Institute of Christian Teaching
Education Department of Seventh-day Adventists
ABRAHAM MASLOW'S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS:
A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Andrew A. Pfeifer
School of Education
Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
339-98 Institute for Christian Teaching
12501 Old Columbia Pike
Silver Spring, MD 20904 USA
The 22' Integration Faith and Learning Seminar
Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen, Austria
'See to it that no one takes you captive
through hollow and deceptive philosophy,
which depends on human tradition
and the basic principles of this world
rather than Christ. "
-Colossians 2:8 NIV
One of the most commonly adopted theories regarding human needs, motivation, and
learning is Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The western world in particular has based
much of its work in educational, business, and motivational theories on the assumptions that
Maslow began developing in the late 1950's and continued until his death in 1970.
Ewart Woolridge goes so far as to call Maslow the "high priest" of needs and motivation
and his theories are widely accepted and used. His theory is attractive, according to Woolridge,
because it "provides a practical and understandable picture" of needs theory.1
1 Woolridge, Ewart. "Time to stand Maslow's hierarchy on its head? People Management.
December 21, 1995.
Maslow has long been recognized as a leading voice for the humanist movement and his
hierarchy of needs theory is a classic example of the humanist philosophy at work. Maslow's
work has slowly become accepted as fact and is no longer given much critical thought or
evaluation, even in Christian schools where a little critique by teachers and students ought to
produce some concern or at least raise questions.
Christian schools need to develop critical Christian scholars rather than mere academic
consumers who believe whatever the newest theory is. The end result of a Christian classroom
where faith and learning are truly integrated needs to be the development of critically thinking
Christian students who look intelligently at the world around them through the wisdom and
discernment of a Christian worldview.
James Sire calls for critical thinking when he writes, "It is these (unexamined
presuppositions) which we need to identify, analyze, and critique if we are to integrate our faith
and academic study."2Parker Palmer in his extraordinary book, To Know as We are Known puts
it this way, "The way we teach depends on the way we think people know, we cannot amend our
pedagogy until our epistemology is transformed."3
In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden argues for creating
schools that teach and promote the highest levels of Christian critical thought.4Arthur Holmes
also calls for Christian colleges to become both more Christian and more intellectual, saying in
effect that Christian education's work is not yet complete nor finished.5
2 Sire, James. Discipleship of the mind. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
3 Palmer, Parker J. To know as we are known. San Francisco, CA: Harper SanFrancisco, 1993.
4 Marsden, George M. The outrageous idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
5 Holmes, Arthur F. The idea of a Christian college. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,
During the 22nd Faith and Learning Seminar sponsored by the Institute for Christian
Teaching held at Bogenhofen Seminary, Austria where this paper was first presented, quality
Christian critical thinking was called for repeatedly. Gary Land stated that, "we must evaluate
these ideas critically."6 Land was addressing the idea of postmodemism but the point is made,
critical thinking is needed in Christian education. Land again called for Christian scholarship in
his second presentation, stating any subject that requires our utmost effort needs to be taken
seriously and examined Christianly as we seek for truth.7
Leonard Brand also took the opportunity this seminar provided to emphasize the
importance of critical Christian scholarship by writing, "Teach students to think critically, and
evaluate what they are reading. Help students learn to recognize the difference between data,
interpretation, and assumptions... search for a reinterpretation, based on Christian assumptions."8
Enrique Becerra put it succinctly, "Bluntly put, spiritual development does not take place
without critical thinking."9
6 Land, Gary. "Postmodernism: A Christian reflection." Paper presented at the 22nd Integration of Faith and
Learning seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminary, Austria, 1998.
7 Land, Gary. "A biblical-Christian approach to the study of history." Paper presented at the 22nd Integration of
Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminary, Austria, 1998.
8 Brand, Leonard. "Christianity and science." Paper presented at the 22nd Integration of Faith and Learning
Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminary, Austria, 1998.
9 Becerra, Enrique. "The role of an Adventist school in the spiritual development of students." Paper presented at
the 221 Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminary, Austria, 1998.
Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and more recently, J.P.
