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The Human Quest
Christian theology has lost its way because it has neglected its purpose. We believe the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The flourishing of human beings and all God's creatures in the presence of God is God's foremost concern for creation and should therefore be the central purpose of theology. With this manifesto we aim to return theology to itself so it can better serve communities of Christian conviction and participate in truth-seeking cultural conversation about flourishing life for all.
The theology that has lost its way is above all professional, academic theology, which is only a subset of Christian theology as a whole. In an important sense, all Christians are theologians. As Christians, we seek to think and speak plausibly about our journeys with Christ into our own and the world's fullness, to make the practice of faith coherent. Call this "everyday theology." From the beginning, in the very earliest Christian communities, however, doing theology was not only a general practice but also a special calling. The apostles and teachers were the first theologians. Call this "church theology." In the course of the history of Christianity, theologians were gradually distinguished from teachers, and, in more recent centuries, theology became an academic discipline, even a disciplinary specialization (as when "theologians" are distinguished from biblical scholars, church historians, or ethicists). People who engage in such specialized activity are "professional" or more narrowly "academic" theologians. It is about them and their activity — it is about us and our activity, as both writers are theologians in this sense — that we are primarily concerned in this book. We use "theology" primarily to designate this special calling to understand the practice of faith.
In the second chapter, we describe the contemporary crisis of theology. Starting with the third chapter, we offer a proposal for its renewal, arguing for the version of theology whose purpose is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life. In this chapter, we explain in broad and formal terms what we mean by "flourishing life" and why and how the question of flourishing life matters today. This is a book about the future of Christian theology, but Christian theology is about an issue that concerns all human beings in a fundamental way.
Why "Flourishing Life"?
By "flourishing life" we mean the good toward which humans are meant to strive. It names not so much any number of things we desire, but the ultimate goal of our striving along with the values that determine what is truly worth desiring. We use the term more or less interchangeably with "true life," "good life," "life worth living," "human fullness," "life that truly is life," and more. Though "the good life" is a technical term in classical philosophy and in the Christian theology that developed in conversation with it, we prefer "flourishing life" because it is universal in scope, tying the good life of humans to the good life of all God's creatures, and because it avoids the popular connotations of "good life" that evoke images of extravagant consumption. Granted, "flourishing" can conjure visions of life aloof from hardship and oppression, so we will sometimes use "true life" to make space for the arduous forms that the best of human lives will often have to take on this side of the full realization of God's new creation and under the conditions of sin. Each of these terms has its own intellectual pedigree in the broad tradition of reflection on human nature, destiny, and place in the world. For us, the Christian faith and not the intellectual pedigree of the term decisively shapes the character of flourishing life.
Sometimes visions of flourishing are like vivid images we are able to see and describe, but more often they are like a lens through which we see everything — the tacit "background" against which we live our lives, as Charles Taylor puts it. If they are only implicit, we need to tease them out, make them explicit. In either case, it is our human responsibility to reflect on their function, origin, content, and existential or intellectual adequacy because they define our world and our very selves. We can switch from one vision to another, but if we do so in reality and not just in imagination, we become a "new person": we come to experience ourselves and our world in a different way, and our lives take a new turn.
A Centuries-Long Concern
For much of humanity's early history, human beings saw their ultimate good in natural forms of well-being: health, wealth, fertility, and longevity. During what some philosophers and sociologists have described as "axial transformations," a sense of the inadequacy of such natural accounts of human flourishing crystallized. Today's world religions emerged out of these transformations. Each stands for an alternative to the idea that the ultimate good consists in forms of natural well-being. Each in its own way distinguishes between mundane and transcendent realms, and each in its own way claims that the ultimate human good consists in alignment of self (and, for some traditions, the world) with the transcendent order. At the heart of the great world religions lies an answer to the question of the true life, the good life, the genuinely flourishing life.
World religions provide the most enduring, most widespread, and, arguably, still most potent visions of human flourishing. But religions are not the only source of such visions. For many great philosophers, an articulation of the good life is a central concern, either the pivot around which their philosophies turn or an indispensable theme of their philosophies. This is true, for instance, of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, Murdoch, and Weil. In recent centuries, some philosophers have come to advocate modern and secular versions of the preaxial account of the human good centered on health, wealth, fertility, and longevity. Nietzsche might be the most radical among them, as he contests all forms of the distinction between mundane and transcendent realms, whether the distinction is drawn between sensible and supersensible worlds (as in Plato and monotheistic religions, for instance) or within the sensible world (as in Karl Marx and some forms of secular humanism, for instance). Still, he too had a vision of the kinds of human beings he wanted to see "bred."
