What’s the path to human flourishing? An intriguing suggestion from Andy Crouch

At Leadership Journal‘s Redeeming Work Twin Cities event yesterday, Andy Crouch winds up his thought-provoking opening talk with a magic (well, how about “providential”) formula for human flourishing through human work. Ready?

Authority + Vulnerability = Flourishing

More than any other creature, he argues, image bearers (humans) have Authority, and Vulnerability.

Authority = capacity for meaningful action (more than any other creature)

Vulnerability = exposure to meaningful risk (more than any other creature)

We humans are exposed to risk, and we know deeply the possibility of loss, the way no other creatures do. From the beginning of our lives, we are exposed to vulnerability as no other creature. For the first few years of our lives, we are almost totally dependent on our parents, unlike other creatures, who begin doing things independently minutes after they come into this world.

As a simple example: Among all creatures, only humans are “naked” as we are (except for weird, disturbing hairless cats. Don’t google that: you can never “unsee” it!). This nakedness exposes us to many dangers . . .

Andy argues that these two qualities – authority and vulnerability – make us image bearers.

He constructs a two by two grid that plots human conditions in which our work bears God’s image, and some others where it does not.

He puts authority on the vertical axis, vulnerability on the horizontal.

To be high in both areas is to be an image bearer. That’s where image bearing lives – in great capacity to act, and great exposure to risk.

Think about the things that have led to the most flourishing in the work you’ve been part of. Someone acted with real authority, meaningfully, and they took a risk.

As an example, Andy points out the space in which we are meeting – Art House North. This place exists because Sara and Troy Graves took an authoritative action, risking their resources by buying the building in this urban area, pulling up stakes and moving in from the white bread suburbs, and throwing it open for God to use as he sees fit. They had no idea how it would all work out, in the least (and by their testimony during the conference, they still don’t! But they sure blessed us while we were there).

All flourishing requires this sort of authority and risk.

Andy admits that not everyone gets to live in that sweet spot where those two qualities intersect at maximum potency. For example, where might a person be if they are in a situation of high vulnerability and little authority? Poverty, for one. When you are poor you are exposed to all the vulnerability of humans, but little capacity for meaningful action.

(I think of the recent research on health inequities that shows that those with little autonomy and authority in their work lives suffer from elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which degrades the ability of the heart to function well, causes many health problems, and negatively affects quality and length of life.)

What about low authority, low vulnerability? One young person says: video games – they contain a simulation of authority, but no real vulnerability, and no real-world flourishing: Wii tennis gives you no authority to play real tennis. Or how about a cruise (not one of the ones that goes horribly wrong with illness, hitting rocks, etc.!) There you have VERY low vulnerability – all is taken care of. But you also have low authority.

Or you can use the word “safety” for that quadrant: A lot of humans think “That’s where I want to be.” But being on a cruise is awesome for 3 days – would be hell, however, for three years. In our society many can live in gated community, off their savings, affluence. But that just creates another set of problems. It’s not real flourishing . . .

How about high authority and low vulnerability? Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? I can act in the world, but I’m not at risk. (And here’s an “aha” moment for you:)

That is the promise of idolatry.

Every idol makes two promises: First, “You shall be like God,” and second, “You shall not surely die.” Sound familiar? That’s the two promises of the snake in the garden. Turn from God, eat the apple, and you’ll get all authority in the world (like God) and no dependence at all. High authority, low vulnerability.

The world that was made to be full of image bearers is now full of idols. The most powerful brand in the world is the symbol of the forbidden fruit (you can guess what’s on the screen at that point)! This technology can help us feel omniscient through the glowing rectangle, but at no risk . . . .

In this quadrant is birthed injustice, too, which happens when one group gets to move up to this quadrant, by relegating another group to the low authority high vulnerability quadrant. This is the world today. What is missing in so many places in today’s world is the image-bearing quadrant: high authority with high vulnerability.

One last thought as Andy winds up: How will the image be restored?

It won’t be restored if God’s people just say “Take me out of here, Jesus,” donning the rubber gloves of the culture-averse and hiding out in our churches.

To foster human flourishing, we must step out of the place of idolatry and injustice, the idolatrous chasing after the promise of high authority and low vulnerability, which promises to make us like God, and which so often relegates whole groups of people to the low/low quadrant . . . We must go into the world, restore the possibility of true flourishing.

As the applause dies down, I reflect on the event posters I’ve seen around this remarkable repurposed church, Art House North. They bear these words from the book of Proverbs: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” And I wonder, What if we really operated in that fruitful place of high authority and high vulnerability – stepping out, taking authority, putting ourselves at real risk, and seeking to make the world a better place?

Maybe prospering.

Maybe rejoicing.

There are no guarantees. We may fail.

That seems to be what real vulnerability means, in this fallen world, in the work to which we put our hands. But there seems to be no other path to flourishing.

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About Chris Armstrong

Dr. Chris Armstrong is a professor of church history, author of Patron Saints for Postmoderns (IVP, 2009) and Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis (Baker Academic, forthcoming), and founding director of the new Institute for Faith and Vocation at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. Chris believes the reason Protestant evangelicals find ourselves urgently needing to have a conversation about "integrating faith and work" is that we have divorced our faith from our material and social lives.


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