Theology 101

The One Question All Humans Ask: ‘How Do We Flourish?’

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When we consider the great diversity of cultures, both today and throughout history, it seems unlikely that we could identify one thing that everyone wants. Many potential and conflicting answers present themselves: wealth, security, relationships, meaningful work, connection to the divine, fame, to see one’s children thrive, peace, and health, to name a few.

However, despite the great variety that exists across human cultures, one thing lies underneath all these good and understandable desires and ties them all together: happiness. All humans want happiness. Happiness means not a mere emotional state of non-sadness, but the fuller, richer notion of its older English sense—flourishing physically, emotionally, and spiritually/psychologically.

Happiness does not necessarily mean always having all of one’s desires and wants met. Indeed, happiness is often found in the midst of seeking to attain desires, even more than in having all desires fulfilled.

Nor can happiness be reduced, as modern Western civilization often attempts, to the individual’s subjective experienced pleasure. Rather, happiness or flourishing is the great and universal desire for life in its fullness that has always driven the human species.

The Great Question (and Answer) of Ancient Philosophy

One strong line of evidence that flourishing has always driven humanity is the fact that the question of how to achieve flourishing and happiness was the dominant topic in ancient philosophy.

Ancient philosophers dealt with many matters, including the nature of being, knowledge, and cosmology. But sooner or later, every philosopher would turn his or her eye to the question of what is “the good” and how one can achieve it, both individually and together in society. According to Ceslas Spicq, the focus of ancient philosophers was defining the well-lived life. They called this life eudaimonia, which we can translate as “flourishing.”

This focus on eudaimonia is found throughout the many forms of ancient philosophy such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neoplatonism, and Aristotelianism. Indeed, these sometimes radically different visions of how to be in the world are a function of how different philosophical schools answered the question of human flourishing.

  • The Stoics, for example, answered that because of the fickleness and unpredictability of the world, only a fool would tie his or her happiness to the emotions that life produces in us. Rather, the only way to achieve true flourishing was to live a life separate from the influence of fickle emotions.
  • Aristotle provided a rich and nuanced discussion of what the good life is and how to achieve it. This vision appears most fully in his Nichomachean Ethics, written to instruct his son on how to live happily in this world. Aristotle’s argument is that only by consciously and thoughtfully pursuing virtue will one be able to achieve eudaimonia or flourishing. Flourishing is not a matter of acquiring something outside ourselves, but of adopting a particular way of life. It’s an art that is cultivated and lived out in practice in relationships and society.

Today, the study of philosophy has largely moved away from the question of flourishing. Even in the area of moral philosophy, where the question of flourishing would naturally arise, a loss of the ancient emphasis on flourishing is noticeable. We can clearly trace where a shift away from this question occurred: with Immanuel Kant.

  • Kant dismissed all ancient philosophy as thoroughly “eudaimonistic,” using Aristotle’s term derisively. Kant’s vision of ethics was that they should not be about the individual’s flourishing and happiness, but about principles of duty, ultimately the duties that are universal to all people.

Kant marks a significant (and many would agree, disastrous) turning away from the consistent focal point of ancient philosophy, human flourishing. His turning away, which caused a massive loss of this notion in modern thinking, casts into sharp relief our own understanding of life, including religion.

The Great Question (and Answer) of Ancient Religion

Not only has modern philosophy and ethics lost the focus on human flourishing, but so also has modern religious understanding, at least in part. The loss is remarkable because it stands in such sharp contrast to most forms of ancient religion, including Christianity.

Along with ancient philosophies, most, if not all, ancient religions were also asking and answering the same great question: What can we do to flourish?

  • Buddhism promises to help sentient beings end their suffering through knowledge and taking refuge in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
  • Islam forges a path to a glorious, flourishing afterlife through adherence to the Five Pillars.
  • Judaism understands the God of the Jews to be the true and only creator of the world, who makes covenant with people and through whom alone one can become ʾashrê (“flourishing”) and enter into the age to come, which promises fullness of life.

These are all examples of what is true across every form of ancient religion, including their modern forms. This applies equally to Christianity, in spite of the fact that if one were to survey average Christians today about the essence and goal of their faith, few would offer “happiness” and “human flourishing” as their answer.

This change of emphasis is a remarkable and unfortunate turn of events relative to Christianity’s history, which in fact has a rich tradition regarding human flourishing. Two of the greatest lights in the first 1,500 years of the church’s history, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, both consciously spoke of the faith in terms of flourishing, along with countless other pastors, bishops, and theologians.

In fact, the Aristotelian understanding of virtue and flourishing often had a direct impact on how Christian theologians articulated the scripture’s teachings. This influence was not because the Bible was being read flat-footedly through an Aristotelian worldview, but because theologians saw that Aristotle had a refraction (albeit imperfect) of the truth that is found in the Bible’s teachings. Aristotle’s articulation was helpful, retooled in light of God’s word.

Like all philosophies and religions, biblical Christianity offers a vision for and promise of human flourishing. Christianity’s vision and promise differs in content and approach from those of any other religion or philosophy, but what Christianity shares with all religions and philosophies is that it addresses the greatest human need and desire—full and robust happiness and flourishing.

Editor’s note: Read Dr. Pennington’s full chapter on biblical flourishing in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism. This article has been adapted for blog format.

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