Though the world's religions and philosophers offer diverse visions of the flourishing life, these visions, we propose, share three formal features — that is, flourishing life has a tripartite structure. Each world religion or philosophy gives an account of life going well, life led well, and life feeling as it should. Life going well refers to the "circumstantial" dimension of the flourishing life, to the desirable circumstances of life — be they natural (like fertile, uncontaminated land), social (like a just political order or a good reputation), or personal (like health and longevity). Life led well refers to the "agential" dimension of the flourishing life, to the good conduct of life — from right thoughts of the heart and right acts to right habits and virtues. Life feeling as it should is about the "affective" dimension of the flourishing life, about states of "happiness" (contentment, joy) and empathy. Each of the three features has its own integrity, but each is not like a leg of some "good-life stool" bearing separately the weight. Instead, each is also tied to the others, both influencing them and being influenced by them.
This, then, is what we mean by a vision of flourishing life: a set of explicit or implicit convictions about what it means for us to lead life well, for our life to go well, and for it to feel right, convictions that guide — or should guide — all our desires and efforts. The Christian faith, centered as it is on the divine Word become flesh in Jesus Christ as the true life and light of the world, is such a vision. Or, rather, it is a large and often quarrelsome family of such visions. Christian theology ought to be, above all, about critically discerning, articulating, and commending this vision. With this goal, theologians ought to enter the centuries-long and global conversation in which religious and nonreligious thinkers wrestle with the most important human question: What is the true, flourishing life, and how can we live it?
But why? Aren't there other issues we ought to attend to, both more pressing and perhaps more manageable than this biggest of all big questions, like various forms of exclusion or exploitation? Or can't we just assume a Christian vision of flourishing as given and go on with the endeavor of living it?
A Pearl of Great Price
Some dismiss exploration of the good life as a luxury, a matter of "extra credit" we can take up if so inclined after the necessities of life — food, shelter, and safety — have been secured, and secured for all. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that the satisfaction of basic needs can be separated from the meaning and goodness of life. Basic needs are famously difficult to pin down. Beyond the resources human beings require as biological organisms, the very determination of what constitutes a basic human need depends not just on the social standing of a person but decisively also on the kind of life we find worth desiring. Moreover, cultural, economic, and political struggle against deprivation and oppression will fail if a positive vision of flourishing life doesn't guide it. That's why, according to the Gospels, Jesus didn't just feed the poor and heal the sick, although he did that and stated explicitly that he came to do that; more importantly, he called them to reorient their entire lives around seeking God and God's righteousness.
We insult the humanity of the languishing when we suggest that concern with the basic character and direction of their lives is somehow beyond their reach, that they have to progress on the hierarchy of needs — from food, shelter, and safety to community to self-esteem — until they are finally capable of reflecting on the meaning and puzzling out the shape of true life. An eight-year-old girl getting up before dawn to take the one family cow to pasture before going to school (like Miroslav's mother did as a child) can ask it no less than can a respected scientist working in an industry (like Matt's father did). Those wracked by pain because of illness, suffering under the yoke of oppression, or worrying about their next meal need — and often feel the need for — visions of human fullness at least as much as and sometimes more than those who are healthy, unconstrained, and well fed. Many originators of great, ancient visions of human flourishing as well as the majority of those who embraced them through the centuries lived in circumstances most people in economically developed nations today would describe as dire. Suffering of one kind or another and the indignities that accompany it have been historically and continue to be presently the main motor for both the search for a vision of life that is truly worthy of human beings and for the struggle, personal and social, to turn that vision into reality.
