Jonathan Pennington


Thank you, David, hopefully, we’ll get a lot of gasps today. That’s basically my goal in life–so that’s good. Actually, I did have the opportunity to present a paper at ETS last year that’s related to a book I’m working on: the Sermon on the Mount, human flourishing, and virtue ethics. This paper is a bit of an evolution from that in the sense that it’s a slightly different approach, but it has a lot of overlap with that ETS paper–so it is a slightly different animal. Let’s begin, I trust you have a handout there.

First, the question: what do all humans want? When we consider the great diversity of cultures both today and across time, it seems pretty unlikely that we’d be able to come up with one thing that everyone really wants. When we take into account the massive differences between individuals and all our personalities and our occupations–from artists, engineers, to priests, to governors, to peasants, to restauranteurs–it would appear impossible of a task to solve the question of what all humans want. I mean Mel Gibson couldn’t even solve it with what all women want–if you remember that movies from some time ago. Across genders, across society, it’s pretty hard to imagine there’d be one thing. Rather, there are a lot of [contenders]–you know–potentially conflicting answers: wealth, security, relationships, meaningful work, connection to the divine, fame, to see one’s children’s children thrive, peace, health, to name a few. All these are fair contenders, I think.

There is something that has been understood and should be understood as really the universal of what all humans want, and we might sum it up with the word “happiness”. All humans want happiness.But despite this great diversity and all these potential answers, I want to suggest that there is something that has been understood and should be understood as really the universal of what all humans want, and we might sum it up with the word “happiness”. All humans want happiness. Now, happiness though–here–means not the mere description of an emotional state of non-sadness, but the fuller, richer notion of the English sense of this–and and some other languages’ sense of us as well–of flourishing. Flourishing physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically–happiness or human flourishing does not necessarily mean always having all one’s desires and needs met. For example–and I think many of us could note the experiential wisdom–happiness and flourishing is often found in the midst more of seeking to attain desires even than having them all met at times, as the old proverb has it: “it’s not the kill but the thrill of the chase”, as many of us have experienced.

Nor can happiness or flourishing be reduced–as it often has become in modern, Western civilization–to the individual’s pleasure experience, subjectively. There’s a whole world of leadership books and popular philosophy books that use happiness just, and even define it explicitly, as one’s personal subjective happiness. Rather, happiness, or flourishing, I’d suggest to you, is the great and universal desire for life in its fullness and robustness that has always driven the human species.

So the great question and–I think–answer of ancient philosophy is this: a strong line of evidence that this–what I’m suggesting: that flourishing is driving it–actually comes from looking at ancient philosophy of all sorts.

Ancient philosophers dealt with many things including the nature of being, cosmology, knowledge, but sooner or later, most every philosopher eventually would turn his or her eye to the question of “the good” and how can one achieve it–both together in society and individually, whether it be politics, or education, or religion, or interpersonal relationships or commerce–how one is to conduct oneself in each of these respects is and should be motivated, according to most ancient philosophers, by what we discern will result in the true and full human flourishing. The focus of ancient philosophers was defining the well lived-life, and many of them called this eudaimonia. You can see that word there [referencing the handout], which we can–and most of the time today do, translate that Greek word now as “flourishing”.

The focus of ancient philosophers was defining the well lived-life, and many of them called this eudaimonia.The focus on eudaimonia or flourishing is found throughout the many and varied forms of a lot of Greek philosophy, for example, Etoicism, and later Epicureanism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism. Even though these each have, at times, radically different visions of how we are to be in the world what is consistent underneath them is this drive for flourishing. The Stoics, for example, would answer that because of the fickleness and unpredictability of the world and its circumstances that only the fool would tie his or her happiness or true flourishing to anything that is related to emotions. This is one of the big issues in ancient philosophies: what’s the role of emotions in virtue.

The stoic sage is an ideal person, as Ellen Charry says, so in control of her impulses and bodily needs that he or she can remain unperturbed whatever may befall them. Unlike Aristotle, the Stoics believed that virtue and eudaimonia were not a function of one circumstances or fortune. One could flourish–there is the famous debate on this–even on the torture rack. You could be flourishing if you weren’t controlled by emotions. Now that approach to flourishing has actually come down to us, hasn’t it? Not so much in a philosophical school–you don’t meet a lot of actual Stoics–but in the vestige of this adjective–this lowercase “s”–isn’t it of stoic, meaning someone who sort of non-emotional. That’s where it comes from. It comes from this discussion of how do you get human flourishing, and that’s one of the views on it: not be emotional.

