Jesus the Great Philosopher
By Jonathan Pennington
The Christian community is often described in ways that reflect Christianity’s philosophical commitment to educating our emotions. The fruit of the Spirit are manifested in relationship to others. Other texts explicitly focus on the corporate life of Christians, and these are once again full of exhortations to avoid certain emotions and cultivate others.
Romans 12 is a good example. While discussing the different Spirit-gifts that God has given people for the building up of the church, Paul encourages people to use these gifts in certain emotion-sensitive ways—giving with a generous heart, leading with diligent care and showing mercy toward others cheerfully (Rom. 12:8).
This leads Paul to his favorite topic, following Jesus’s own lead—love. Notice how many particularly emotional traits are identified in this high-level description of church life (emotions are bolded; actions motivated by a certain emotion are italicized):
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” —Rom. 12:9–16
We should not overlook a final set of corporate emotions that Christians are exhorted to cultivate—rejoicing, singing and giving thanks. Repeatedly Christians are told to rejoice, to be thankful and to express this, and to engage in singing (Ps. 9:11; 149:1; Eph. 5:18–21; Col. 3:16). This is an especially important instruction to consider as part of the Christian whole-life philosophy.
Here’s the question: Why would Christians be instructed to sing songs of praise and to consciously express thanksgiving to God, even in the midst of trials, difficulties and uncertainties? The answer: Because the Christian philosophy understands the complex relationship between our minds, bodies, actions and emotions. In line with the thoughtful Aristotelian tradition on emotions, the Old and New Testaments teach people to act in certain ways, knowing that cognitive and volitional choices not only reflect our emotions but also affect and educate them. As we engage in certain practices, both individually and corporately, they shape and form us. The liturgies and habits of the church educate our emotions in certain ways, giving articulation to and expression of certain emotional states, carrying us along with them even while our emotions may be more or less disordered and inadequately trained. We are commended to do things that include and are motivated by particular emotions, because there is a place for duty on the way to virtue. We educate our emotions through action, eventually finding the wholeness of body and soul.
Excerpted from Jesus the Great Philosopher by Jonathan T. Pennington, ©2020. Used by permission of Baker Publishing BakerPublishingGroup.com.