Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Error Of Human Flourishing As Missiology

Fr. Dale Matson

By mission I mean two things.  First, it is the conscious engagement of churches at local, diocesan, provincial, national and global levels with the challenges and issues that diminish flourishing in the human race. Secondly, mission means taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ across that bridge, so that not only are we seen to be nice people doing nice things (there is a certain amount of British irony about that)  but, with the good wishes, good intentions and helpful hands, there is the love of Christ that constrains us, that drives us forward, and that, when allowed to reign and rule in our individual lives and in the lives of societies and communities, transforms structures and practices and permits human flourishing. (Excerpted from here:  July 2012 +Justin Welby)

Human Flourishing (Eudaimonia) is an ethical term used by Aristotle and others as the highest human good. Reading Dr. Welby’s article was my first exposure to the term. (For a thorough treatment of the concept, I have included the following link.

I have two concerns about human flourishing as I understand +Welby’s use of the term. First, I do not believe human flourishing is the end to which the mission work of the church should be directed. My second concern is that it embraces an unscriptural concept of human nature that perceives humans as basically good. I will get back to this after mentioning another high profile individual who also advocates this missiology.

The Millennium Development Goals seek to end the deep poverty that limits human flourishing. Achieving them would provide concrete examples of the abundant life Jesus insists is the reason he came among us – ‘I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).”
+Katharine Jefferts Schori

Is this why God came and dwelled among us? Is that the Gospel that we are to proclaim? I believe the abundant life for Christ is life in Him. That is what He refers to when He states, “ What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) The Kingdom is not about comfort. It is about conformity to God’s will. Sanctification is not self-actualization, it is self-denial.

Human flourishing is not the end toward which the Gospel is directed. Human flourishing may be a byproduct but it is human focused and not God focused. By proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are God’s messengers who help quicken to life those who are spiritually dead. “When you were dead in your sins and in the Uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” (Colossians 2:13) We are not ashamed of Christ and we proclaim Him as the only way and the only name whereby we are saved. We are not “Jesus followers”. We exist in Him and with Him and by Him.

Human flourishing embraces a false concept of the basic nature of humans. We are not all born basically good. This is humanist doctrine and popular amongst many social scientists like the late Abraham Maslow who believe humans are unfairly exploited by systems that dehumanize them and restrict their access to the abundant life. All we have to do is provide the basics of a quality life and they will choose what is right. The problem is that humans are born broken, contaminated with original sin and their natural direction is self-centered and self-destructive. Our behavior may be influenced by but is not contingent on our environment. Anchorite saints like Julian of Norwich lived an abundant life.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is our missiology. The Word of God is our means. The building of the Kingdom begins with the Cross not human flourishing.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am reminded of something that Fr. Seraphim Rose said: "Suffering is an indication of another Kingdom which we look to. If being Christian meant being “happy” in this life, we wouldn’t need the Kingdom of Heaven." Although, human flourishing is not necessarily happiness and not directly related to Fr. Seraphim's words, it is true that Christ's example of holiness seems to lead to flourishing that goes beyond our humanity itself.

Matthew N. said...

I think that flourishing is worth sticking with a little longer--but perhaps because the term means different things. For Aristotle, eudaimonia meant happiness, flourishing, yes--but this always meant for him living *WELL*--that is to say, being whatever your nature is and being it to the fullest. For Aristotle, at a bare minimum this meant leading a life of reflective virtue; and what truly makes man most blessed and happy is contemplation of the highest and best--namely God.

Now of course Aristotle had a deficient understanding of both God and creation from a Christian perspective (and the linked article goes into some of this). But it seems to me that Christianity keeps more of the basic stance than it appears. The Christian newness is that God is *personal* now, and man's happiness and flourishing cannot be found anywhere *else* than by turning to him and giving yourself totally to him--and this is within the reach of all humans, not just those capable of philosophical leisure.

So if 'flourishing' means 'to be a human being well'; or 'to fulfill the deepest yearning of my nature'; then of course to turn to God is to flourish. It's when we use 'flourish' in a more loose and popular sense--to achieve wealth or skill, friends, or the MDGs--that confusion can emerge. All of these things we could call 'aspects' of human flourishing but not its essence, not its summit. Those who advance the gospel of 'flourishing' nowadays are really just using this very traditional ethical language for a disingenuous use--cutting God OUT of the equation of flourishing, or at the very least trying to bracket him out--and then make the business of the Church these other components alone. Aristotle alone could correct this error--good food contributes to flourishing, yes; but to make good food a higher good than it is, or the highest, is to distort it, to become vicious, and to fail to flourish. In this regard Aristotle nicely anticipates Augustine's 'disordered love'.

Dale Matson said...

Matthew N.
Very informed and thoughtful post."Those who advance the gospel of 'flourishing' nowadays are really just using this very traditional ethical language for a disingenuous use--cutting God OUT of the equation of flourishing, or at the very least trying to bracket him out--and then make the business of the Church these other components alone." The recent business of the church has also been sustainability of the environment and its protection from carbon life forms. Pro environment is often anti-human.

Dale Matson said...

An example that illustrates my last sentence is when a standard designed to limit access and use in Yosemite (National Park designation) is then further restricted by declaring the Merced River a "Wild River". The Merced is not threatened as it runs through Yosemite under the current standards.