In a lovely little book I recently read (see my review here), Miroslav Volf highlights the importance of the concept of human flourishing. Every individual wants to live the best life possible. We don’t just want to exist; we want to thrive. We want to flourish. But what exactly is it to flourish? There are different views: the author identifies three, but I’ll contrast only two.
According to Miroslav Volf, the prevalent view today in the Western world is that of Experiential Satisfaction. This way of thinking, however, extends beyond the west. It is a result of fallen human nature. According to this view, we flourish when we live a life in which we experience pleasure. It doesn’t matter what the source of the pleasure is: It could be the excitement of listening to beautiful music or keeping up with the latest fashion. It could be the love of sports or absorption in religion. What counts is that something gives us pleasure, and when we experience this we flourish.
It is a mistake to seek fulfillment in pleasure. For one, all pleasure, whatever the source, never satisfies. It has to be constantly renewed. Each pleasure enjoyed only leaves us with a hunger for more. Also, we face this emptiness in our pursuit of pleasure because everything that is enjoyed has a true meaning beyond itself. Only when we reach beyond the pleasures of sex, music, food, knowledge, etc, and ascend to the God who created them can we be truly satisfied. As Miroslav Volf wrote:
“Whatever we have, we want more and different things, and when we have climbed to the top, a sense of disappointment clouds the triumph. Our striving can therefore find proper rest only when we find joy in something infinte.” (A Public Faith, p. 62)
The Christian view of Human flourishing, however, holds that we truly prosper when we live a life centred on loving God and our neighbour. This outlook can be summarized in the following points:
• God is a person who loves and can be loved in return.
• The human person must necessarily love something – this could be God, others or himself. To be human is to love.
• We live well when we love both God and our neighbour.
• We are truly happy only when we derive joy from loving God and our neighbours in God.
In other words, to flourish, God must be at the centre of all our thinking and acting. Several centuries ago, Augustine wrote in his autobiography, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you”. We were made for communion with God, and until we live in this loving and intimate interaction with Him, our lives remain empty.