What does a truly human life look like?

What makes a good human life? And why do we think economic growth could be anywhere near a decent proxy? This post is an excerpt from Christian Aid’s report An Unquenchable Thirst for More.

The mystery and purpose of human life is frequently described as ‘human flourishing’ and, particularly, the flourishing of the whole community together. From a Christian perspective, a human life, well lived, is a life that reaches out in love towards others, echoing the loving purpose which God has in creation. In the gospel of John (10:10) we hear Jesus saying: ‘I am come that they may have life and have it abundantly.’ Human life is intended to be experienced as a gift and a joy, within loving relationships shaped by justice, so that it nourishes virtues of generosity and kindness.

A good human life might be one in which there is ‘enough’, but not in a minimal sense. A life without basic goods, shelter, freedom and peace would certainly be an impoverished life, but the traditions of the Christian faith and others do not measure life in the possession of material goods alone, nor by GDP, nor even by pleasure and happiness, but by the sharing of love in community.

In his position as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote:

‘What makes humanity human is completely independent of anyone’s judgement of failure or success, profit or loss. It is sheer gift – sheer love, in Christian terms. And if the universe itself is founded on this, there will be no sustainable human society for long if this goes unrecognised.

Furthermore, there has been a renewed understanding, in the Christian community and more widely, that the purpose and meaning of human life should not be understood separately from our place within the ‘community of creation’. A good human life does not exploit creation for its own ends, but contributes to the wellbeing of the whole community; not only people, but creatures and our planet too. Our ‘growth’ and flourishing as humankind can never be at the expense of creation, but as part of its sustainable life.

If love is the purpose of human life, mending what is broken and transforming the world for the good of all, it could perhaps be argued that economic growth is one way of achieving this purpose, that it could be a means to this good end. But many voices warn of the dangers of forgetting that the truly good life may too easily be displaced by a life that can be counted in goods or wealth.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, argues that we must never lose sight of these wider purposes of human life, or ignore the theological questions about the purpose of life, which lie behind what we sometimes express as economic questions. He writes:

‘This is the fundamental sin of our economic rescue missions. We have convinced ourselves that economic problems can be solved with economic solutions alone.’

And this is emphasised by Timothy Gorringe, Emeritus Professor of Theology at Exeter University, who argues that concentrating on economic growth as a goal in itself misses the real ‘point’. He contends forcefully that ‘an unconditional belief in the generation of wealth as the answer to all our problems ‘is actually a form of idolatry’.

People should never be reduced to instruments of an economic system nor to what might tempt them most readily; the restless acquisition of more, or the desire to have ‘more than’ someone else. Life should never be reduced to economic purposes, just as human flourishing cannot be measured only, or even fully, by economic measures. Not all of life, neither its pleasures nor its responsibilities, is subject to ‘the market’. We do need growth in terms of life (more kindness, more maturity, more skill, more ‘fruitfulness’ in virtue), but not only economic growth. What human communities need, and what human life demands, is the kind of growth that deepens the human capacity to service human flourishing within communities, within creation, for the good of all, for the common good.

Economic growth is, of course, simpler to measure than the fullness of human life, and it can often appear beguiling and promising as a goal; many of us take for granted that it is a good thing. But unless it is contemplated within the context of a much broader landscape, we can be blind to its pitfalls.

Excerpt used with permission. An Unquenchable Thirst for More can be downloaded here.

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