A compelling vision of flourishing life is not a luxury, a cozy reading room for a middle-class home that already has a kitchen, bathroom, living space, and bedrooms. It is a basic need for a being who does not and cannot live by bread alone. All human beings in all cultures, each in their own way, aspire to genuine flourishing, their own and that of those they care for. First, we are inescapably oriented toward some good — toward things, states of affairs, practices, and emotions we perceive as good. Second, we are reflective and moral beings. We want to know that the good we strive toward is in fact desirable. Finally, aware as we are of living in time, we gather our past in memory and our future in anticipation, and we want to be assured of the goodness or rightness of our whole life. Unless the speed and noise of life are unrelenting and entertainment beguilingly captivating, we will occasionally survey our life — past, present, and future — and ask what it would mean for the entirety to be "good."
Truly flourishing life is the most important concern of our lives, the pearl for which it's worth selling everything else we might have — wealth, power, fame, or pleasure (Matt. 13:45–46). With that pearl, we receive back improved many of the goods we've sold to acquire it; without that pearl, we ourselves are diminished and lost, and none of the goods we refused to sell in order to acquire it can make up for the damage. But like the swine of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:6), many of us, ordinary people and intellectuals alike, and especially those in the affluent West, trample that pearl under our feet, seeing in it nothing fit to satisfy our wayward hunger.
Choosing a Vision for Life
Today, more than at any previous time in history, the character of flourishing life is a pressing concern, especially, perhaps, when we fail to experience it as such. Though the issue is ancient and basic, as we have seen, we now ask it and have to answer it in a new way. In ages past as in some traditional cultures today, a vision of the good life was largely inscribed into the objective conditions of lived lives — in the perceived givenness of the cosmic and social orders, in accepted religious rituals and traditions, in how communities engaged in the cultural, economic, and political reproduction of life. Even individuals' vocations were mostly passed from mother to daughter and from father to son. Though they often sensed the need to discern the specific shape of their particular life, most people believed that the ultimate direction of life and the "tables of values" (to borrow a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche) from which their lives gained shape and significance were pregiven, perhaps even "natural." For a large and increasing portion of the world's population, this is no longer the case.
Free to Choose, Forced to Choose
In cultures shaped by modernity, we have come to live "disembedded" lives. No longer experiencing ourselves as constituents of a meaningful cosmos and members of a social body, we modern human beings imagine ourselves and act first and foremost as individuals, ideally sovereign owners of ourselves and our actions. We can no longer "read off" meaning from our social and cosmic locations. Nothing has claim to our allegiance until we first choose to give it our allegiance. We live under what many years ago Peter Berger described as a "heretical imperative": we are not just free to choose but are forced to do so. As a consequence, what counts as flourishing life and what it means specifically for each person to flourish require from us intentional deliberation.
As we will see shortly, we tend not to spend much time on the matter but either float along in a Lazy River or paddle madly in the boulder-riddled rapids to beat others to the finish line. Still, we float and paddle in a cultural river with many currents and crosscurrents. When we become reflective about our lives, we must contend with those diverse currents, and we are forced to choose or reconfirm the choices we have made. Even a birth into a rich tradition that initially defines the flourishing life for us doesn't relieve us from choice. Instead of simply taking on and living out a preset vision of flourishing — perhaps struggling but failing to live it or chafing against it — we are pushed to always engage afresh the question of which life is, in fact, good.
Let's remind ourselves of the nature of the choice we are talking about. To choose here is not so much to pick one among many of more or less desirable things. It is to opt for the direction of our entire life, either to confirm the course we are on — which we enact without much thought in the myriad daily choices we make — or to change the course of our lives. Put more abstractly, we are deciding among candidates for the character and purpose of our lives and for the tables of values or "reflexive standards" by which we evaluate our ordinary choices. We are deciding what kind of human being it is worth being and what kind of world it is worth inhabiting.
For a century and a half or so, many in the West were convinced that, when it comes to a vision of flourishing life, the main choice in the West, and increasingly around the globe, was between some form of religious faith and secularism. Secularism seemed to be winning, in fact. But the situation has proven more complicated. Globally, religions, particularly Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, continue to grow in absolute and relative terms, shape the private and public lives of billions, and spread throughout the world. For most people today, the choice is not between religious faith and lack of it; it is among many forms of religious faith and nonreligious philosophies of life. Multiple visions of flourishing life — mutually contending though rarely completely incompatible and each explicitly or implicitly claiming to stand for the true life — vie for the allegiance of all. We are choosing in a postsecular and pluralistic world.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "For the Life of the World"
Copyright © 2019 Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun.
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