Understanding Christian concepts of ‘human flourishing’ in relation to children

In recent decades there has been a growing trend for theologians to speak about about the idea of ‘human flourishing’.[1] ‘Flourishing’ is a biological, even ecological word, which evokes images of plants, gardens or whole ecosystems growing in a healthy manner.[2] Theological ethicists and public theologians (those seeking to speak about God in the civic and political ‘public square’) use the term to try to capture a wholistic, biblical understanding of God’s intention for human beings, both as individuals, and as people embedded in communities. That is: far from simply surviving, or just experiencing salvation on a spiritual level, God intends, it is argued, for human beings to thrive in all dimensions of life, both as individuals and in their social environments. Christian thinkers who use the term tend to draw on two images at either end of the biblical story which describe human flourishing, firstly in the creation narrative in which God walks in the garden with his human creatures, who want for nothing (Gen 2:4-25; 3:8); and, ultimately, the imagery of a new heaven and new earth (Rev 21:1-2); of a river of life flowing from God’s throne (Rev 22:1-5), when suffering, crying and death shall cease and God will dwell with His people (Rev 21:3-5).

The human experience in between these two book-ends of creation and new creation, however, is not one of flourishing; more often than not a profound contradiction of this divine intention. In the shadow of the fall, human life and society been marred by manifold forms of suffering, brokenness, violence, and injustice, as well as a lack of relationship to God. This situation is unacceptable to God, who, in Jesus Christ and the Spirit comes to redeem and restore that which is fractured and fallen; to save that which is lost and languishing under the effects of human sin. God’s intention, it is argued, remains that human beings and all creation ought flourish again in His presence. While creation still groans, God Himself is presently outworking the resurrection, by the Spirit, toward this final goal of creation’s liberation from death and decay, and ‘the glorious freedom’ which will be experienced by the children of God (Rom 8:19-20).

The concept of flourishing thus embraces both the classical realms of ‘salvation’ and social justice. God, it is argued, acts to save and restore, in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and calls His people across both Old and New Testaments to act for the welfare and well-being of others: in short, to love God, and love their neighbour (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18; Mt 22:37). Evangelism, discipleship, and acting for love of neighbour (including social action to address conditions of life which prevent human beings from flourishing) are thus all conceived as aspects of the task of the Christian community.

A properly nuanced commitment to the idea of human flourishing, however, does not mean an expectation that heaven can be established on earth by human efforts (though sometimes this impression may be given). Any gains for human flourishing in the physical, psychological and social arenas are but glimpses – provisional and all too often fleeting foretastes – of the kingdom yet-to-come. God’s act of renewing creation will alone bring about comprehensive and lasting restoration of human flourishing, in an environment in which it will be eternally sustained. Yet as glimpses and foretastes, action for and experiences of human flourishing find their inspiration in God’s original and ultimate intention. And who’s to say there will not be some significant continuity between that which is done in Jesus’ name to facilitate human flourishing in the present age, and what occurs in the age to come? For ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ (1 Cor 15:58).

Related specifically to children, the idea of them ‘flourishing’ elicits images of children growing in a healthy manner in body, mind and soul; of children walking with Jesus and growing up in a physical and social environment where they can reach something approaching their full God-given capacities.  A Christian concept of human flourishing, however, would also emphasis the offering to children of confident hope that their life matters, has meaning, and awaits a fuller future by the gift of God’s eternal salvation. Such hope, along with a child’s personal encounter with and faith in God, also provide a framework for them to understanding that even suffering and ‘bad things’ can have meaning and value (Romans 5:3-5; 8:28-30), and contribute to rather than simply detract from their flourishing.[3] A Christian concept of flourishing would also understand that children flourish as they love and serve others: just as plants flourish best in a thriving garden and wider ecosystem, children can be seen to flourish best in families and communities that are healthy and, as far as possible in our fallen world, flourishing themselves.

