Human Flourishing

Human Flourishing. There’s a lot of talk about it recently in Church of England circles.

Can anyone point me to a Scriptural argument for it? Can anyone even point me to a scriptural definition?

Thank you kindly.

Human Flourishing

19 Comments on “Human Flourishing

    • We often use a phrase ‘in good spirits’ to connote mental well-being and that’s a transliteration of eudaimonia. One writer gives the literal meaning of eudaimonia as a state of ‘being protected and looked after by a benevolent deity’ (eudaimonia: Wikipedia).

      While Greek philosophers debated the means by which this state could be achieved, they all agreed on the goal of achieving one’s highest potential in the fullest command of our human faculties: arete, or virtue. Eudaimonia is self-actualisation.

      Notably, another writer explains the achievement of potential, i.e. virtue or arete in this way: ‘The concept implies a human-centered universe in which human actions are of paramount importance; the world is a place of conflict and difficulty, and human value and meaning is measured against individual effectiveness in the world.’

      For Epicureans, to think that the gods would stoop down to concern themselves with and intervene in human affairs was an idea unworthy of their transcendence. Instead, the goal of life was to achieve enduring imperturbable contentment: one in which pain and suffering are minimised.

      In contrast, the Stoics laid greater emphasis on the moral qualities that constituted a virtuous being. Any well-being or actions associated with achieving virtue were secondary, as were the Christian virtues of compassion, forgiveness, meekness and self-sacrifice. The reason was that the latter might betray an overwrought concern for the fate of others.

      There is no link between eudaimonia with agape-love. I shall extend practical help to others, if and only if it contributes to my achievement of my full potential. The Greek concept of human flourishing would emphasize a measure of personal detachment in marked contrast to St.Paul’s ‘body of Christ’ theology.

      We also believe Christ’s silence was not prompted by a resolve to remain unperturbed by circumstances beyond his control. His silence was full restraint from self-protection in order to fulfil the demands of divine justice on behalf of humanity. He was resolved to do the will of God, knowing that He would be vindicated in resurrection. So, far from imperturbable calm, He, who knew no sin, cried out in the agony of being made sin for us: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

      Most strikingly, the St. Paul’s hymn in Philippians probably represents the major fault line between Christian and Greek thought:

      ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
      Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
      But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant,
      and was made in the likeness of men:
      And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself,
      and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’

      In the Greek world-view, there is no redeeming virtue in abandoning the pursuit of what is proper to one’s self-evident nature (the form of God for the form of man).
      If unquenchable life is proper to Christ’s pre-existent nature, to die is firstly wholly incongruous with that nature, and to be executed in such agonising despair is the penalty for not coming to terms with the reality of one’s life in the context of society. Such a death appears to serve no purpose. Such an end would be more proof to them of unfulfilled potential, rather than virtue. For Greeks, to deny what is true of one’s underlying nature, for any reason, is unforgiveable.

      • …but isn’t Jesus’ death on the cross the very pinnacle of self-actualisation/eudaimonia, the very reason he came? So would it not fulfill his underlying nature?

          • The whole point of Jesus’ coming was to begin a new covenant steeped in mercy and grace and not in acts. Jesus came to the world to die for it. To then die – is that not the fulfilment of purpose?

            • Thanks for posing a very interesting question.

              As with so many other institutional ‘big ideas’, human flourishing is being applied pervasively to church action. It has become the philosophical underpinning of current CofE policy on issues as far ranging as human development and sexuality.

              It’s important to acknowledge that theologians have not lifted the idea wholesale from classical philosophy. From the scholastic writers to Johnathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis and Archbishop Justin Welby, all have added nuanced perspectives in relation to human flourishing. For them, flourishing embraces important Christian virtues as much as classical ones.

              However, the motive for this virtue is still centred on the attainment of individual excellence in a manner that is congruent with a person’s self-evident nature. It is a natural law proposition.

              In stark contrast, the humiliation of the cross was in its complete incongruence with the sinless humanity and divine nature of Christ: ‘Tis mystery all, Th’immortal dies!’

              Yes, He fulfilled His destiny, but the cross itself contradicted self-actualisation. It was self-abnegation.

              We can re-phrase your question in this way: ‘if a person accomplishes their mission for which they were sent, namely to die on the cross, does that not constitute self-actualisation?’

              There are two key aspects of a Christian response to this.

              Firstly, the scripture says that Christ’s mission was not the cross in itself. Enduring a humiliating execution was not the goal, but it was the cost of the goal: ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.‘ (Heb. 12:2)

              That joy is the recovery of the universe to God, with all worlds, his followers and, in some cases, unwitting sheep from all ages and civilisations, all restored to perfection through Christ having fully answered the accuser’s probing question: ‘Does man serve God for nothing?’ (or put more subtly: ‘Does God love man for nothing?’) The cross declares that God, prioritises seeking our best interest, salvation from our own sins, unconditionally. Unconditional love is not mere silence in the face of what deceives and separates us from God.

