What Does it Mean to Flourish?
y: Brian Harris
It’s become a bit of a catch word – one you find in vision and mission statements which commit to building flourishing communities of hope or whatever.
It’s a noble and inspiring sentiment, but what does it mean to flourish?
We could immediately dash to definitions. Depending on your source, you will be told that to flourish is to prosper, to thrive, to be in a state of activity or production.
If you go to the Greek philosophers you might well come out at Aristotle and his idea of eudaimonia (roughly translated as flourishing) by which he was pointing to the life well lived. According to Aristotle the flourishing life is one where we reach our potential. To do so requires us to live according to virtue, which Aristotle thought had four key building blocks, prudence, justice, temperance and courage. We shouldn’t assume we know just what Aristotle means by each of these. For example, while we might think of prudence as being cautious and perhaps a little timid and unwilling to take risks, for Aristotle prudence is about practical wisdom – knowing what to do in specific situations. Courage is not about being without fear, but being able to moderate it so that you act without compromise and do the right thing, even though your heart is pounding.
In Christian thought, the idea of flourishing often links back to Jesus’ statement in John 10:10 “I have come that you might have life, and have it in all its fullness.” Put differently, I have come so that you will flourish. It connects back to the Judeo-Christian concept of shalom which is often translated as peace, but more accurately points to fullness or wholeness of life. A common Hebrew greeting is “Shalom aleichem” (peace be upon you) the reply to which is “aleichem shalom” (unto you peace). But what is meant by “shalom”?
Dwelling in Shalom, Enjoying Life
Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests that in the biblical vision, “To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.” That four fold vision of a rich enjoyment of God, place, community and self is rich. I am glad Wolterstorff starts with God and finishes with self, for it seems to me that this is a helpful order. It certainly reflects the teaching of Jesus who instructed us to seek first God’s Kingdom – for when we do all manner of other things will be added to us (Matt 6:33).
Let’s pause briefly and think of each of the four blocks in Wolterstorff’s understanding of shalom or flourishing.
1. Relationship With God
There is relationship with God. I can’t remember who wrote it, and the language is gendered in a way that is no longer acceptable, but I still find this prayer beautiful: “Help me to remember that truly to be man is to be man aware of Thee, and unafraid to be.” Aware of Thee, and unafraid to be. They belong together. Without awareness of God the exploration of our humanity starts at the wrong point and ends in confusion. A part of any invitation to flourish is an invitation to the deepest quest of all – the quest for God. Without that, our perspective is muddled and confused.
2. Relationship With Place
There is relationship with place. I love the tangibility of shalom in the Bible. It is about a land flowing with milk and honey. It is not an abstract concept – it is about life in a particular place, with all the richness and beauty that brings. And place invites belonging. A connection with the earth is an integral part of human flourishing. Place is not exclusive. It is my place – but as God is the Creator of all, it is your place as well. And it is a place for future generations that we must steward well. Because place is so central to flourishing, it is always devastating when people lose their place, or have it taken away as a result of injustice or war. It is why Christian people should always have a special heart for those who have been dis-placed.
3. Relationship With Others
There is relationship with others. The first not good in the Bible is found in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Despite Adam being in wonderful relationship with God and enjoying the beauty of the Garden of Eden, absence of relationship with other human beings was an unacceptable deficit. A radical individualism is not part of shalom or flourishing, for me, myself and I are not enough. The Christian God is Triune – even God in God’s own being is in community and not alone. We, God’s image bearers, will not flourish if we are alone. Being in community means risking vulnerability and being misunderstood. It is to live in truth, without pretence. It sometimes goes wrong and when it does, it hurts us greatly – but there is no full humanity without it.
4. Relationship With Self
Last there is relationship with self. Known by God and being part of a place and a community I can begin the inward journey and ask, “And who am I”. I am a child of God, located in this place, and part of these people and with these idiosyncrasies that help make me, me. Supported by God, place and others, I can be genuinely curious about my own being. There is no need to be defensive – because come what may, I belong. But just as I own the way my story is like every other human story, I can also explore the way that my story is like few or no other human story. I can delight in being me. And in being me, I will bring delight to you, and to you and to you…
If I am able to breath deeply and embrace each of these four – God, place, community and self… well I am rich indeed – part of a flourishing community, able to own the peace of shalom.
Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.
About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.
Feature image: Photo by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash