The Gospel & Human Flourishing
The gospel provides an exclusive foundation for human flourishing. All other ground is sinking sand, as the old hymn states. I believe that’s true for a variety of reasons, not least of which is several years devoted to the study and teaching of worldview analysis.
I suppose there are plenty of ways that we can define human flourishing, but perhaps one of the best places to begin is with the great philosopher Aristotle, to whom we can trace the use of the greek word eudaimonia which many believe to be best translated as well-being or flourishing. This idea of eudaimonia was always connected to virtue or character. It did not refer to some sort of amoral happiness. In other words, human flourishing was a result of living right, of doing right. Character was key for the good life.
In the tradition of Aristotle: I believe that human flourishing is contingent upon virtue. And I believe that virtue is contingent upon a standard. Furthermore, I believe that to have an objective and absolute standard for virtue requires something (read someone) transcendent, outside of our subjective experiences and interpretations, and immanent (read personal) so that we might know what said standard is.
Only if God exists, and only if he has revealed himself, can we have the sort of objective standard by which to establish a baseline for virtue, the necessary prerequisite for eudaimonia (human flourishing). In sum, I believe the gospel alone provides a foundation for human flourishing.
I was reading in Will Durant’s writings recently, specially his commentary on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Durant was an award-winning American writer and historian. He is also celebrated as a skeptic. I say this because some readers might assume a Christian spin on the following summary paragraphs about Nietzsche. This is not the case. But Durant’s analysis is, in my personally opinion, spot on:
“If life is a struggle in existence in which the fittest survive, then strength is the ultimate virtue, and weakness is the only fault. Good is that which survives, which wins; bad is that which gives way and fails. Only the mid-Victorian cowardice of the English Darwinians, and the bourgeois respectability of French positivists and German socialists, could conceal the inevitableness of this conclusion. These men were brave enough to reject Christian theology, but they did not dare to be logical, to reject the moral ideas, the worship of meekness and gentleness and altruism, which had grown out of that theology. They remained Anglicans, or Catholics, or Lutherans, long after they had ceased to be Christians. So argued Friedrich Nietzsche.”
In the previous paragraph Durant says that Nietzsche did what other thinkers were afraid to do: he understood the logical connection between Christianity and human values like meekness, gentleness, and altruism. Durant suggests that Nietzsche paved the way for a more consistent application of the rejection of the Christian faith.
“Darwin unconsciously completed the work of the Encyclopedists: they had removed the theological basis of modern morals, but they had left that morality itself untouched and inviolate, hanging miraculously in the air; a little breath of biology was all that was needed to clear away this remnant of imposture. Men who could think clearly soon perceived what the profoundest minds of every age had known: that in this battle called life, what we need is not goodness but strength, not humility but pride, not altruism but resolute intelligence; that equality and democracy are against the grain of selection and survival; that not masses but geniuses are the goal of evolution; that not ‘justice’ but power is the arbiter of all differences and all destinies. So argued Friedrich Nietzsche.”
The values left over from Christianity, after it had been rejected, were now left levitating in the air, much like Wile Coyote after running off a cliff chasing the Road Runner where he would float for a second or two and waive to the viewing audience before plummeting off the screen. Like the cartoon, Christian values paused in a moment of limbo before Nietzsche came along to blow them away.
The Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer made a similar point when he said that humanists have their feet firmly planted in midair. They have embraced a value-system, Schaeffer argued, for which they had no basis or foundation. Perhaps that’s why Will Durant said elsewhere, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”
At the end of the day: the gospel provides an exclusive foundation for human flourishing; All other ground is sinking sand.
1. Will Durant, The Story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy. (Haldeman-Julius Company, 1924) Pages 3-5.
2. Will Durant, “Humanism in Historical Perspective,” The Humanist, Jan./Feb. 1977, p. 26.