Annual Summer Conference – Health and Human Flourishing

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The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity celebrated its 20th annual summer conference, Health and Human Flourishing, July 18-20, 2013. After twenty years of bioethical reflection, it was time to revisit our notions of what health is, how ideas of health have shifted in our current society, and how those shifts have altered our understanding and experience of what it means to flourish. Christian theological reflection and tradition offer a rich understanding of what it means to flourish. But how does that contribution bear on our current ethos and praxis?

The Center presented an impeccable line-up of plenary speakers. Francis Cardinal George, OMI; Bart Cusveller, PhD; Allen Verhey, PhD; and William B. Hurlbut, MD, helped attendees navigate the ethical, theological, and practical considerations related to our individual health, our family, and society. Cheyn Onarecker, MD; Jane Hall, RN; Joyce Shelton, PhD; William Struthers, PhD; and Katherine McReynolds, PhD, participated in a symposium addressing some of the practical implications of what it means to flourish through the lenses of physical health, patient care, scientific research, mental health, and disability.

So how does our health relate to overall human flourishing? Do our preconceived notions of health sometimes prevent us from realizing a certain level of flourishing? Or is it our preconceived notion of what it means to flourish that hinders its realization in our lives?

The use of medicine and technology has moved beyond repairing injury and healing disease to pursuits that have the potential to improve human capacities and “correct” conditions that were once considered normal life experience. Not all human problems are medical problems. As the philosophy of health changes, we risk marginalizing those who fall beyond the shrinking boundaries of the “healthy” category and further maligning those who suffer from disease and disability. In framing the discussion, Paige C. Cunningham, JD, executive director of the Center, observed, “We are intended by God to flourish not in spite of, but in and through our vulnerability, our suffering, our illnesses . . . we are more genuinely free when we accept our limitations, when we accept our dependence on others, when we accept help.”

Our plenary speakers and symposium reminded us that not all who are experiencing physical and mental health are flourishing, and not all who suffer from disease and disability are languishing. Indeed, we often find that those who are suffering have a level of peace and gratefulness for the gifts of this life that enable them to flourish uncommonly well. Dr. Allen Verhey, professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School, emphasized that health can become an idol, and that in this cult of health “Hospitals and exercise facilities are the temples, and doctors and dieticians are the priests.” Christian tradition recognizes health as a good, but not the greatest good. If there is no one-to-one correlation between health and human flourishing, how then do we enact the latter? According to Dr. Verhey, it is through doxological gratitude, responding to God’s grace and goodness, joyful hopefulness in our telos, knowing the Spirit is drawing all things toward God’s good future, and affective appreciation—loving both God and neighbor— that we realize our flourishing.

Community, life lived in relationship with others and with God, establishing the common good, holistic peace, living in appreciation of God’s good gifts in our lives, advancing human endeavors and science without sacrificing life— these are some of the things our speakers reminded us that embody human flourishing in this life. As we continue to think deeply about what it means to be healthy and look toward God, the author and perfecter of our faith, may we begin to flourish more fully.

Our conference was a reminder that the work of the Center is as pertinent now as upon its founding twenty years ago. There is still a palpable need for bioethical reflection from a JudeoChristian Hippocratic tradition as medical and technological advances continue to raise questions. This journey will continue through our 21st annual summer conference, Bioethics in Transition, June 19-21, 2014. Please note that the date has changed! We will hear from Gilbert Meileander, PhD; Henk ten Have, PhD; Jeffery Bishop, MD, PhD; Lisa Anderson-Shaw, DPH, MA, MSN; and Richard Doerflinger, MA. This promises to be another excellent conference. Hope to see you there!