Lately, I’ve been thinking about the word flourish. This morning, I finished up a stool I made with a scrap of cyprus, the last bit of several thick planks I retrieved from my friend Robert’s shop on South Main before he sold it to a developer and moved to Franklin. The board was pretty knotty and checked, but the stool will live in the shop, as we don’t really need one in the house. Making it was mostly an excuse to play at turning square stock into eight-sided legs with wedged round tenons and to figure out how to splay those legs a bit by shimming the seat just so when I cut the mortises on the drill press.
At this point, it’s probably important to say that, for the purposes of this blog post, none of the previous paragraph needs to make sense to you except the words flourish, shop, and stool.
The stool is simple, so some would say it’s one with few flourishes. I don’t like this use of the word, because it sounds like flourishing is about frivolous, superficial, unnecessary prettiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Flourishing is actually a pretty useful word to describe the abundant life Jesus said he came to give us. And, yes, a subtext here is that the practice of spending time in my shop does seem to help me flourish in my relationships with other humans.
Some of my reading on recent advances in artificial intelligence has turned my thoughts toward what it means for humans to flourish. I have a profound worry that we’re once more living the out myth of Icarus, who created wax wings that carried him too close to the sun. I worry that we don’t have the humility or the wisdom to be trusted with the power of our technologies. But there’s also a sense that technological progress charges on without stopping to ask whether or when it is actually serving the cause of human flourishing, or the flourishing of other creatures, or of creation itself.
This was made chillingly clear to me when the journalist Ezra Klein, who has spent a lot of time with the leaders in AI technology, said that when he asked this group what they thought the chances were that AI would slip out of our control and bring human civilization to an end, the median response was 10%. In other words, more than half of the most influential developers of this technology believe there is more than a 10% chance it will lead to the end of human life on Earth. I hope they’re terribly wrong. But why in the world would one charge ahead with such a project if the risks were too great?
I believe Christians have a crucial role to play in restoring and nurturing a common understanding of human flourishing that should shape all our relationships and endeavors. It should form not only our congregations and families and closest friendships but also our cities and our politics, our labor, our creativity, our play, our education, and our art.
As far as I can tell, there is nothing in Christian scripture or theology to support the notion that if people pursue their own self-interest, with no obligation to the common good or the flourishing of their neighbors, things will turn out for the best. What I do believe is that you don’t have to be Christian or religious at all to know in your bones that we’re made to flourish in ways that have little to do with the accumulation of power or progress for its own sake and that we’re made to seek the flourishing of other lives as well.
What all of this means for me, is that we, as Calvary, have a beautiful opportunity to be people whose lives are organized by timeless ideals of what is good and beautiful and true. To live as such a community, we may have to let go of a prevalent infatuation with flourishes like limitless progress or power for its own sake and seek the flourishing we know this broken, brilliant, beloved creation is made for. It’s a search that will require a little humility, a little discernment, and a lot of love, and joy, and kindness as well. But given the choice, which we really do have, is there some other way of life you’d rather take your chances on? If not, let’s give it a go. Together.