What does human flourishing look like? How about a rising tide lifting all boats? Not original with me. Nor is the tension that others tie to this image.
A rising tide comes from love. God is love. Love is the enjoyment of another while seeking to expand the circle of love. The Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy one another. They seek to expand the circle by having the Son wed a bride—originally, the entire human race. This means everyone is supernaturally connected. We rise and fall together.
We see this in God’s command: “seek the flourishing—shalom—of the city, for as it flourishes, so shall you” (Jer. 29:7). When others flourish, we flourish. When others do not flourish, the faith community does not flourish. So we seek the flourishing of all.
This gave rise to commonweal, a 14th century term for the general welfare. Weal refers to wellbeing and wealth. This explains the Puritans calling America “a city set on a hill”—a new Jerusalem—Yeru (city) and shalom (wellbeing). America was founded for the wellbeing of all, which is why four states are called Commonwealths (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Kentucky). The flourishing of all explains the New England Council (Chamber of Commerce) slogan: “A rising tide lifts all the boats.”
A rising tide aligns with Duns Scotus’ “scandal of particularity.” He felt a community always shows itself in the specific, the concrete, and the particular—refusing to be an abstraction. A rising tide seeks the wellbeing of this local community, that individual.
Scotus wasn’t, however, promoting individualism. The cult of the individual came later with the Enlightenment. It sunk deep into American soil. By the 1830s, Tocqueville defined an American as “the individualist.” In his 1871 essay “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman wrote that purpose of democracy is the full flowering of individuals. America’s flowering led to excessive individualism. Today we too narrowly frame how we imagine flourishing. We think if my boat is rising (my income, my business, my nest egg, my family, my church), then my faith is flourishing.
Hate to sound harsh, but God might say hogwash. Our flourishing is tied to the entire community’s flourishing (Jer.29:7). Kathy and I live in Annapolis, a trifurcated town (black, Hispanic, white). The black and Hispanic schools are generally poor performers. The streets are not safe at night. In these neighborhoods, a rising tide means if you don’t have a boat, you drown. If your boat leaks, you’re going down. If it’s tethered to a dock (i.e., you lack the means to shift work in a shifting economy), your boat is going under. Move your boat to higher ground? Easier said than done. Watch this short film on how climate change adversely affects coffee growers in Guatemala. Is this human flourishing?
A rising tide asks specific questions that often scandalize us. Take the Clapham Sect. They enlisted Wedgwood to make a dinner plate asking a particular question: “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” As guests enjoyed a meal, that specific question appeared at the bottom of the plate. Clapham was asking: Does this look like human flourishing?
A rising tide asks particular questions that scandalize me. My wife Kathy works in the poorer part of town. I occasionally visit her school. I look around and ask: Is this flourishing? Do I want to I live here? Not really. Am I a fraud? Maybe.
A rising tide complicates my convenient picture of flourishing. I didn’t appreciate this until we moved to the homeless highway in town. No—not the ‘hood. The gentrified part of town. Homeless folks knock on our door at the most inconvenient times.
Michael Gerson recently wrote about life being “splendidly complicated.” He learned this from Catholic social thought, which is “If, then” (if they flourish, then we flourish) and based on two ideas: solidarity and subsidiarity. Gerson, an evangelical, says this is an important intellectual piece missing in modern evangelicalism. Solidarity means you see the weakest and most vulnerable members of your town and ask a specific question: Is this flourishing? Subsidiarity means local institutions are the best solutions, for problems are systemic, requiring systemic, institutional solutions.
Younger evangelicals might be starting to add this important piece. One example is Rising Tide Capital, a non-profit organization seeking the flourishing of the city by building strong businesses and families. They imagine flourishing as a rising tide.
E. B. White might have as well. The author of such beloved children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” A rising tide provokes both desires, which is why it’s the right image even though it leaves me feeling torn.
What can we do to fix this? Next week I’ll describe the most effective infrastructure for promoting a rising tide.