Moreland, Mark Noll, R.C. Sproul, are joined by secular authors in calling for a further
development of our critical thinking skills.10 Stanley 1. Greenspan in The Growth of the Mind
warns of the decline in our culture's creative and analytic abilities and suggests that Western
culture needs to encourage critical thinking skills in school and at home.11
Simply put, we need to learn how to think critically and as Christians we need to take this
educational challenge very seriously. An examination of Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory can
provide an example of Christian scholarship at work.
Abraham Maslow: The Man and His Theory
"Children make themselves into something."
Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970) was born in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at
the City College of New York and the University of Wisconsin. Maslow taught psychology for
14 years at Brooklyn College where he was one of few professors who cared for any of the
10 See C.S. Lewis, The abolition of man, The case for Christianity, An experiment in criticism, and Mere
Christianity; Francis Schaeffer, A Christian manifesto, The mark of a Christian, and How should we then live?; J.P.
Moreland, Love your God with all your mind and Scaling the secular city; Mark Noll, The scandal of the
evangelical mind; and R.C. Sproul, Renewing your mind and Lifeviews.
11 "Greenspan, Stanley I. with Beryl Lieff Benderly. The growth of the mind Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1997.
12 "Maslow, Abraham H. The farther reaches of human nature. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.
largely immigrant student body. The students deeply appreciated his concern for them and
Maslow quickly became the most popular teacher there. So popular in fact that he was called the
"Frank Sinatra of Brooklyn College."13 Maslow eventually moved to Brandeis University where
he spent the remainder of his teaching career. It was at Brandeis that Maslow developed a theory
of motivation describing the process by which an individual progresses from basic needs such as
food and water to the highest needs, which he called "self-actualization," or the fulfillment of
one's greatest human potential.
Maslow's definition of self-actualization came from his studies of exemplary people such
as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass. This was a radical
departure from the chief schools of psychology of the era. Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner
were the leaders of the day where the study of mentally ill or neurotic people or animals was the
norm. Maslow felt that Freud saw little difference between the motivations of humans and
animals. We are supposedly rational beings; however we do not act that way. )While Freud has
made a great many significant contributions to the study of psychology, Maslow argued that
Freud's work was overly pessimistic and a "crippled philosophy." Skinner, on the other hand,
studied how pigeons and white rats learned. Maslow observed that Skinner's motivational
models were based on simple rewards such as food and water, sex and avoidance of pain.
Command your dog to sit and give the dog a treat when s/he sits or punishment when the dog
does not obey and after several repetitions of the command to sit s/he will sit when you
command him/her to do so. Skinner also has contributed much to furthering our understanding of
how the mind works and the study of motivation but Maslow thought that psychologists should
instead study the playfulness and affections of animals and people.
13 "Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and personality (3rd edition). New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1970.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs provided an alternative to the depressing determinism he
found in Freud and Skinner. Maslow felt that people were basically trustworthy, self-protecting,
and self-governing. Humans tend toward growth and love, and although there is a continuous
cycle of war, murder, and deceit, Maslow believed that human nature was not meant to be
violent. Violence and other evils occur when human needs are thwarted. In other words, people
who are deprived of basic needs such as food or safety may provide for their needs or defend
themselves by violent means. Maslow did not believe that humans are violent because they enjoy
violence, or that they cheat, lie, or steal because they like doing so.
It is worth noting that Maslow arrived at these conclusions by observing that animals
functioned within fundamental patterns of needs. He proposed that mankind was an evolved
animal and applied the instinctive behavior of the animal kingdom to mankind.14
Theorists such as Maslow believe that learning is growth. As Christian educators, we
need to better understand what motivates students in order to encourage growth thereby
encouraging learning. Maslow believed that the best way to learn and grow as human beings is
to work our way up through the levels in his hierarchy, eventually arriving at a point of complete
Maslow's theory promotes individualism and became a cornerstone for the rise of
humanism in the sixties and seventies. Henry Lamberton comments that Maslow's contributions
to humanism in part caused people to feel that their only public duty was to follow their own
interests as far as possible, limited only by the rule that we do not unfairly limit the freedom of
14 Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a psychology of being (2nd edition). New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
15 Lamberton, Henry. "Thoughts on the integration of psychology and religion." Paper presented as the 221
Integration of Faith and Learning Seminar: Bogenhoffen Seminary, Austria, 1998.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs originally distinguished five levels of needs that must be
satisfied in order to produce a healthy, fully-functioning human being. Near the end of his life,
Maslow added two levels, cognitive and aesthetic.16 If one or more of Maslow's needs is not
satisfied, Elizabeth Puttick writes, "the individual will tend to be arrested at that developmental
stage, unable to progress to further stages until that need is met."17
Maslow's original levels of need
Maslow's revised levels of need
Maslow's hierarchy of needs theorizes that each of these levels must be adequately
satisfied starting at physiological needs and working toward self-actualization needs. Finally one
arrives at the same level of development as such Maslow examples of self-actualization as
Einstein and Roosevelt.