But all ancient philosophies offered a way of being in the world that did promise flourishing. Probably the most robust and continually influential one would indeed be that of Aristotle. Aristotle provided a rich and nuanced discussion of what the good life is and how to achieve it. It’s most famously found in his Nicomachean Ethics, written to instruct his son on how to live well and flourish in the world. His argument is that Eudaimonia is achieved by adopting a particular way of life and pursuing certain virtues, and that happiness is constitutive of being an excellent person developed and consciously practicing excellence and virtue over time. It’s an art that’s lived out.

Today, the study of philosophy has largely moved away from the subject of human flourishing. Most would observe that it’s because of the mighty influence of Immanuel Kant.Now today, the study of philosophy, as many of you know, has actually largely moved away from this, although it’s coming back in many ways, especially the topic of epistemology or “how we know”, but even in the area of moral philosophy and ethics–even in that area where that you would expect this to be the topic of discussion–even there the issue of human flourishing has actually gone away, largely. Most would observe that, it’s pretty easy to see–one of the main reasons that is, and that’s because of the mighty influence of Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s vision of ethics was radically different than the ancient view of eudaimonism. In fact, he wrote off most ancient philosopher, most ancient virtue ethics or all that ethical discussion as derisively being eudaimonistic. I mean he rejected it– that’s what he called it–because he saw, instead, that there should be principles and, of course, the famous categorical imperative, these principles are universal to all people, based in the Enlightenment rationalism that should instead that true ethics is altruistic, doing things for one’s own human flourishing was anathema to him. Well, that has a big impact on how all of us think about ethics now, and I’m going to suggest it as a big impact on how we think about Christianity as well.

Next point, the great question and answer of ancient religion. It’s not only modern philosophy and ethics, however, that’s lost focus on human flourishing. I am suggesting that modern religious understanding has also lost it relative to ancient religions. Along with ancient philosophies, most ancient religions, I would suggest, were also asking and answering the same question: “How does one flourish? What can we do to flourish?” The framing of this question within religious context is gonna be a little different, of course, than it’s going to be for Aristotle or others, because there’s going to be some strong divine being’s sense of it, or a final divine state, Nirvanic or otherwise. But religions of the ancient world are asking the very same question, I would suggest to you, and pursuing the same goal: providing their adherents with a way of being in the world that promises flourishing. So, Buddhism promises to help sentient beings end their suffering through knowledge and taking refuge in the triple gem of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Islam forges a path to a glorious, flourishing, afterlife through adherence to the Five Pillars, of course. Judaism understands the God of the Jews to be the one true and only Creator of the world who makes covenant with his people through whom alone people can experience ashrei–or flourishing–and enter into a stage, a final age of fullness of life. Those are just about examples, very briefly of course, not doing full justice to them, but showing that there is this consistent theme. It’s important to note, I’d suggest to you, that ancient Christianity is just the same way: that they are very much driven by the question of what is happiness and
human flourishing.

Like all philosophies and religions, biblical Christianity offers a vision and a promise of human flourishing. It is a vision and a promise that’s different than other religions or philosophies, in terms of its content and approach, but it’s still answering the very same questionIn fact, it’s remarkable and an unfortunate turn of events relative to Christianity’s history that few people would, if you ask them today “What is Christianity about?”, I bet very
few, especially even more conservative ones, would say Christianity is about human flourishing. I mean you just wouldn’t get that as an answer. I would suggest to you, though, you don’t have to scratch very deeply into Augustine or Aquinas or really the entire pre-modern tradition, and even to some degree the Reformers, and get that it would indeed be a large part of their answer–you’re answering the question of what it means to fully flourish. And that leads to the main point, my point here today is that like all philosophies and religions, biblical Christianity offers a vision and a promise of human flourishing. It is a vision and a promise that’s different than other religions or philosophies, in terms of its content and approach, but it’s still answering the very same question and that’s my sort of my first plank I need to begin with. Christianity is actually addressing the very same question that other ancient religions philosophies are.

Now, the testimony of the church’s history that I’ve just briefly mentioned, regarding human flourishing is very significant, and I think informative, again, even though few Christians would answer that today as what Christianity is about. But, of course, if it’s just what Christian theologians have said and it’s not in the Bible, I think many of us would want to say, “Well at best it might be helpful, but it maybe shouldn’t be a central idea for us.” But I want to suggest to you–in very brief form–that, indeed, human flourishing is a key biblical idea as well, not just a theological idea, in fact that’s where the theologians get it.