              We also pray that, if and when, the hedge of providence appears removed from around our lives, we will exclaim with Job: ‘though He slay me, yet will I trust Him’

              We are entering into an area of mystery, but for Christ to have died as St. Paul describes, any thought of self-actualisation would have to be obliterated by His yielded will to please His Father, however repulsive to His nature and whatever the cost to Himself.

              We are also told in Hebrews that ‘even Christ learned obedience through the things that He suffered’.

              Even there, obedience is not highlighted as an end in itself; the end was not individual, but relational: the love of God and those whom He came to save.

              Loving God in this way is not cheap, especially when He may permit the temporally hideous to afflict us, contradict our personal aspirations for His good pleasure and may appear to hide his favour from us.

              This is the cost of loving God as He is and not as we might idealise Him to be.

              Can we look on the unpalatable and divinely permitted tragedies of ancient and recent history, the natural disasters that destroy children with their parents and still love and trust Him?

              Can we entrust our eternal future to this God who is capable, in this life, of annihilating whole societies, including children, on an epic scale, only to allow tyrannical despots, like Pinochet, who commission torture and mass-murder to end their days in relative luxury?

              Can we believe that God will call on us to sacrifice the most precious aspirations in our lives to Him, just because His prophets declare that He wills it? The Christian response should be ‘Yes! Nothing matters more.’

              My second issue with human flourishing is that it is being marketed to become the psychosocial equivalent of the prosperity gospel. Just like prosperity gospel preachers, we can align Old and New Testament passages with the ego-intoxicating (aka life-affirming) man-centred concept of eudaimonia in order to suggest that, in Christ, the goal of the gospel is to secure human flourishing for all people in this life. This is false, since we, instead of God, become the self-measured arbiters of what is proper to our nature. We also begin to define virtue by distinguishing the characteristics that prompt our behaviour from the behaviour itself. Euthanasia, abortion for inconvenience and even vigilantism can all be justified by the claimed ethical motives. This is what drives the ‘permanent, faithful and stable’ mantra.

              The goal of the gospel is reconciliation on God’s terms, not ours. Yet, setting any facilitated discussion within the context of human flourishing will do two things.

              In respect of the church’s historical opposition to same-sex relations, it will isolate extreme support and opposition and give a louder political voice to moderates, who want peace at any price. It did this for the Women Bishops Steering Committee.

              As an aside, I would suggest that staunch opponents of gay marriage should tread carefully. Facilitators impelled to counteract historic homophobia by give more time to hear the ‘lived experience’ of gay couples and be ‘stunned’ by their commitment to each other, yet dismiss their patent disregard for the sacramental significance of sexual differentiation in the context of God’s creation ordinance. And, of course, to the average pew-warmer, more concerned with ‘feel-good’ community participation and dwindling congregations, than Christ’s ‘it was not so from the beginning’ principle, the latter is of little consequence.

              It is also designed to prioritise the sense of acceptance of minority behaviour in their own terms over and above any theological misgivings. It about making minority groups feel better about themselves at the expense of the majority who are expected to treat same-sex behaviour as morally neutral.

              Paul says: ‘knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.’

              In conclusion, some highlight that if the ultimate goal of Christ’s life was to endure the torture of the cross, it points to His motive of self-actualisation.

              The cross in itself was not Christ’s goal, it was His Father’s will.

              But the purpose of the cross was never self-actualisation.

  1. I have come that they may have life and abundance.

    I think there is a lot in the Bible which resonates with the idea of people flourishing, such as the John 10:10 quote. But you pose a good question because when I come to think about the resonances, there is always a slight discordance with “human flourishing”.

    • That’s because of the phrase itself: if “human flourishing” is a human invention, then it is simply man referring to man – a kind of existential navel-gazing. If we instead see it as being the pursuit of instrinsic human goods (which would necessarily include having a relationship with God), then “human flourishing” is a gift from God.

      But to answer Peter’s questions, no and no :)

  2. Could you link human flourishing with the creation mandate (Gen 1:28, or the reiteration as part of the Noahic covenant in Gen 9)? Flourishing is a tricky word to pin down, I don’t think it’s a Biblical one.

    However you define it, I don’t think Christians are at liberty to say it can happen independently of a relationship with God. It seems that true human ‘flourishing’ is only found in radical self-denial and following of Christ to the cross – Mark 8:35.

  3. The lack of a scriptural definition or direct use of “human flourishing” ought not to trouble us too much – the whole trouble with homoousios was that it isn’t a scriptural word, yet salvation depends on its truth.

