What is Flourishing? 4 – Signposts on the Way to Flourishing
As I write this final blog post the new Indiana Jones movie is in the cinemas. It reminds me of the famous mine cart chase in The Temple of Doom, which is a really helpful metaphor for this series. Like the mine carts in the scene, we are constantly moving, faced with almost infinite junction points where we have to decide which way to go. Staying still is not an option! It helps me understand the repetition of divisive-sounding phrases in the Bibe, like when Jesus says that whoever is not against him is for him (Mark 9:50): we are either moving towards Jesus or away from him, there is no ‘steady state’ place where we’re not going in any direction.
How can we know which way to go? Life can be seen as millions of choices, from whether to go see the new Indiana Jones movie (my son was a no), to who to spend our lives with, to whose teachings we follow. In between those extremes of mundanity and consequence, there are daily decisions that slowly shape both who we are and our impact on the world. Are there any signposts that can help us choose a Christwards direction?
Hopefully if you’ve read the other posts in this series you’ll see that the direction we’re called towards might be called maturity. It’s not so much a signpost as a signifier that we’ve taken a good course. I want to briefly outline what I think are five signs of a maturing person. Unlike many psychologists and educationalists of the last century, I don’t think we can say that these facets all develop together or in order, but it seems to me that they are universal goods that we can all live towards. By my definition, there is no difference between a mature and flourishing Christian and a mature and flourishing human. That’s why there’s no explicit theological language in it. My list is informed by both contemporary cognitive science, or at least the little I know, and the Christian tradition. Here it is:
1) Spiritual Awareness. A mature person can perceive the spiritual dimension of all of life. Spirituality is not compartmentalised into a hobby, but feeds and is fed by everything.
2) Commitment Amid Diversity. A mature person can acknowledge the complexities of life and the differences in the beliefs and motivations of those we know and love, and remain committed to their own beliefs nonetheless. In the face of ‘the other’, they resist apathy, fear and hate.
3) Character. A mature person exhibits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.
4) Integrity. A mature person has a healthy and realistic sense of self and purpose, and lives these out in every area of their life.
5) Relationality. A mature person lives in an ever-widening circle of love, taking in friends, neighbours, strangers, and ultimately enemies and other living things.
These are just my own effort to codify what I think psychology and the scriptures are saying, I am very open to the wisdom of others in improving them! I think they can help us consider some great questions about how we might step into the river of life with some sense of direction, and maybe an oar or two to help steer us a little. Here are some questions that come from the list:
Can I incorporate any practices into my busy life that help me slow down enough to notice what God is doing? Do I need to make time to explore why the political/theological/economic beliefs of someone I know cause me to feel such negative emotions that I don’t want to be around them? (Or, how have I ended up surrounded by people who agree with me on everything?) What are God and I working on in my character at the moment? Do I have a healthy sense of my self or am I still afraid of facing my sins and trauma? Am I the same person at work, home, church and pub? How am I extending myself so that I spend time with people who help me love and grow through their differences?
These are difficult questions! How can we find a community to help us answer them? Some readers of this blog will be familiar with the late writer on Christian discipleship Dallas Willard. A group of psychologists, psychotherapists and neuroscientists have developed Willard’s work into what they call The Life Model*. They suggest that we need three elements in our lives to flourish:
1) A multigenerational community to belong to in which we can be mentored by folk more mature than us and mentor others younger than us.
2) A life shaped by an increasing awareness of God’s loving presence. This is rarely something that ‘just happens’ – it requires some spiritual disciplines.
3) An embodied faith, which understands that feeling, willing, believing and doing (heart, soul, mind and strength, Mark 12:30) are all interconnected, such that we can’t just learn what a mature person is, nor can we just try really hard to be one. It is a process that involves the whole person. In our times, cognitive science has given us incredible new understanding of the great traditions of Christianity (and other religions and philosophies too) that actually bring about transformation.
I am a Baptist Minister, so you would expect me to say that the place to work this stuff out must be church. However – and I say this about the churches I’ve led as well as the ones I’ve attended – I’ve never been part of a church that has prioritised the Christlike transformation of individuals and communities. (I don’t have space to write here about why this might be the case, perhaps we will come back to that in future blogs or a podcast.) Instead, tonight I will be meeting with a small group of friends to ask ourselves some of the questions above. This, for me, is the primary building block of church.