The Modern World’s Quest for Human Flourishing
One of the unrelenting pre-occupations of the modern world is the quest for the proper recipe for human flourishing. What does human flourishing means? The analogy is taken from the realm of nature. When we speak of something as flourishing, we mean that a certain thing is thriving towards the achievement of its highest potential. What is in the seed of an acorn, for example, is growing to become a majestic oak tree. In this modern quest, the coveted “holy grail” is to uncover what environment is it that best promote the optimal growth for human beings. The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand gives an example of a modern definition:
“Flourishing as defined in international literature is a state where people experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time. In more philosophical terms this means access to the pleasant life, the engaged or good life and the meaningful life. Flourishing is not just a simple measure of happiness or life satisfaction or positive thinking. It requires the development of attributes and social and personal levels that exhibit character strengths and virtues that are commonly agreed across different cultures.”[i]
In such definition, there is the joining together of the concepts of happiness, life’s meaning, social function, and personal development such as of character and skills. One can hear this in the common lingo for this modern hobby, with phrases such as “pursuing happiness,” “realizing your highest potential,” or “living a well-lived life.” An abundance of books that give their own formula for how we should live in order to successfully flourish is constantly being published in our day, with elements that include the practice of meditation, mental health, exercise, self-improvement, economic progress, productivity, among others. This well-rounded, fully integrated life is not a novel pursuit, of course, and had been, in the past, the province of the religious teachers and philosophers, but what is distinctive in the approach is that there is more reliance to a humanistic science and aggressive secularization. For example, Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, says
“The question of how human beings should live in the twenty-first century has many competing answers – and most of them are surely wrong. Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals. A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off but to achieve it, we must first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists.”[ii]
Another thinker of the same conviction, Steven Pinker, says in his book Enlightenment Now,
“Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish. The goal of maximizing human flourishing – life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience – may be called humanism… It is humanism that we should try to achieve with our knowledge. It provides the ought that supplements the is. It distinguishes true progress from mastery.”[iii]
The modern vision of human life is secular because it believes that human beings are autonomous creatures. There is no God who has a blueprint for human life and we are free to define for ourselves own meaning and values without any recourse to divine revelation.
Technically speaking, in this view, there is no human nature other than what we decide it to be – it is merely a social construct, defined by forces of our culture and environment. Yet in spite of the promises of secular humanism, this denial of human nature has led modern societies to great confusions with tragic consequences that are only beginning to unfold in our day! With all the talks about human flourishing, millions of tiny human beings cannot even begin to flourish because they are being killed even from inside the womb! Why? Because only a recognition of the image of God stamped upon human beings can truly sustain an inviolable respect for the inherent dignity of human life! The belief that gender is not an objective feature of human life is not a harmless theory either! You can research the experiment made by John Money, among the earliest theorists of gender fluidity, attempting to nurture a boy as female, creating trauma that led to suicide. The denial of our religious nature as human beings due to naturalistic scientism has led to depressive nihilistic orientation to the world. With all the affluence and comfort that our increasingly urbanized societies offer, modern people are lost with regards the question of how we should live. It is no wonder that there is a rapid increase of depression among our youth. Francis Shaeffer makes this observation,
“People today are trying to hand on to the dignity of man, and they do not know how to because they have lost the truth that man is made in the image of God.”[iv]
This demands that Christians be able articulate their own course for human life and human flourishing in the world that is based on a robust biblical anthropology (view of man).
The Reformation and Human Flourishing
Since this is Reformation month, I invite you to revisit the rich heritage of Reformational teachings that may offer us valuable guide to living in the present modern world.
The assumption of this is that the theological traditions that came out of the Reformation in the 16th century, specifically that of the Reformed, provide us with the integrated life-system, a philosophy for living, that counters the modern humanist way of life. This is the declaration of Abraham Kuyper in his celebrated Stone Lectures, which was published as a book entitled Lectures on Calvinism. “Calvinism” in his lectures does not merely refer to the so-called “Five-Points Doctrine of Grace” but to Reformed Theology as a whole, which in his estimation, the purest and most faithful expression of the very theology of the Scriptures themselves. Kuyper’s diagnosis of the post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment world is as follows,
“Two life systems are wrestling with one another, in mortal combat. Modernism is bound to build a world of its own from the data of nature; while, on the other hand, all those who reverently bend the knee to Christ and worship Him as the Son of the living God, and God Himself, are bent upon saving the ‘Christian Heritage’”
His tactical proposal is to articulate the way of human life that arises out of distinctly Reformational Christian worldview. He proposes,
“If the battle is to be fought with honor and with a hope of victory, then principle must be arrayed against principle; then it must be felt that in Modernism the vast energy of an all-embracing life-system assails us, then also it must be understood that we have to take our stand in a life-system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power. And this powerful life-system is not to be invented nor formulated by ourselves, but is to be taken as it presents itself in history. When thus taken, I found and confessed, and I still hold, that this manifestation of the Christian principle is given us in Calvinism. In Calvinism my heart has found rest. From Calvinism have I drawn the inspiration firmly and resolutely to take my stand in the thick of this great conflict of principles… Calvinism, as the only decisive, lawful, and consistent defence for Protestant nations against encroaching, and overwhelming Modernism, – this of itself is bound to be my theme.”
This strategy arises from his high view of the comprehensiveness of Reformed theology as a way of living. He states,
“Calvinism made its appearance, not merely to create a different Church-form, but an entirely different form of human life, to furnish human society with a different method of existence, and to populate the world of the human heart with different ideals and conceptions.”
I am not advocating for an uncritical reception of Kuyper’s view on Christianity and culture. He is on point, however, in saying that Reformational Theology do offer us a unified way of life that may prove helpful in our present situatedness in the modern world. Many Christians live aspects of their lives more according to the dictates of the modern culture rather than the prescriptions of Christian worldview. There is no integrity in their life because their Christian identity is relegated only to the churchly aspects, rather than comprehending the whole. Reformational faith is the antidote to this because of its belief that God is sovereign over every sphere of human life.
What are the tenets then of this Reformational Theology of human life? For the next posts we will consider three areas of human life that has a rich Protestant heritage: (a) the purpose of human life, (b) vocation, and (c) society.
[i] Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. Flourishing, Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing: How can they be increased?
[ii] Sam Harris. The Moral Landscape
[iii] Steven Pinker. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
[iv] Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason