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Andrew Briggs, Michael J. Reiss, Human Flourishing: Scientific Insight & Spiritual Wisdom in Uncertain Times, 2021

To study human flourishing, like studying wellbeing and happiness, appears as a nice and alluring topic, but it becomes quite elusive. A scientific enquiry into those issues seems nearly outlandish; at most we associate them to wisdom traditions, and lastly to a conspicuous industry that focuses on wellness and develops suggestive programs. However, possibly we can benefit from looking at these issues applying a more scientific approach, or a methodology that makes good use of scientific insight and analysis. Possibly we have more to gain than to lose from that attempt, at least if that approach assists us to better define our subject, to distinguish among several orientations, to discern factors involved and to address particular issues, like, to what extent religion is linked to that generally desired goal: to flourish in our lives.

The authors are clearly well endowed to undertake this project. Andrew Briggs is a physicist, professor of nanomaterials and quantum computing at Oxford University; Michael Reiss is professor of Science Education at University College of London, and priest in the Church of England. Both have published in the field of science and religion, and Reiss is President of the International Society for Science and Religion. That expertise surely helps to develop a more focused and nuanced view on that important topic, something we badly need. The proposed treatment clearly goes beyond self-help books and other commercial views on these questions.

We need, as a first step to better define the topic of human flourishing, and the book provides very valuable indications. In big strokes, this idea is closely related to other topics, like wellness and happiness, or life quality or fullness of life; the semantic field is quite plural, and some nuances can be associated to each term. In the case of “flourishing”, the authors suggest opposing it to “languishing”: that ideal implies a process or positive maturation in which a person is able to develop its own capacities, and to give the best he or she can offer for him or her, for those close to us and for all. This description could become too ambitious, but it clearly points to a difference regarding the related terms of wellness or happiness: we are talking in the first case rather about a dynamic condition, which escapes what could lead towards a waste of living capabilities and energies, and which ensures a right direction and means to develop those aptitudes. Possibly the terms coined by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen of “capabilities” and “affordances”, as conditions for a global development, could come closer to the idea that flourishing expresses, and which points to a conjunction between what we have as a potential resource, and its realization through the right education, effort, and commitment.

The book helps then to better describe the dimensions involved in such a virtual impulse towards expressing the best in our life: material, relational and transcendental, and to give content and orientation in these different fields. These topics correspond to the first chapters. The material dimension concerns those conditions that make a difference in living standards, like health, poverty, equality; these are basic conditions, but do not imply that flourishing is impossible when things become less favourable, or we live in harder circumstances. The relational dimension appears as obvious too, but this chapter explores many ways to declinate the same theme, as relations assume so manyfold expressions. The transcendental dimension is perhaps less evident, but the authors point to the important role that self-transcending can play in reaching good levels of flourishing, something not necessarily reduced to usual religious institutions. In all cases, empirical studies, testimonies and data come out to assist in discerning how those dimensions contribute to an effective maturation.

The second part of the book is devoted to the “pillars of human flourishing”: truth, purpose, and meaning. A basic point in this broad parcourse is that these factors are associated to personal choices. At this point, the reader easily gets the impression that too much is at stake when trying to express a theory on flourishing. Indeed, dealing with truth, purpose and meaning appears as a much broader program than what could be expected from a more psychologically driven treatment. For Briggs and Reiss, we cannot build such a vision ignoring that a life that flourishes needs to account for truth in its several dimensions: scientific, moral and religious; all them appear as involved in that program, and the question that arises is: who to trust when we try to flourish? The study of purpose and meaning, which knows in the last years fresh impulse and more accurate scientific treatment, gives a hand in order to clarify things and to get a better understanding of those unavoidable “pillars” when trying to flourish. We discover that those pillars are entrenched with the dimensions formerly described, and that meaning has a material, a relational, and a transcendent dimension as well. Meaning and purpose appear as very inclusive experiences, and guiding flourishing towards its intended aims.

The last section of the book gathers tree chapters that describe cases of study relevant – according to the authors – to achieving the goal of personal flourishing in the present context and in Western societies. The first one reports on unpredictability, a growing concern in our own milieu despite the many controls developed in the last times; it has clearly an effect on flourishing, since this high contingency level opens for uncertain future scenarios that render the model of flourishing very open. The second case is religion, and how it might be related to flourishing. Once more, an amount of data and fresh studies assist the authors to better describe that positive influence, which nevertheless knows many nuances. The third topic concerns new technologies, with a particular focus on artificial intelligence or machine learning, and genetic intervention as means to improve human condition. In this case too, it is apparent how such developments could influence our way to conceive flourishing, in positive and negative ways.

A concluding chapter is devoted to love, and it states how much loving is deeply linked to flourishing; an arrival point that was implicit in the second dimension – the relational – formerly described. It is quite intuitive, and so we can hardly imagine any program on human growth that does not include a strong capacity to love and engage with others and their happiness. In other words, surely, one’s own flourishing is deeply linked to the thriving of those close to us and of our natural communities. But it is linked as well to the ability to address and to cope with the great risks that threaten our world, and hence any personal plan to flourish.

This is an important and necessary book, and one that not only inspires but informs about that central topic. From my own point of view, that research should be at the centre of any program caring for the interaction between science, religion and theology. In fact, here we find interesting convergencies and a shared ground, where those coming from the scientific disciplines, and those coming from theology can clearly collaborate to build a better world.

This book offers a very broad panorama about many areas and fields, and an updating for those persons less informed about developments in a vast range of subjects and areas that know a growing production and new insights in the last few years. This broad range offers an almost encyclopaedic vision but suffers from less capacity to deepen on most issues at stake, from which we get some taste. This is the case, for instance, on religion and flourishing, which deserves a focused chapter, but insufficient to cover the many issues and research developed in the last years. For example, just in the area “religious coping” we can register more than 4000 entries in a specialised bibliographic repository (IBCSR). The book engages us to pursue this program, and we need to be grateful to the authors to raise the issue of human flourishing at the high level they have placed it. Indeed, after their wise and engaging analysis nobody could ignore how important that issue is, both for theologians and for scientists, and for humanists as well. Theology needs absolutely to engage more on such a research program, together with the study of religion and wellbeing or life quality, if we really want to express in categories that everybody can understand what means that Christ is our saviour, or that faith and sacraments save our lives.


Lluis Oviedo OFM
Antonianum University, Rome


Reprinted from Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 1(1) March 2022, pp. 37-39