So, very briefly–and the ETS version of this and another version of this I’ve done is much deeper and more detailed–I’ve got to do this very briefly here, but: human flourishing in the Old Testament.

There are three big ideas in the Old Testament that are all actually speaking right to human flourishing, and the only reason we haven’t seen it is because of what’s happened in our history of theology.Of course in approaching a corpus of literature so large and diverse and chronologically extended as the Jewish Scriptures, we’re always in the danger of reductionism and oversimplification. The entirety of the Old Testament can’t be boiled down to one idea or one perspective. There’s a powerful and overarching diversity, of course, in many different vantage points, but one such approach–that I’d suggest to you is very helpful–is indeed to examine some key ideas. Now even that is–in the modern period, the 20th century– became sort of passé,, but I’m hoping we’re somewhat beyond, a sort of, the hegemony of James Barr, and sort of making us ever afraid of looking at certain words because words do serve as strong hangers and concepts serve as hangers on which big ideas in the Bible hang. I guess that’s what hangers do, they hang things. So, I think you know there’s always the danger of word studies–I’m not unaware of those things– but I think it is helpful to look at some big ideas, and concepts, and words, and see how they function in the Bible and what kind of role they play. And I want to suggest to you that actually there are three big ideas in the Old Testament that all actually are speaking right to human flourishing, and the only reason we haven’t seen it is because of what’s happened in our own sort of history of theology, where we’ve lost the focus on human flourishing as what the point of the Bible and theology is.

So, the first of these: shalom. Ss soon as I say that, you could probably, immediately, begin to see that it relates, I think in many ways, to human flourishing. The Hebrew idea of shalom, often translated–probably, a little unfortunately–with the word “peace” in English. In the Hebrew Old Testament, forms of shalom occur all over the place and many related meanings. It’s actually a cluster of ideas, the way shalom is used. Consistently, many scholars have observed it really has to
do with “wholeness” ultimately or “wellness” in that sense, and it’s a state–it can be a wishing of someone else to have prosperity and wholeness. It can be a state–a relationship that is wholeness, free from conflict, and called shalom. That’s where our “peace” idea kind of comes from. And more generally, it can be described as the person and/or society that is functioning together in harmony, and completeness, and flourishing.Just think about it. That’s exactly how shalom was depicted, and there are lots of biblical examples we could give.

Of the cluster ideas that communicate “flourishing”, I do think Shalom is probably the most significant of them, really the comprehensive umbrella term for human health, and wholeness resulting in strength, and fertility, and longevity, etc. “Shalom-ness”–as I like to call–it is the general state of well-being or security that results from living wisely and
covenantal relationship with God. Now, unfortunately, again as is often with the case with any translation, we have come to translate this word shalom with the word “peace”, which for us–I’m afraid–is, has too narrow of a couple of meanings. It can mean, on the one hand, either absence of conflict, especially, maybe in a military or interpersonal sense or reference to one’s inner tranquility or serenity. And those notions, I’d suggest you, are not absent from biblical shalom, but they’re too limited and distinct. Those are parts of the bigger idea of shalom. Absence of conflict and personal tranquility are really benefits, I’d suggest to you, of the biblical idea of shalom or well-being, but not coextensive with that with it. Thus, because of our more limited sense of
English “peace”, I think we’ve often missed this notion of shalom and how it really is speaking to wellness, and wholeness, and flourishing. Indeed, through its comprehensive nature and relationship to several other key biblical concepts, again, I think shalom is a main way in which God’s entire redemptive work is actually described in the Bible.

Just step back and just sort of start thinking about the prophets and how they speak. God’s redemptive work is very much described as bringing shalom to the earth. One can immediately think of pictures from the Old Testament’s vision of the eschatological age, when God’s reign is restored on the earth. The needy are protected. The wolf will lie down with the lamb. The cow will feed with the bear, and the child will play with
the viper, from Isaiah 11. The poor will receive justice. The lame will walk. All of this is described as shalom, God’s restoration, all those very practical things and places of flourishing are described as shalom.

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Associate Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Jonathan Pennington is an associate professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Research Doctoral Studies. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is the author of several books, including The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (2017) and Reading the Gospels Wisely (2012)

Posted by Jonathan Pennington