Ancient insights to inform modern concepts of ‘human flourishing’

HumanFlourishing 350Achieving individual, social, and environmental flourishing is a project that occupies thinkers in many fields from psychology to social sciences and medicine.

Australian Catholic University (ACU) will bring a new strand to this important research through investigating how early Christianity understood flourishing, and what these ancient accounts can bring to modern understandings of creating a good life.

The Harvard Human Flourishing Project is partnering with ACU to support the project, as part of a broad endeavour to integrate empirical research about human flourishing from the quantitative social sciences with the research insights of the humanities.

ACU Associate Professor Matthew Crawford is the Program Director of the Biblical and Early Christian Studies group, conducting the project. He said contemporary positive psychology has reclaimed the idea that human flourishing should be a core focus of study, but even positive psychologists were now realising that a fuller account of flourishing was needed more than simply a focus on the positive.

“If you only focus on what is positive or good, you miss an enormous amount of human experience. So, the good life can’t simply be achieved by ignoring the bad bits of life because we all bump up against that reality. We can’t be happy all the time. Part of what it means to be human is to grapple with a world that is broken in many ways and working with other human beings to make the most of that broken world.

“Studying flourishing is an attempt to make sense of what it means to be human and to live a good life as a human being.”

Associate Professor Crawford said the project would bring ancient insights to a very contemporary subject.

“Contemporary movements like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter renew attention to persistent individual and structural injustices that impede flourishing. There is an urgent need to interrogate how various aspects of the human experience, in interaction with wider systems and ecologies, contribute to or hinder well-being.

“The Flourishing Project brings to bear on these pressing questions the expertise of scholars of early Christianity, ranging from the New Testament to the end of Late Antiquity.”

The project will seek to understand how early Christians theorised flourishing in literature and art, comparing Greco-Roman and Jewish approaches, and how these theories helped or hindered the well-being of individuals, societies, cultures, and the environment.

It also aims to identify times and places where people, culture and societies flourished and to apply these understandings to contemporary debates about human wellbeing in other fields, including positive psychology and the capability approach.

The project will take in three strands of inquiry: health, reason and creativity, and communities.

Health: Being and Feeling Well will look at the bio-social approach of early Christian writers, attitudes to sickness and health, and the changing beliefs about the agency of individuals to control their own health.

Cultivating the Good Life: Reason and Creativity will focus on emotions, senses, imagination, discursive thought, and practical wisdom, as exhibited in literature and art.

Flourishing Communities: Communal Ecologies and Places will explore social relationships and the relationship of humans with the natural world.

 A series of capstone seminars will relate each of these strands to key distinctive elements in Christian doctrine, including resurrection and redemption, vulnerability and suffering, and receptivity to Divine love.