Flourishing in Early Christianity

An internationally collaborative, five-year project of the Biblical and Early Christian Studies Program in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry (2022–2026).

Project summary

Achieving individual, social, and environmental flourishing is the global challenge of our age. The climate emergency threatens drastically to weaken the ecologies that sustain life. A global pandemic has placed serious stress on well-functioning government and social institutions and has laid bare inequalities that diminish well-being. Progress across the UN Sustainable Development Goals has been set back, and there are newly pressing questions about equitable access to resources for humans and other species. Contemporary movements for gender and racial justice highlight the fact that dominant visions of ‘flourishing’ can themselves be agents of discrimination, violence, and marginalisation. There is thus an urgent need to interrogate how various aspects of human experience, in interaction with wider systems and ecologies, contribute to or hinder well-being. 

Flourishing in Early Christianity addresses these concerns from a fresh perspective by elucidating the complex and often contested views of flourishing found in ancient Christian sources. It offers new interpretations of those sources by engaging with research on flourishing from other fields, including psychology, philosophy, health humanities, and the social sciences, while also seeking to inform scholarship in these other disciplines by providing a robust set of historical case studies.

Studying flourishing in our period means grappling with how Christians creatively formulated visions of the good life in the face of significant challenges. Plagues, wars, mass migrations, climate change, political and economic collapse, and the disruption caused by major religious transitions such the emergence of Christianity alongside Judaism, the rise of Islam, and the eclipse of Greco-Roman cultic practices provide rich resources for study. Early Christian visions of the good life were refined and expressed in novel visual cultures and literary genres in diverse cultures and languages (e.g. Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic), and they were sustained by new civic, ecclesiastical, and imperial institutions. Our project promises an integrated historical, literary, and theological inquiry into the multi-faceted reality of human flourishing in ancient Christianity.

The project aims to:

  1. Understand how early Christians theorised flourishing and well-being across diverse literatures and cultural productions from the imperial period to the end of late antiquity.
  2. Relate Christian theories of flourishing to Greco-Roman (including Jewish) accounts and explore how distinctive early Christian ideas and practices resulted in new emphases or novel claims about the well-being of persons and the cosmos.
  3. Understand how theories of flourishing fostered and diminished the well-being of persons, societies, cultures, and the environment.
  4. Chart intersections of different domains of flourishing—of literature, art, culture, ideas, social practices, institutional forms, non-human environments—in our period.
  5. Apply new insights about flourishing derived from ancient sources to contemporary debates about human well-being in other fields, including positive psychology and the capability approach to human development.

To learn more about Flourishing in Early Christianity, continue reading about the Research Strands of the project, the People and Partners overseeing it, and the Events it is running.

Using insights from positive psychology and human development studies as an initial taxonomy, the project organises research on early Christian accounts of flourishing into three strands which aim to capture the central human capabilities required for well-being across various domains of the human experience:

(1) Health: Being and Feeling Well. In considering the relation of personal health to human flourishing, this strand studies early Christian presentations of the human being (embodied and ensouled) within the medical paradigms and anthropologies of antiquity, highlighting the ways in which it is imagined, made compliant or deviant, and perfected.

(2) Cultivating the Good Life: Reason and Creativity. This strand examines early Christian literary and visual productions and the traditions and educational contexts from which they arose, exploring how human capabilities in education, imagination, and practical reason were fertilised and pruned in the cultivation of the good life.

(3) Flourishing Communities: Communal Ecologies and Places. In light of the crucial role of communities and relationships in the achievement of flourishing, this strand considers how Christians in antiquity theorised the manifold ways that relationships could enable and curtail flourishing, taking into account different relational scales—from family, to local church, to city, to empire, to the natural world and created cosmos.

A series of capstone seminars titled Creation, Christology, and Transformation draws out inter-relations between the strands and presses the questions of the novelty and distinctiveness of early Christian accounts of flourishing as well as the adequacy of modern theories of well-being.

Researchers from the Biblical and Early Christian Studies program serve as chief investigators for each strand, overseeing their activities and resulting publications, including Rome seminars, virtual workshops, Melbourne-based symposia, and international and national conference panels.

Health: Being and Feeling Well is led by Kylie Crabbe, David Litwa and Jonathan Zecher.

Cultivating the Good Life: Reason and Creativity is led by Stephen Carlson, Michael Hanaghan, and Dawn LaValle Norman.

Flourishing Communities: Communal Ecologies and Places is led by Ben Edsall and Sarah Gador-Whyte.

Lewis Ayres, Michael Champion and Matthew Crawford oversee the capstone seminars Creation, Christology, and Transformation.

Each strand involves external collaborators who serve on the project’s advisory board and contribute to research activities: Susan Holman (Valparaiso), Tobias Nicklas (Regensburg) (strand 1); Jaś Elsner (Oxford), Mark Humphries (Swansea), Robyn J. Whitaker (University of Divinity) (strand 2); John Barclay (Durham), Bronwen Neil (Macquarie), Claudia Rapp (Vienna) (strand 3); John Behr (Aberdeen), Simon Gathercole (Cambridge), Carol Harrison (Oxford), Morwenna Ludlow (Exeter) (capstone seminars).

We seek PhD students to work within the project to broaden its intellectual scope. Students will work chiefly with the main project team in Australia, but they will also enjoy the benefit of the project’s professional networks and world-wide research opportunities. If you are interested in researching with us, please contact Matthew Crawford.

Partner Organisations

Durham University

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard

  • Conference Panel: ’Translating History: Rufinus, Eusebius, and the Historia Ecclesiastica’ at the 43rd Annual Meeting of The Australasian Society for Classical Studies, Hobart (virtual), 8-11 February 2022
  • Four Conference Panels: ‘Human Flourishing and Well-Being in Early Christianity’ at the Annual Meeting of the North American Patristics Society, Chicago, 26-28 May 2022
  • Seminar: ‘Creation, Christology, and Human Flourishing,’ ACU Rome Campus, 23-26 September 2022
Banner image: Sarcophagus with biblical and symbolic scenes from Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, personal photograph by Matthew R. Crawford.  Side-bar image: Fresco of St Cyrus from Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, personal photograph by Matthew R. Crawford.

ACU Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry

Mailing address

C/- 115 Victoria Pde
Fitzroy, VIC, 3065.