Transcript of the "Stories of Impact" podcast episode

Faith & Human Flourishing with Bishop Steven Croft

Tavia Gilbert:  Welcome to Stories of Impact. I’m writer/producer Tavia Gilbert, and every first and third Tuesday, journalist Richard Sergay and I bring you conversations about the art and science of human flourishing.

As temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere warm, we’re enjoying the unfurling of the season’s first cheerful flowers, budding green leaves on trees, and the return of morning birdsong after a long winter. For many, the spring also heralds a season of religious rituals celebrating rebirth and renewal. 

So it’s perfect timing that this week’s episode of the Stories of Impact Podcast highlights the relationship between religion, faith, and human flourishing. Our conversation today is with Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, Church of England, for whom a belief in God and human flourishing — both individual and societal — are inextricably linked. 

Bishop Croft: I think the fundamental virtue that contributes to human flourishing is love. Love needs to be received before it can be given, and we find our identity in knowing that we are loved. And for a Christian, that identity is found most profoundly in the knowledge that we are loved by God. 

But we find that identity also in being loved by others, and by love I mean of course something much more than romantic love between two people who fall in love, but love which is a lifelong steady commitment and regard and which then becomes the foundation for the human personality to grow and to flower and in time to flourish. 

That’s the kind of love that in a good family and parents are able to give to their children to see them to grow to maturity. It’s very hard work to live in that way, but it’s also extremely fulfilling. The other two profoundly Christian virtues for human flourishing are faith and hope. Faith not only in God, but faith, the ability to trust others, and hope for a continually evolving and better future that one day all things will be well. 

Tavia Gilbert: Bishop Croft believes that human flourishing doesn’t just enrich individuals, but communities and human society.   

Bishop Croft: I would describe human flourishing as a situation where people can grow to their full potential, and live life in all its fullness, and it’s not only about individuals, but about all societies being able to flourish together.

I judge the flourishing of a society by whether it is fair and transparent, and whether it cares for the vulnerable — particularly the old and the young, but also those who may otherwise struggle.

Human flourishing means to me the fulfilling of potential, to express their humanity in different ways, to have freedom of choice to direct their own lives to have sufficient resources to live well, and the ability at each stage of life to make choices which are about the fulfilling of potential, particularly the freedom to grow in relationship with God, and with others, and in understanding the world around us.

For me, it’s having enough, being content with having enough, for the basic necessities of life, and for families and for human society, and opportunity to grow into the future. Christians use the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” — enough for each day, so not hoarding for the future, but being able to be content with that day’s gifts. It is, obviously, food, shelter, clothing, and the capacity for relationship, is enough, and actually enjoying and making the most of those things.

Tavia Gilbert: Bishop Croft believes that God wants humans to flourish, and to that end, and so God gives grace to help us develop that deep relationship, and aid us in living our best lives.

Bishop Croft: Grace is a really important part of human flourishing, because to flourish really well as a human being, I need to know and have a relationship with my creator. And that relationship is fundamentally a relationship with grace. So that the attitude in which I live best is an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation for the good gifts in life and being content. And it’s that gift of contentment, founded on grace, which makes a difference between never being content, no matter how much you have, in terms of material wealth, and satisfaction.

Tavia Gilbert: Bishop Croft believes that as we grow in relationship with God, our bonds with others deepen, as does our willingness to give others space to uniquely express themselves. When we make space for the authentic individual expression of ourselves and others, we all flourish together.

Bishop Croft: There is an element of individual flourishing which is common across societies and cultures, human joy and happiness and love and affection. And there is a concept of community which is present across all different cultures as well. So I think the human similarities outweigh the differences.

Across a church congregation or a company of 250 people, or a country with millions of citizens, you discover that each will flourish in different ways. And the key to enabling that, therefore, is to listen to the different ways in which people flourish and to allow them to listen to themselves.

Tavia Gilbert: Having both the confidence and the humility to listen well — not only to those just like us, but those who are not — is how each of us can be leaders in developing our own flourishing and the flourishing of our society.

Bishop Croft: The single biggest way in which leadership contributes to human flourishing is through the exercise of humility. And those who hold power, exercising what is best for the other. So humility becomes a form of love in that relationship to enable flourishing.

The main challenge in our contemporary world is creating the space in which people can listen to each other, and know and be known as persons. That is the gift which enables people to thrive and to become the people they’re intended to be. 

And ironically, much innovation in our present age strips away that ability to listen to each other, and fills our lives with things which obscure that listening. So I think some of the deeper traditions in our faiths about rest and rhythms of work and space and night and day are the things that help human persons to flourish really well.

When I’m listened to, I am actually able to articulate for myself what it is that’s deep within. And the tangle of stuff that’s in me, is unknotted and unthreaded, so I come to realize more fully what the obstacle to my own flourishing is. 

And when I listen to somebody else, I appreciate that they are responding to the same situation as their neighbor in a very different way, and it’s through the listening that we can untangle together what would help that person best to flourish in their role. 

Human beings are not only individual but remarkably complex, with many different rooms within our hearts; “rooms within rooms,” as one writer has said. And to really understand someone else, is both a necessity and a gift to enable them to flourish. 

By slowing down the pace of our understanding, by attention and listening, by setting a pace of life which is sustainable, by investing in the young and the education of the young, and caring for the old. So there are many, many different ways in which we can increase human flourishing, but at the heart will be love and humility, which results in listening.

