Christianity and human flourishing

Kara Martin

Beyond Well-Being, Maureen Miner et al

One of the contentions of the New Atheists is that Christianity impedes human flourishing. I listened to an interview on Sunday night about how the seven deadly sins are actually good for us! They make us smarter, happier and pro-social.

In a world where bad is good and good is bad, it is refreshing to have some research that demonstrates the centrality of spirituality to human flourishing and the way that Christian practice increases wellbeing. It is the result of an innovative collaboration of theologians, psychologists, sociologists and practitioners, led by Maureen Miner of the University of Western Sydney and Wesley Institute. Wesley Institute’s Martin Dowson, and Stuart Devenish from Booth College also edit the book.

The researchers gathered around a series of questions being discussed in our society:

  • Is Christian spirituality important for human flourishing?
  • What does it mean to flourish as a human being?
  • How can professionals promote positive change among those in their care?
  • Does Christian spirituality offer a valid alternative to hedonistic and humanistic values on the meaning and purpose of human life?

Miner and Dowson open with an essay on Christian spirituality as a key resource for human flourishing, which critiques popular culture’s presentation of acquisition of health, wealth and pleasure as the source of flourishing. In fact, these three items are only weakly associated with actual happiness, wellbeing and mental health.

They have developed a model for flourishing, defined as the search for meaning, personal transformation and connectedness. It incorporates both actualisation (an internal development of self) and altruism (an external focus).

They contend that Christian theology promotes human flourishing by identifying human beings as connected with God, others and the created world; by seeing people as holistic beings; by positing an external goal for human flourishing; and helping to explain how suffering and flourishing are not necessarily incongruent.

Another thoughtful contribution is made by Brian Rosner, formerly of Moore College, now Principal of Ridley College, and Loyola McLean of the University of Sydney. Rosner looks at what it means to be known by God, and McLean matches his findings with psychological approaches such as attachment theory, which focuses on our need to attach/belong, particularly in a family relationship. Rosner points out that being “known” by God in the Bible is not referring to his omniscience, but to the personal relationship he desires with us, motivated by his love for us.

Being known by God means we belong, we are loved, and we are children of God. These three truths are related to human flourishing because they show that we are significant; not so much “I think therefore I am” but “I am known therefore I am”. It is a source of comfort, because we are assured that we are loved as children, that we have a safe haven. It also provides us with direction, because being known by God means we are included in his story, taking our place in the history of salvation.

Thus, the authors conclude, receiving one’s identity is a relational gift to be received rather than an individual achievement to be strived for, as our popular culture would emphasise.

The volume also contains some statistical analysis of the relationship between spirituality and a sense of wellbeing, from Kaldor, Hughes and Black. Their research shows that reflective Christians have a higher sense of wellbeing, and make a significant contribution to the community. Further, this group is less likely to have a negative impact on the wellbeing and resilience of the wider community.

The book sums up the collated research with the following conclusions:

  • It is sensible to talk about spirituality and flourishing
  • Spirituality has an affect on flourishing
  • Christian spirituality actually leads to flourishing
  • Spirituality should not be ignored in any examination of human flourishing.

It is encouraging that this book contributes important research in the ongoing search for sources of human optimisation, and that it exhorts consideration of the positive impact of Christian spirituality.