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Art and Dangerous Ideas: Maslow

Art and Dangerous Ideas: Maslow

Creatives find inspiration everywhere, but how do we discern the line between our art and dangerous ideas. Maslow is one of the figures who has influenced the art world, academia and even the Christian community. We have been taught about his hierarchy in schools, but rarely does anyone ask where art and creativity fit into his hierarchy, much less if it fits a biblical approach to life and creativity.

Maslow Missed Art, Beauty and Belonging

“Many pastors depend on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
to decide how churches should minister—even though it’s been debunked.”

(Christianity Today: May 18, 2018)

The research and studies in recent years have shown us that Maslow was misguided, and does not end up being helpful in science, art, or in discussions of faith. This has profound implications for Christians and for creatives. I will expound on this as you read this article, but it is important that you recognize that the hierarchy Maslow proposed is not something which should inform your art, your faith, or your life. Why? It simply doesn’t fit with reality, science, or with the arts.

The Basic Idea: Maslow’s Hierarchy

Maslow sought to create a paradigm for self-actualization. His focus was in taking people who grew up poor like he did, and clarifying what it takes for someone to live a satisfied life. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were presented in a pyramid. He claimed all human beings have these same desires in this order:

• Our basic physical needs (air, heat, water, food, shelter, etc.).
• Our safety needs (health, personal, emotional, and financial security).
• Our need to be loved and to belong (family, friendships and acceptance).
• Our need for self-esteem (respect),
• Our need for self-actualization (life goals).

As each need is satisfied, the next higher level in the hierarchy dominates the thinking of that man or woman. When people start to feel a certain need, it is because the lower needs have been met.

Maslow Was Wrong About Art & Beauty

If Maslow was right, only wealthy, accomplished, stable people who have wonderful communities would value or value beauty or purchase art. By Maslow’s model, poor people could not and would not desire a walk in the park until their stomach is full and there is heating in their home.

If Maslow was right, central park in New York, or Griffith Park in L.A. would only be enjoyed by the most wealthy, accomplished and relationally healthy people in those cities. But if you have ever visited those parks for one day, you would notice something peculiar and wonderful – people of all walks of life and socio-economic strata LOVE these parks. In these parks, the beauty of life is equally meaningful and accessible.

If Maslow was right, no one would buy anything or seek out anything beautiful until all other needs are met. Only the wealthy would buy something because it is beautiful. But this is patently false. When I volunteered in Haiti, it was the poorest country in the world with the worst economy. And yet, these people who had almost nothing, wanted beautiful clothing, and sought to beautify their homes with whatever they could. And they enjoyed the beauty of their Island.

Poor people in dirt huts find ways to decorate their bodies and to beautify their clothing. People who cannot afford rare art, buy cheap prints of Van Gogh, or listen to beautiful music on their phone. And even if we can’t take a trip to Fiji, or to the Swiss Alps, we enjoy looking at stunning photos of those places on Instagram. The truth is, beauty feeds us deeply. Beauty is not for the privileged, nor are we ambivalent to beauty just because our bank accounts are low and our careers are stuck.

Maslow Was Wrong About Belonging

First, multi-cultural studies have shown that different cultures do not have the same priorities when it comes to human needs. Researchers have demonstrated that Maslow’s idea is not universal, and therefore unfounded as scientific.

Second, we need to acknowledge other research conclusions. UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman makes the case that Maslow was wrong. Lieberman clarifies how “belonging” is far more essential, and physical needs are not the foundation of our human needs. In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Lieberman demonstrates through his research that our social bonds are the most essential need we have for survival.

This is also echoed in books by Curt Thompson, such as The Anatomy of the Soul. Curt is a Christian author, and clinical psychologist who interweaves insights from interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) and a Biblical perspective. Curt demonstrates our deepest longing from the moment of birth is this: “we are all looking for someone, looking for us.” Initially we find it in our mother as she breast-feeds us, then in other family members. And then, eventually in God, who was looking for us since the world began and sent his son in order to be with us. Thus, our deepest desire to belong, directs our hearts to God.

Maslow Was Wrong About Faith

Maslow was a key contributor to the field of humanistic psychology, and developed the idea the core focus of humanity is “self-actualization.” As several biographers have noted (i.e., Hoffman, 1988), Maslow was proud to be an atheist, and had a great distrust for Religion. His entire worldview was anchored in a view that rejects God. Looking at his childhood, we should have sympathy for him, while examining his practice and worldview in light of biblical principles.

Maslow’s mother was religious and harsh. Not only were they poor, but the one thing he remembered most about his mother’s belief was how she threatened him with God’s wrath when he was misbehaving. The stories of his growing up can be quite graphic (a story of his mom killing the cats, which he was trying to feed, is a particularly horrific event). It was a home where there was no grace, only law. This is a recipe to turn anyone away from religion or from God, and that is exactly the impact it had on Maslow.

Maslow made this quite clear, “the whole thrust of my life-philosophy and all my research and theorizing also has its roots in a hatred for and revulsion against everything she stood for (Her faith and belief in God).” (pg. 9; Maslow cited in Hoffman’s Biography, 1988) It should be no surprise that his theories were God-less and operated in a world view absent of any spiritual dimension.

Towards a Corrective: A Biblical Hierarchy

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
– St. Augustine, from his book, Confessions

We were made to have a relationship with God and with others. This is demonstrated in the Garden of Eden narratives in the beginning of the Bible and is echoed in Jesus’ answer to the question about the greatest commandments.

“The anchor of our life is found in being in the presence of God.”

-Joel Pelsue

After the fall, this required forgiveness and love which only God can fully grant, through Jesus Christ. From this sense of belonging (adoption), and community with others (fellowship), we are able to love others. This is true, no matter your social strata, health, or kind of need. This is where the Gospel addresses our hearts first.

Consider the priorities which Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” 

— Matthew 6:25 

The Bible is rich with stories that surprise and capture our imagination, and they do not match Maslow’s paradigm.

– Abraham left everything to serve God.
– Moses took the risk of going back to Egypt when he was safe.
– The Apostle Paul rejoiced in his suffering.

The greatest example: Jesus

Jesus gave up everything and was willing to be sacrificed. And we are called to imitate Christ. Consider what Paul tells us in Philippians 2:5-8,

5 In your relationships with one another,
have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature, God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;

7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The Opportunity for Artists and Creatives of Faith

The world is aching for grace, for love and for forgiveness. Whether they know it or not, these longings are inviting their very souls to seek a relationship with The God of the Universe. Only God can give them true peace, hope, joy and meaning. And who has the gifting and capacity to uniquely whet their appetite for heaven? You! God has given you creative talents for a reason.

God rejoices in you honing your gifts, seeking excellence, and in expressing what He has put in your heart.

The questions God is inviting us to ponder:

– How can you use your gifts to awaken others to their longing for God?

– What can you do to show your audience how beauty is not only a gift to all, but is also meant to create within us a longing for heaven?

(Let me know in the comments…)

One final Scripture to encourage you:

“And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

-The Words of Christ, from Matthew 6:28-30

May we celebrate The True, The Good, and The Beautiful, which all emanate from the character of God himself! 

Copyright © 2023 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

2 comments on “Art and Dangerous Ideas: Maslow”

  1. Wendy Reply

    Well, goes to show Gods ways are not our ways. Maslow uses very convincing logic quite frankly. But thank goodness God’s word shows us He is no respecter of persons. This demonstrates to me that God is deep, rich and loving. And we can deeply respect the things people create in their lives which reflect his beauty. And the impulse to desire belonging, when directed to His arms is equally innate.
    I appreciate the highlighting of these principles demonstrating that we are created in His image!

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