The concept needs to be carefully understood, otherwise it can tend to overemphasis both the extent to which individuals and societies can be transformed, prior to the return of Jesus, and the extent to which human efforts can bring about such transformations. (Secular humanism has also long advocated utopias of human flourishing, whether wrought by communist or capitalist models, economic ‘development’ or, simply, by human Progress.) A robust appreciation for the continuing and pervasive impact of sin, both in and upon individuals, and in social, cultural, economic and political systems, gives Christians reason to be sober-minded realists about the extent to which things can be changed in this present age. There is also a tension for Christians between striving for the goal of flourishing, and the discipleship call to renunciation – that is, denying self and taking up one’s cross (Luke 9:23), having the same attitude as Christ Jesus, who made himself nothing (Phil 2:5-8).[4] Nevertheless, properly applied, the idea of human flourishing, and the concept of children flourishing together in families, churches and communities, can be helpful for widening Christian understandings of God’s intention for His beloved creatures beyond mere ‘saving’ souls. It offers an account of God’s loving and creative intention for the world, both originally, and ultimately. Trust in God’s own acts toward the ends of flourishing – chiefly in the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus – also give tremendous cause for hope, a hope which should infect both our hearts and hands in the here and now, so that we, too, witness to Jesus Christ in word and deed by tackling obstacles to human flourishing on all levels. We do so in anticipation of God’s own, final and consummate act to bring the wholeness of heaven here to earth, under the lordship of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit.

Author: DJ Konz is a Director of the global Child Theology Movement and lives with his family near Aberdeen, Scotland, where he is researching the relation of ‘child’ to God’s mission. He was formerly the Executive Director of Child Advocacy for Compassion Australia.

Bibliography

 Cameron, Helen, John Reader, and Victoria Slater. Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing: Pastoral Practice and Public Theology. London: SCM Press, 2012.

Thatcher, Adrian. ‘Theology, Happiness, and Public Policy’. In Theology and Human Flourishing: Essays in Honor of Timothy J. Gorringe, edited by Mike Higton, Christopher Rowland, and Jeremy Law, 251–64. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.

Volf, Miroslav. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013.

———. Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

 

[1] The idea of human flourishing is not a new one; Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century was concerned with ‘the happy life’, which he saw as centred around a proper ordering of what one loves in life. At the centre of one’s loves and life must be God, and a life is happy occurs when one puts the ‘good’ things in life in an order which properly aligns with God’s own ordering of those things. As Mirolsav Volf summaries, for Augustine ‘The supreme good that  makes human beings truly happy – … the proper content of a flourishing life – consists in love of God and love of neighbour and enjoyment of both.’ Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013), 58. Other theologians have similarly been concerned to understand ‘the good life’ or related ideas. The term ‘human flourishing’ has, however, grown in currency in recent years.

[2] For biblical references which give rise to such imagery, and the Christian tradition’s particular contribution to understanding human flourishing, see Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

[3] Alison Webster, cited in Helen Cameron, John Reader, and Victoria Slater, Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing: Pastoral Practice and Public Theology (London: SCM Press, 2012), xxi.

[4] Adrian Thatcher, ‘Theology, Happiness, and Public Policy’, in Theology and Human Flourishing: Essays in Honor of Timothy J. Gorringe, ed. Mike Higton, Christopher Rowland, and Jeremy Law (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 261.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Christian concepts of ‘human flourishing’ in relation to children

  1. The church needs to be more involved in assisting children in flourishing. The family should be another main source, however, if that protection falls through, the church needs to mentor and train the child in desiring to become more like Christ and teaching the children the Bible in a way they can understand with terminology they can understand. This can be done through Sunday School lessons and Bible School classes and also exemplifying how to live out the gospel in everyday life. If the children are in the proper atmosphere learning about God and surrounded with meaningful, helpful people to mentor them, children will have an improved chance of flourishing in the spiritual life.

  2. I am so encouraged by what you have to say as far as human flourishing goes! It reminds me of a goal to work towards, a way that even right now in the midst of our dark world, the light of Christ can be seen and shown. I especially liked what was written about human flourishing being glimpses of what is yet to come in the future kingdom–what a beautiful picture right now of what we hope to see one day. The other area written here that is wonderful to think about is the hope that comes only from Christ. As children’s workers, we can do our best to communicate through the proclamation of the gospel that children can have, “confident hope that their life matters, has meaning, and awaits a fuller future by the gift of God’s eternal salvation.” May all that we do point back to the glory of Christ, and the hope we have because of His death and resurrection! Thanks for writing this article 🙂

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