Human Flourishing in the Face of Suffering

In early January 2012, I learned that the title of this year’s bioethics conference was to be “Health and Human Flourishing,” which set my pondering wheels in motion. Human flourishing is a term that has been conscripted into service in the bioethical community—particularly the Evangelical bioethical community–in recent years as a semantic alternative to the Aristotelian notion of “eudaemonia”–“the Good” or “Happiness”–both which have been corrupted in contemporary vernacular. The term has been offered as a framework for understanding and conceptualizing our approach to technological innovation in order to positively promote progress in the health and well-being of the human community, but it’s content is seldom defined. Even in the book Health and Human Flourishing: Religion, Medicine, and Moral Anthropology, a collection of essays edited by Carol Taylor and Robert Dell’Oro (Georgetown, 2007), the meaning of the term is assumed, not defined. But what is flourishing–what does it mean to flourish? How does one flourish? And in particular, how are we, as Christians, to understand flourishing? Querying others outside the ethical and bioethical arena yielded a general response of cluelessness: most seemed unfamiliar with the term, let alone the concept. This launched a one and a half year journey through Scripture in search of a biblical perspective on human flourishing with which to frame and fill the content of the concept.

While the fruits of that labor and journey will be presented at the conference, I want to share a particular insight here. One note that resonated clearly throughout Scripture, although more loudly in the New Testament, is the relationship of suffering to flourishing. Suffering, in Scripture, is not incongruent with flourishing; in fact, not uncommonly, flourishing is by way of suffering. This paradoxical fact is made explicit in Mt 5: 10-12 where those who are persecuted, slandered and insulted are said to be blessed. In this passage, it is suffering that is acknowledged and allowed by God. But in other passages, that suffering is seen to come directly from the hand of God: suffering in the form of discipline or chastisement (Rev 3: 19); suffering that is evidence of God’s love (Prov 3: 11-12); suffering that ultimately leads to flourishing (Job 5: 15-26). The purpose of God in such suffering—pastorally referred to as “pruning”–is to bring about repentance and proper orientation to the Law or Word (Ps 94: 12-14; Ps 119: 71) and to produce holiness and fruitfulness in our lives—fruits of righteousness (John 15:2, Heb 12: 10-11). Suffering therefore keeps us on, or returns us to, the path—the εὐοδόω, or good way– that leads to our ultimate fulfillment, to a fuller revelation of God Himself.

This relationship of suffering and flourishing is contrary to contemporary culture where the old motto “no pain, no gain” has been modified to fit its new conception of the good life: “no pain, no pain.” It is also the orientation of most of biotechnology whose primary objective is painless immortality—the elimination of pain, suffering, and death at all costs–which is objectively measured by quantity of life and visual analog scales. There is no room in such objective calculations for consideration of flourishing as a subjective and relational reality, or for the fact of pain and suffering as means of flourishing, leaving the secular notion of flourishing at odds with the Scriptural concept. Yet it is often suffering that leads us to Christ whereby we can be healed and consequently flourish.

Biotechnology offers us a portrait of human flourishing distinct from that of Scripture, one that entails a “different gospel,” offering us the hope of freedom from suffering and death through technology and biotechnical means. Such freedoms stand in opposition to the role of suffering demonstrated in scripture where suffering is often a means to flourishing. This new gospel of flourishing proclaimed by biotechnology is not grounded in a dependent relationship with a Creator God but in the self-sufficiency of human creativity and ingenuity, in the power, strength, and determination of our will. It is an ill-conceived notion of human good that sees that good as devoid of pain and suffering; it is a gospel for which the means are justified by the ends, the ends of our choosing. Biotechnology, when employed for purposes of self-glorification and salvation is a thief who has come to kill and destroy, whereas abundant life (flourishing) comes from Christ.

This does not require that we reject all that biotechnology has to offer. Human flourishing is not exclusive of health, longer life, ease of life or material prosperity, for God is a God of mercy and redemption, who gifted and enabled us to redeem some of the consequences of our own sinfulness. What is necessary is a proper orientation toward God in the midst of biotechnological pursuits, a discernment of His purposes and plans for human flourishing in this world and the role that biotechnology might play in those purposes. It requires an understanding of the limitations of biotechnology and the positive role of suffering can play in our lives. For God enables our flourishing when we have turned from and been cleansed of the idols, especially the idol which is the work of our own hands. But it is God who is the source of our flourishing–our “eudaemonia”–and not we, ourselves. And it is God who confirms and gives permanence to the work of our hands.

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