This post is the first in the category of posts on “Rudimentaries,” my personal takes on some more traditional tenants of Christianity. In this piece, I discuss God’s intentions for human flourishing.
“When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well.” – Miroslav Volf, pp. xvi in “A Public Faith”
Since the dawn of the Reformation, many Christians introduced the line “Soli Deo Gloria” into their thinking about life. It basically means, to God alone be the glory. You may have noticed this thinking in your own life or while in a community setting with other Christians. It’s usually proposed as an alternative to the vision of life in which the glory of humans, or their own pride, is held in the highest esteem. Put simply, the Christian life is not ultimately about the self-glorification of humanity, but about giving glory to God alone. As the misgivings of the pre-reformation period might suggest, Christianity had become (or at least drew close toward) a religion of excess and worldly ambition. Some clergy were no longer focused on distributing the sacraments and acting as a vehicle for God’s grace to the world; rather, they sought after the fame and power a high ranking clergy position could offer them. So, it seems the motto, to God alone be the glory, was in good intention, and had desirable effects in re-positioning the spotlight.
In our times, unlike the Reformation in many ways, the context is different. Christians today who use the catchphrase often, but not always, suggest that the sole purpose of human life is to glorify God. I don’t have a problem with the general principle per say, but the more specific way it can be construed harmfully. We can be convinced that all we do must be designed with the intention of making God happy, of always obeying the commands of scripture unquestionably, and more significantly, to regard our own happiness and well-being with contempt. This last point is what strikes me the most. Christians have many times used the mantra of God’s glory to suggest that nothing else on earth matters except giving glory to God. There are many problems with that.
First, and most briefly, it hints of ancient paganism in which the gods created humanity so that they could live a life of luxury while humans supplied their basic need for food (hence, sacrificing), and so that the gods could watch the world’s affairs as if it were a chess game, doing with humans only what gave them happiness. In this way, humans understood themselves as the servants of God, designed only to do the gods’ bidding and to supply their dietary needs. This is a very warped sense of giving God glory.
Second, Christians have always affirmed the fullness of God prior to creation. God did not create because of some lack within Godself. There was no compulsion (to meet a basic need) in God to create. The divine Trinitarian life prospered all on its own, unhindered by its own love long before the universe was created. This basic tenant of the doctrine of creation implies that God is in no real “need” of anything from humans. God does not need us to provide glory. There is not an eternal quota of glory that God must receive. This was not why God created. On the contrary, Christians have always affirmed that God’s creative choice, though ultimately mysterious, was out of love; God desired to share Godself with other creatures, to love and provide for that creation. In other words, the ultimate reference point of love is from God toward creation. God’s love is not selfish, and the act of creation was not for ulterior purposes. Instead, it was the very extension of divine love outside of itself, to a creation. And, while our human response to that divine love is important and necessary, framed as the sole purpose of our existence as giving God glory falls short of fully realizing God’s relation with the world.
I offer up a slightly modified alternative. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not primarily a message that seeks to instruct humans how to give God what God desires. God’s omnipotence already solves that problem (read: God always fulfills God’s intentions and always has the power to bring about God’s will). Jesus Christ came to give the gift of grace to humans, but not merely the punitive kind so that we all avoid punishment by being declared or marked “not guilty.” Jesus came to give the kind of grace that was more essential. The kind that impacted our very being. Many Christians throughout the ages have described this as the gift of God’s own self. This grace not only empowers humans to live rightly, but provides an element of communion between themselves and God that had previously been impossible due to sin.
This grace is fundamentally directed toward humanity. The unconditional love of God does not seek return. It is not like a loan that God needs to be repaid. If it were, it wouldn’t be unconditional nor free. God’s unrestricted grace, realized through the gospel of Jesus Christ, is aimed at the flourishing of all creation. For humanity, this means that God both desires and provides for our ultimate flourishing (in this life and the next). The primary goal of the Incarnation was not so that God could get back his glory or what God deserved from us, but was rather an expression of the divine love which looks toward the flourishing of humans. It is a vision of humanity as intended, properly relating to one another and to creation as a whole, reinvigorated with connection to God through the gift of grace. This my friends, is the gospel.
As I sketch this out, you may be thinking to yourself that these two options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In other words, there may be a third option in which human flourishing results in the greater glory of God. In fact, this is a variant of the vision I am putting forth. If, on the one hand, everything I said about God and creation is true, and if the gospel is the expression of God’s desire for our own flourishing, then the results of the gospel are simultaneously the fulfilling of God’s desire for creation more generally. However, I do want to stress the point I made earlier that we cannot add glory to God. Nonetheless, as we live out our created intention by receiving the love and grace of the gospel, God’s act of creation is made good. It is no longer a failure plagued by irreversibly evil human nature, evidenced by years of wars and suffering, but is rather the experience of human flourishing by the grace of God in which a happy life is realized; not necessarily one free from all pain and suffering (we will have to wait for that) but one in communion with God’s self in a way that transforms all of our inclinations towards self-glorification or disrupted relationships.
In a sense then, yes human flourishing, within the bounds of gospel love ultimately does mean the glorification of God.
Once again, if you enjoyed this piece, please share it, either below using the social media links or in your own conversations with fellow Christians as we all try to articulate the vision of life well-lived that Christianity offers the world.
In other news: fellow grads, check out my friend Krystiana’s recent post On Endings and Continuity.