. Once you have progressed sufficiently along the path of self-discovery, you can begin the process of self-actualization – becoming the best “you.” To do this you will need to throw off things that hold you back, like fear, character flaws, traditions, beliefs, or maybe even relationships which are no longer helpful to your wellness. All the while you must be looking toward the “self”, to the true “you” who you aim to become. I hope to spend some time in a later post, exploring how this of spiritual formation needs to be corrected from a Biblical perspective.


2 thoughts on “Maslow and Spiritual Formation (Introduction)

  1. Pingback: Incomplete Picture: Nothing but mammals? | The Slasher Pastor

  2. Pingback: Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs: Re-Evaulauted | The Slasher Pastor

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