    I would suggest that the whole tenor of scripture is that quality of life in this world matters – care for the fatherless and widow etc. But it’s another matter (and this is the nub of your excellent question) to work out what elements do and don’t constitute the high quality of life which God wants for us. Presumably the basics necessary to keep body and soul together (and enough to be free of worry in that area), but then what?

    Surely the life of the Trinity gives us a lead – relationships: with God, and with each other. Being in the Body of Christ entails relationships; if our relationships are lacking or deformed, it might be argued that this demonstrates that we are not truly in the Body of Christ.

    And if we want to know what those relationships should look like (and thus what “human flourishing” looks like), then surely we look to Jesus. Obedience to the will of the Father, constant prayer, love for neighbour including preaching the Gospel by word and deed; that kind of stuff. This is a personal rather than propositional definition of human flourishing.

    We won’t find a propositional definition in scripture, but it’s not wrong to talk in these terms, so long as we are clear what we mean by them theologically. This may give us a very different result than secularists who use the term – and that’s where we need to be very careful. A large part of the debate over sexuality seems to me to be based on conflicting views of what world-view informs our “definition” of human flourishing.

    • The issue is surely that even though ‘quality of life in this world matters’ and we are enjoined to use our resources to alleviate affliction, we still need to grapple with whether moral priorities should override individual aspirations for self-fulfilment.

      This issue goes beyond deciding what constitutes a high quality of life. There are instances when in order to discover how to flourish eternally, a person may have to experience social deprivations and even communal rejection that may affect their quality of life in this world.
      Does that make those deprivations desirable per se? No. for instance, the loss of freedom that imprisonment entails is not desirable in this sense. The loss of the esteem of former friends and neighbours is also undesirable.
      My conviction from all that has been said is for the church to establish a common orientation-free baseline of human flourishing, probably along the lines of Ryff’s six-factor psychological model of well-being (a model that is derived from eudaimonia): Autonomy, Self-acceptance, Positive relations, Environmental mastery, Purpose in life, Personal growth.
      Once agreed, it becomes the duty of all churches to view any behaviour that accomplishes these aspirations as not only morally neutral, but morally beneficial. ‘After all’, some will say, ‘haven’t we agreed that this is what human flourishing looks like.’
      However, the idea that, in order to encourage human flourishing, the church becomes hostage to a patent disregard for apostolic doctrine in favour of ensuring that it doesn’t undermine a person’s self-esteem is not biblical.
      I take no issue with concepts that lack a propositional biblical definition. I do take issue with those that tend to nullify the tough bits of the ‘whole counsel of God’ revealed through the writings of the chosen apostles.
      As I said, human flourishing is a psychosocial prosperity gospel.

      • I totally agree that “aspirations for self-actualisation” look very much like “a psychological prosperity gospel” (a really wonderful expression; thank you). This must be avoided.

        The distinction should be between true and apparent human flourishing. For the Church the former must be based on the life of Jesus, the general teaching of scripture, and the Apostolic witness. True flourishing (in this world, not just the next) may well come at the cost of worldly deprivations. We have thousands of years of wisdom on the subject. To disregard this because of a recent trend is pretty odd, I suggest. Doesn’t mean the Church can’t realize that this new idea is good, just that it’s right for us to take time over it – and suggests the current presumption that we won’t necessarily accept the new.

        • I agree on that distinction.

          This will be the underlying struggle to be heard in our facilitated discussions. We need ground rules that ensure that the facilitator does not indefinitely ‘park’ any discussion of doctrinal implications in order to give undue emphasis to defining human flourishing in terms of psychosocial well-being alone.

          • I agree that doctrinal implications must be a full part of the process if it is to command any respect within the Church.

            Perhaps the belief of some in the discussions that homosexual acts are normal/not sinful/good-within-same-sex-marriage should be one of those “cherished beliefs” that are capable of being given up. Unless all sides in a discussion start with the presumption of being open to change, the discussion cannot be expected to progress and find common ground. This principle has to apply to all equally.

            • Bernard,

              You might have misunderstood me. I don’t see why there should be surrender of ‘cherished beliefs’ on either side. Yet, as the national church, a conversation means that both sides can tell their stories, and not just those supporting a wholesale affirmation of gay sexuality in church.

              One corollary that can be developed from the verdict of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) is that freedom must be exercise in such a manner as to prevent offence against the consciences of those who have as healthy a respect for earlier prophetic and apostolic ministries recorded in the scriptures as we do for our current episcopal polity.

              There is a reason why the New Testament Godfearers were cautioned to ‘abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood’. It was to ensure that they did not unwittingly undermine the divine testimony expressed through the Old Testament prophets: ‘For from early generations, Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues’. While the law cannot save us, ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin’.

              While a lack of circumcision would not have caused immediate offence, but behaviour and rituals conducted in open contradiction to the revelation of the major prophets would.

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