Human Flourishing: Scientific Insight and Spiritual Wisdom in Uncertain Times

Written by Andrew Briggs and Michael J. Reiss Reviewed By Lewis Varley

Andrew Briggs and Michael Reiss’s recent book, Human Flourishing: Scientific Insights and Spiritual Wisdom in Uncertain Times, is a stimulating and thought-provoking read. Written by two scientists who are Christians, the book aims to bring together scientific insights and spiritual wisdom to answer the question, “What does it mean to talk of human flourishing?”

The authors clarify that they are not aiming to write a work of apologetics. Those who read the book for that purpose will likely come away frustrated. Still, the authors are forthright about their own Christian faith. They include biblical truth and wisdom unabashedly throughout the book.

In the preface, the authors contend that all people want their lives to flourish—and most want the same for those close to them—yet, few are clear on how to achieve such flourishing. Some are skeptical about the value of spiritual wisdom in this discussion. Others question whether science can help in vital decision making. The authors’ view is that both scientific insight and spiritual wisdom are needed to help people live well.

In part 1, Briggs and Reiss unpack what they see as the three essential dimensions of human flourishing: the material, the relational, and the transcendent. These three dimensions are interconnected, but each is necessary to any discussion of the nature of human flourishing. In part 2, they move to highlight the three “pillars” that undergird these dimensions: truth, purpose and meaning. Utilizing three case studies as illustrations, part 3 tests their argument, demonstrating how scientific insight coupled with spiritual wisdom can better promote human flourishing. Here they unpack some of the limits of science as a standalone approach for human flourishing, including the limits of predictability, the lack of consensus in key scientific areas, the reductionism of some evolutionary biology, and the inability of science to provide moral values. In the final section, the authors conclude that the one essential resource for human flourishing is love.

The scope of the book is impressive as well as being contemporary. Although written before the launch of ChatGPT, the authors consider AI and machine learning in their assessment of contemporary approaches to flourishing. In keeping with their broader assessment of the relationship between science and spirituality, the authors conclude, “If machine learning is to contribute as it should to human flourishing, humans will need to combine the best of scientific insight with the best of spiritual wisdom” (290–91).

The greatest value of the book is in the way the authors move beyond commonly held views on human flourishing to argue for the need not only for a material dimension to flourishing, but also for relational and transcendent dimensions. In some ways their work echoes that of American psychologist Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis [New York: Basic Books, 2005], The Righteous Mind [New York: Pantheon, 2012]). Haidt, however, does not claim to be a person of faith and consequently reduces most things in life to evolutionary mechanisms and responses. Briggs and Reiss, as Christians, provide a much less reductionistic account of both the relational and the transcendent parts of our lives. In turn, their faith allows them to speak naturally of truth, purpose, and meaning in ways that Haidt struggles to adequately address. Using the terminology of Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, the authors are quite comfortable moving beyond the “immanent frame.” The authors conclude their work well in the final section, “Human Flourishing Fueled by Love.” As one might expect, this concluding chapter affords the authors the opportunity to most clearly present the impact their Christian faith has on their proposals.

While this book is largely helpful and I commend it to readers interested in the topic, it is not without flaws. For example, from an evangelical perspective, the authors would do well to focus more on the distinctive nature of the Christian gospel compared to other religions and expressions of spirituality. While they identify themselves as Christians, the authors don’t establish distinctively Christian boundaries in giving attention to the “transcendent dimension.” A reader is left wondering whether the authors distinguish between mere spirituality and distinctively Christian understandings of transcendence. Likewise, there was a surprising lack of attention given to the theological idea of common grace, which would have provided a clearer undergirding for developing our understanding and definition of human flourishing. Finally, while it was not the authors’ main goal to write either an apologetic or an explicitly theological text, it is surprising that the person and work of Jesus is not mentioned explicitly in the concluding section which focused on the importance of “love in action.”

Overall, however, despite the critiques outlined above, Briggs and Reiss achieve their goals and they deserve a wide reading among pastors and thoughtful Christians. As a response to reductionist views of human flourishing which attend only to the material sphere Human Flourishing is a cogent, firmly grounded analysis. Especially as reflection on the meaning of human flourishing continues to increase in the academy as well as in wider society, this work will prove a helpful tool as we seek to engage meaningfully with our non-Christian friends.

Lewis Varley

Lewis Varley
Eastwest College of Intercultural Studies
Hamilton, New Zealand

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