16 O'Connell, April and Vincent O'Connell. Choice and growth: The psychology of holistic growth, adjustment, and
creativity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.
17 Puttick, Elizabeth. "A new typology and sociological model of religion based on the needs and values model of
Abraham Maslow." Journal of Beliefs and Values. November, 1997.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Since Maslow's theory of needs begins by addressing the lower level needs and working
your way up his hierarchy, we will define his terms in that order as well. These definitions were
developed from Shunk (1996) and O'Connell (1992).18
Figure 2. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Physiological needs. These are the basic body needs for continued existence, such as food,
water, and air. People deprived of these needs will seek to satisfy them by any means possible,
including working for slave wages, begging, and stealing.
Safety needs. To grow and learn we need to feel secure in our lives and jobs. We need certain
stability in our lives. We need some structure and order in our everyday living such as a safe
place to rest our heads and nourish our souls, a "territorial" place that is ours, were we are safe
and warm. A castle of protection, as it were.
Belonging needs. "Often refer-red to as love and belonging needs," human beings are social by
nature seeking out groups or individuals to form partnerships, friendships, and alliances with.
Humankind is driven to find companionship and love.
Esteem needs. Most human beings need to feel not just loved but needed By their community.
We need to feel that we can contribute something worthwhile. For some this need for esteem will
be satisfied through great achievement, as a teacher, administrator, or scientist. Others may find
these needs satisfied by being a patron of the arts or serving on a school board. Still others may
choose to help in noble causes such as saving the planet's ecology, helping orphaned children, or
going on missionary trips.
Cognitive needs. These needs have to do with how we understand the world around us. We seek
knowledge, we have a curios mind. Human being desire to uncover the facts, to know the
"truth," to discover the laws of the universe and everything within it, including ourselves and
18 Shunk, Dale H. Learning theories (21 edition). New York: Harper & Row, 1996. O'Connell, 1992.
Aesthetic needs. Our needs for order, symmetry, design, harmony, and beauty. If we cannot
express a satisfactory aesthetic statement ourselves, we will try to satisfy this need by through
the work of others, whether it be art, music, poetry, film, or another medium.
Self-actualization. Achieved when one can embody the highest potential that s/he is capable of
reaching. Once all the other needs are taken care of, there remains a yearning to explore and to
actualize our individual talents and gifts, to be expressive, creative, dynamic selves with the
freedom to master our fate or perhaps to experience that overwhelming and mystical sense of
being in perfect harmony and at one with the universe.
There is a great deal of truth in Maslow's theory and that is why it has been so widely
adopted into Western education and business practices. However I believe Maslow is misguided.
As a critically thinking Christian, I cannot help but critique his hierarchy for failing to recognize
that animal instinct is not always noble or good and that humanity cannot transcend base animal
instinct without divine assistance and inspiration.
A Christian Response to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
"But seek ye first His kingdom and His righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well."
-Matthew 6:33 NIV
Maslow places his hierarchy of needs in a triangle-shape. This implies a few things: the
lower level needs such as physiological, safety, belonging, and esteem take up more space and
effort to satisfy than the upper levels, which seem to be less consuming or at least more focused.
Maslow held that man would nobly move up his pyramid, eventually arriving at a humanistic
god-like state of complete self-actualization. I hold that Maslow is overly optimistic in his
estimate of what motivates man. There are many who do enjoy doing wrong purely for the joy or