Economics 101 & Theology 101

A Christological Vision for Human Flourishing

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If we were to walk across any college campus in America, chances are strong we would come across a discussion that in some form relates to human flourishing. At the time of writing this article, a quick Google search using the words human flourishing produces 163,000,000 potential search results. If you put the words “human flourishing” in quotation marks, emphasizing both words as one phrase, you still receive over 4,000,000 possible search results.

Increasingly, universities and seminaries are offering degree programs that focus on aspects of human flourishing. 

  • Both Harvard Divinity School and Candler School of Theology at Emory University offer a master’s degree in Religion and Public Life. 
  • Fuller Seminary has a master’s program in Justice and Advocacy. 
  • Regent University School of Law offers a couple degrees that specialize in Human Rights. 
  • According to their website, Baylor University has five signature academic initiatives,  one of which is Human Flourishing, Leadership, and Ethics. 

Human flourishing is the talk of the town and rightfully so. Every person is made in the image of God, and we want to see every person flourish. 

What Is Human Flourishing?

What is human flourishing? Research centers have been organized to expand the knowledge about human flourishing. Harvard University has the Human Flourishing Program, and according to their website, “The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science aims to study and promote human flourishing, and to develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines.” 

Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program focuses on well-being in five areas: “happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.” The implication is that satisfaction in each of these five areas would equal or at least contribute to human flourishing. 

These are all wonderful things, and Christians should be, and often are, the first to support ways to enhance the well-being of people all over the world. After all, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in Him?” (1 Jn. 3:17 ESV) 

Christians must be at the forefront of service to our neighbors throughout the world, and anything that helps us love our neighbors better should be applauded. Whether intentionally secular or sacred, we should get behind any opportunity to enhance the lives of all image bearers of God. 

It is also true that a good thing can become an idol if it is removed from its proper place and from its intended design. As an example, a vision of sexual human flourishing on most college campuses will differ greatly from the vision offered in scripture. A vision of happiness in our fast-paced and self-indulgent culture will likely differ from the vision of happiness described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Human flourishing is wonderful, but anthropology without a vibrant theology is homeless because it has no purpose other than self-assigned motivations that will likely change from one culture and one time period to the next. 

Why Flourishing Isn’t Complete Without Christ

The contribution of Christianity to the discussion of human flourishing centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Secular philosophy and emphasis on human flourishing can do a lot of good things, but something will still be missing. 

With all our efforts to see every person flourish, we are still sinful human beings who are often led by selfish ambitions. To ask rhetorically, “How often have we done good things for others at least in part because it made us feel or look better?” There is nothing wrong with feeling good about doing good, but no matter how much good we do, we are unable to divorce ourselves from our sinful nature. We need help to truly flourish.

In his book, Jesus the Great Philosopher, Dr. Jonathan Pennington highlights the brilliance of Jesus’ teachings. He writes, “In comparison with the Christian philosophy, all other views on relationships, emotions, and happiness are fractional and incomplete (and sometimes just flat wrong).” 

The creation narrative in Genesis suggests not only that there is a God, but that God created this world with a beautiful design and purpose. Flourishing occurs when we work within the bounds of that design because the design has its foundation in the goodness and sovereignty of God. We can trust that the design for our lives is good and effective because we know the character of the designer. God knows what is best for our lives, and as we live in alignment with his design, humanity flourishes. 

Christ’s Character Is the Key to True Human Flourishing

Christ’s sinless and giving life was the perfect picture of God’s design for humanity, and it was Christ’s obedience that provided the opportunity for your life and mine to flourish for all eternity. 

Dr. Pennington goes on to write, “Or to think of it constructively, because Jesus is the actual Logos – the organizing principle of the world, the agent of creation, the being that holds the whole universe together – this means that his philosophy alone is whole, complete, and truly true.” 

Here, Dr. Pennington appears to reference the beautiful Christology in Colossians 1. As we read this passage, notice the Apostle Paul’s description of the nature and identity of Christ. Paul states, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17 ESV). 

Paul is saying that if we want to know the character of God, look to Christ. If we want to know who created the world, look to Christ. If we want to find purpose and  flourish in life, look to Christ because “in him all things hold together.” Human flourishing without Christ is at best a temporary state of comfort that is blind to the eternal consequences of sin. To truly flourish, we must have Christ. 

In our effort to do good, let’s do even more good because that is what Christ did. As we go about doing good, we must resist the temptation to divorce anthropology from theology. Any desire for human flourishing that excludes Christ is at best limited and at worst an idol. We love others because God first loved us, and the best way we can help people flourish is by pointing them to the person who was and is perfect in all that he does. 

Yes, let’s meet their physical needs. Yes, let’s do whatever we can to empower them for success in this life. However, let’s also make sure they are equipped for eternity because this life will pass, but only those who know Christ will abide with him forever. To truly flourish is to know Christ. 

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