November Editorial: Between Freedom and Flourishing

A man is standing in his favourite shop. He has plenty of time and unlimited funds. He is alone – there is nobody to interfere with his browsing and buying. What freedom! Not so! The man is a recovering alcoholic and the shop is an off-licence. The best hope for his freedom is for someone to come along who cares enough to drag him away. Unhindered, his free choices will lead him into captivity, whereas he may need to consent to a form of captivity if he is to safeguard his freedom.

It seems to me that this little parable captures the difference between two contrasting emphases: an emphasis on human freedom, and an emphasis on human flourishing. A great deal of discourse on freedom is premised on the notion that to be free is to be able to act in accordance with one’s desires. I am free when I can do what I want, when I want, so long as I’m not interfering with the freedom of others to do likewise. In this view, free choice is regarded as good in itself.

The concept of human flourishing is premised on the notion that there is such a thing as an abiding human nature. If we make choices in a manner that harmonises with our human nature, we will flourish; if we don’t, we will fail to flourish. We will experience disharmony, unhappiness and a lack of freedom.

A human flourishing perspective sees freedom as the ability to act in a way that is conducive to flourishing. If our free choices are not conducive to flourishing, sooner or later they will lead to captivity. In contrast, an accumulation of choices that respect our nature will lead to ever greater freedom.

In one perspective, the exercise of free will is itself the primary good; in the other, freedom is the ability to choose what is good. One stresses freedom from; the other, freedom for. The contrast between these two approaches raises very fundamental questions regarding who and what we are as human beings. Can we manipulate and choose ourselves indefinitely? Are we infinitely malleable, or might we arrive at a point where we break?

Our Christian understanding insists that we have a nature, that we are made in the image of God, that we are broken by sin and mended by grace. A common secular understanding is that we are not tied to a nature or essence, but that the self is realised in the act of free choice. This, no less than the Christian perspective, is taken on faith.

Which is the saner perspective, the better story? The one that offers a vision of human flourishing, or the one that lacks a vision of human good against which to measure flourishing? These two perspectives finally reduce to freedom from everything for nothing in particular, or freedom to do what is good in a way that leads to flourishing.

As Christians, we inhabit the better story. As pastoral workers, volunteers and clergy, we are in the service of the wiser, more humane and logically consistent view of reality. ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (Jn 8:32) – even if it seems to hinder you from time to time. Ultimately, every pastoral struggle is a struggle for the better story.

Click here for more resources from our November issue of Intercom.