Tavia Gilbert: Cultivating relationship with God and in faith communities, seeking and embodying grace, listening generously, embracing forgiveness and redemption — all these practices give us the tools to navigate the inevitable pain of being human.

Bishop Croft: One of the things I find in large parts of our world today, where people have abandoned or are abandoning faith traditions, and especially Christianity, is that the resources to cope with and address life’s real difficulties and challenges, become thinner and thinner. So people have fewer resources to deal with serious illness or bereavement or deaths.

So part of human flourishing, I think, is equipping people with an understanding and a worldview of what it means to be human, in relationship with what the meaning of life is, and how to cope with those questions, both at an intellectual level — why are there so many bad and difficult things in the world? — and also at a personal level — what do I do when something goes wrong in mid-life, and where can I turn for those resources? 

Within the Christian faith, again, it’s something as simple as the Lord’s Prayer. When a Christian prays, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” underlying that is a whole concept that life and the world is not yet as God wants it to be. We’re on a journey to the world becoming a better place. And it’s in that horizon that I find the resources and the ability to cope with the more challenging things in life. 

Another aspect of all of that is that we’re meant to live our lives in communities — in nuclear families, yes, but wider communities. And it’s in those communities that we pass on the resources to deal with the difficulties and the pain, because somebody in that community has passed through it before we have.

Tavia Gilbert: In studying generations-old stories from one’s religious faith, we become more educated, capable, and purposeful — our time on the planet becomes filled with meaning. The wisdom and education inherent in these stories holds direction for all aspects of flourishing in our lives.

Bishop Croft: We are continually weaving stories, in order to give meaning to our lives. And the deepest stories we have woven are the stories of our faith and our religion, which have been passed down from generation to generation, and are the stories of God’s dealing with people and people in community. And they reflect both the positive side of human flourishing and teach us what makes for people not to flourish, to decline. So I think those stories and that purpose is fundamental.    

As I look down the centuries, the terms meaning and purpose have been profoundly important. And it’s a fundamental part of the human condition, to continually look for meaning and to make meaning, and to try and discover meaning in the realities around. And I think for human happiness, there needs to be meaningful and purposeful work and capacity to grow and to influence others.

We all need as children and as adults, a fundamental education, in order to understand the world and navigate through it. We all need in our work a sense of purpose and the ability to create, not to be alienated from the product of our labor, or feel that we’re being exploited or enslaved by the conditions of our work. 

I think in terms of our relationships, we need to know that we are loved, and are secure and held in those relationships and in our families. And in our civic life, we need to know that we are able to influence and determine the shape of the society that we live in, and have some investment for our own future and the future of the next generation. 

I think our health is really important in our flourishing, and the conditions of our lives need to be such as to guard and protect our physical health and our mental well-being. And I think we need the freedom to pray and to worship and to associate freely with others of our faith in order to flourish and to learn and to grow in that aspect of our lives. 

So, human beings are profoundly complex. And actually in order to flourish, we need to take care of the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual and social aspects of our lives.

Tavia Gilbert: Bishop Croft does not believe that embracing faith as a part of a formula for human flourishing means we will escape pain. 

Bishop Croft: I think a flourishing life is not always a uniformly happy life, because I think for life to be purposeful and meaningful, elements of sacrifice, and recognition of frailty, sometimes the suffering for a greater cause, are woven into that freedom to flourish. 

But a flourishing life will always contain the prospect of happiness, and we all need moments of happiness and peace and joy in our lives, in order to sustain us through the more difficult areas. So happiness will always be present in a flourishing life, but it won’t be the whole of that life’s flourishing.

We are individual people. And our individuality needs to be protected and nurtured alongside our engagement with wider communities. There’s something about the human soul and way of being which flourishes best when that personhood and community are held in tension and balance, and where both are present. And we need to nurture that individuality and also nurture that community for that to be true human flourishing.

The other aspect of human flourishing which is needed in any systemic view is the aspect of forgiveness and redemption. If a human person, a man or woman or child, makes serious mistakes in their lives, what then becomes of them? Is that at the end of their life is that the end of what they can do, or the end of their happiness? 

We need, within our ways of thinking about flourishing, ways of people being forgiven and set right and redeemed and made new, to be able to start again. And that is true of relationships and families and communities as well, that dynamic of forgiveness and new beginnings.

Tavia Gilbert: We’ll be back in two weeks with a related conversation on faith, with Kenneth Pargament, professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University, renowned for his research on the relationship between religious beliefs and health.

Kenneth Pargament: Spirituality, I think, rests on that assumption that we’re not only psychological, social, physical beings, that we’re spiritual beings. And that a primary motivation of human beings is a motivation for something transcendent, a motivation to experience something larger than ourselves or deeper within ourselves. And so, spirituality I think of, as this yearning for something sacred, yearning for something of broader and deeper value, that may be, again, a very basic human motivation.

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This has been the Stories of Impact Podcast, with Richard Sergay and Tavia Gilbert. Written and produced by Talkbox Productions and Tavia Gilbert. Senior producer Katie Flood. Music by Aleksander Filipiak. Mix and master by Kayla Elrod. Executive producer Michele Cobb.

The Stories of Impact Podcast is generously supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation.