Volf, Miroslav. “Human Flourishing.” In Renewing the Evangelical Mission, ed. Richard Lints. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013.
In this essay Miroslav Volf provides a brief and broad historical survey of views of human flourishing accompanied with evaluation and a proposal. Volf’s survey begins with Augustine, for whom human flourishing was found in love for God and neighbor. With the Enlightenment God dropped away, but love for neighbor remained a part of the conception of human flourishing. “The central pillar of its vision of the good life was a universal beneficence transcending all boundaries of tribe or nation and extending to all human beings” (16). In late 20th century, however, human flourishing came to be understood simply in terms of “experiential satisfaction.” Volf concludes: “ours is a culture of managed pursuit of pleasure, not a culture of sustained endeavor to lead the good life” (15).
The problem, Volf explains, with making pleasure or “experiential satisfaction” at the heart of human flourishing is that humans are never satisfied. Even when they achieve what they want, there is more to want. “Our striving can therefore find proper rest only when we find joy in something infinite” (19).
Another problem with equating human flourishing and pleasure is the disconnect between creation and human flourshing that emerges. Volf observes, “Satisfaction is a form of experience, and experiences are generally deemed to be matters of individual preference. Everyone is the best judge of their own experience of satisfaction” (25). He argues that in contrast to this approach most religions and philosophies have argued that human flourishing is tied to the nature of reality. Though Volf does not provides exegetical argumentation for this being the correct position, I would argue that the exegetical foundation is present in Proverbs 8’s teaching that God built wisdom/law into the structure of creation and in Psalm 1’s teaching that wisdom is to live in accordance with this law with flourishing as the result.
In enunciating what this fit between reality and flourishing is, Volf returns to Augustine and summarizes his position in four points: “First, he believed that God is not an impersonal Reason dispersed throughout the world, but a ‘person’ who loves and can be loved in return. Second, to be human is to love; we can choose what to love but not whether to love. Third, we live well when we love both God and neighbor, aligning ourselves with the God who loves. Fourth, we will flourish and be truly happy when we discover joy in loving the infinite God and our neighbors in God” (27-28). Again, though Volf does not bring it out, there is a connection with Psalm 1. It is in meditating on (and then living out) the law of God (which can be summarized in loving God and others) that humans flourish.