Eccentric Existence 9 (human flourishing)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.] Kelsey has now established that humans are “living human bodies” (we discussed this in the last post) essentially related to God as creator and located in the quotidian. This means that we must view our lives as gifts from God calling for a proper response – faith.

1. Faithful Response

For Kelsey, faith is more about faithful living than cognitive knowledge, though the two cannot be separated. And, faith is not just about our relationship to God, but also our relationship to everything that God has created and all that God is doing. Thus, he defines faith as “wise human action in the quotidian for its well-being for its own sake” (310). By living wisely for the well-being of the world as a whole, we participate in the manifestation of God’s glory throughout the world. We are not simply the audience of God’s glory, we are part of its performance as well.

2. Human Flourishing

At this point, Kelsey turns his attention specifically to the nature of human flourishing. Unlike many, Kelsey is not satisfied with an abstract appeal to “flourishing”, but he strives to give it meaningful content that can actually guide our understanding of human persons and human action in the world.

Kelsey points out that flourishing can actually refer to two different things, and they’re both important. (1) Flourishing can mean “to blossom.” This is “to manifest the type of beauty of which a given life is capable by virtue of God relating to it creatively” (315). Flourishing as humans and helping the rest of creation to flourish, then, involves a kind of perception whereby we see the beauty inherent in something by virtue of its relation to God, and seek to help that beauty grow and manifest itself. (2) Flourishing can mean “to thrive,” which means to “have oneself in hand” or to live one’s life as a proper response to God the creator. Human flourishing, then, is primarily about seeing oneself and others as a manifestation of God’s glory (blossoming) and responding in faith as an expression of gratitude (thriving).

This means that human flourishing is inherently “eccentric” – i.e. it can only be understood with reference to something outside of humanity itself. We can’t define human flourishing self-referentially, using humanity itself as the index of health and flourishing.

In a theocentric anthropology, human flourishing ought to be understood in relation to God. I suggest that expressing God’s glory…is the index of human flourishing. Flourishing human bodies are not the glory of God because they are healthily flourishing; theologically speaking, they are deemed flourishing to the extent that even in extreme unhealthy they are nonetheless in some mode (derivatively) the glory of God. (317)

And, given Kelsey’s earlier emphasis on human particularity and finitidue, along with the corresponding impossibility of finding any abstract “ideal”, it comes as no surprise that he also rejects any ideal standard by which to define human flourishing.

Christian understanding of human persons as God’s creatures does not entail any abstractly ideal and absolute standard of human flourishing against which the degree of flourishing of each and every human life could in principle be measured. (316)

Instead, what it means to “blossom” and “thrive” will always be particular to every individual person in his or her everyday context.

3. Flourishing in Action

Since human flourishing, then, necessarily involves acting for the well-being of his or her quotidian as we participate in the manifestation of God’s glory in the world, Kelsey moves on to consider what this looks like. And, once again we find that he rejects abstract standards:

Wisdom’s call, mediated through the quotidian, to be wise in action for the well-being of the everyday is always ad hoc. It is a call to be wise for the well-being of the given quotidian in its particularities here and now for it s own sake, not for the sake of some ideal state whose transcendentally future actualization alone will be this everyday world’s proper well-being. (327)

So, living for the flourishing of the quotidian will always be situational and contextual. Indeed, in many ways Kelsey’s language here sounds similar to the idea of “faithful presence” articulated by James Davison Hunter. Although Hunter places less emphasis on the impossibility of finding transcendent principles, both emphasize that our primary concern should be on living our lives as “faithful” responses to God’s grace in particular contexts. Kelsey’s account helpfully goes further, though, by offering a more theologically robust discussion of the shape of human flourishing.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 5, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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