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What is the Good Life? – Jonathan Pennington

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Jonathan Pennington about what it means to live the good life according to Jesus.

Conversation topics include:

  • What is philosophy and why does it matter?
  • How is Jesus portrayed in the New Testament as a philosopher?
  • What are some practices to help us align our emotions with the good life?
  • How do we prioritize friendships in our pursuit of the good life?
  • Why do men in our culture struggle to have deep friendships?

Dr. Jonathan Pennington serves as associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Dr. Pennington is the author of several books, including Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life (Brazos Press, 2020). He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and is also on the preaching staff at Sojourn Church East in Louisville, KY.

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Introduction (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

The Christian faith is certainly future-directed. Christ is risen, and our ultimate hope is that we too will be raised to reign forever with Christ in the new heavens and the new earth. But Christianity also has a lot to say about how we live our present lives in this moment, in accordance with God’s will. Oftentimes Christians operate with a vision of the future and what Jesus’s teaching have in mind for us in heaven and the afterlife. And then they turn to other gurus in this life for some of the biggest questions in how to pursue things like happiness, joy, and completion here on earth. And when we think about Jesus, oftentimes we don’t think of him as a philosopher, telling us how we can live the good life now. Well, our guest today is Dr. Jonathan Pennington, who serves at Southern seminary as professor of New Testament Interpretation. He’s the author of several books, including Jesus, the Great Philosopher, which we’ll look at today, and The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. Dr. Pennington, welcome to the show.

Jonathan Pennington (01:17):

So good to be with you.

Brian Arnold (01:18):

So our big question today is: what is the good life? It’s the question that people have been asking since the dawn of time. And I’m guessing that somewhere in your answer, you’re going to say something about nice cars, soccer games, things like that.

Jonathan Pennington (01:31):

Yeah, that is the great question. I don’t know about nice cars, I just like cool, old cars. But definitely soccer should be in that for sure.

Brian Arnold (01:39):

Well, I agree with so much of what you say, until you say something like that.

Jonathan Pennington (01:44):

Well, I’ll pray for you. So yeah, you know, it really is the great question. It’s kind of interesting that we might not want to say that’s the question that drives us, but if you’re really honest, all of us do what we think is going to make us most happy. I mean, that’s what Augustine said, it’s what Aquinas says, what John Piper observes, what CS Lewis observes. I mean, that’s a universal reality. It’s what Seneca, the great philosophers say, as well of the ancient world, that all of us really are driven by trying to figure out: how can I really flourish? How can I really thrive? And it is a terribly complicated question for which there are many different answers. What is the good life?

Brian Arnold (02:30):

You go into philosophy and you compare Jesus to the great philosophers. So before we get there, let’s even just talk about what philosophy is. I think a lot of people think that that’s just something you take as a freshman in college. This course is asking questions that may not be as pertinent to life now. So what would you say to someone who says, you know, why should philosophy matter when we’re addressing these kinds of questions?

Jonathan Pennington (02:54):

That’s a great question. That’s a big part of the reason why I wrote this book and why I wrote a book with a weird title: Jesus, the great philosopher. Because it is a very weird title. What happened for me…it actually came from my work in the Sermon on the Mount. But then as I began to read more and more ancient philosophy and read about ancient philosophy, I came to realize that what I experienced in philosophy classes at a state university, you know, 25 years ago, 30 years ago, it was so different than what philosophy used to mean, what it meant to Aristotle and Plato and all the people you hear about. I came to realize that I had been sold a bill of goods that what those guys really cared about was very different than what we get today in our philosophy classes. Namely that the reason Plato and Aristotle, and then the later Stoics like Seneca and all these people, the reason they did what they did, the reason they thought about the stuff they thought about was incredibly practical. They wanted to figure out for themselves, and help other people, how to live well. How to build societies that are flourishing, how to handle your emotions, how to have relationships that are meaningful, how to find happiness. That’s what drove all their philosophical systems. And once I realized that, that was a real turning point for me to just again, recognize that what I’ve experienced as philosophy, what people experience as philosophy today is very, very different.

Brian Arnold (04:22):

And if I can sound like the curmudgeonly old man for a second, it’s heartbreaking to see how many universities are turning away from things like humanities, turning away from philosophy as they search for things like STEM as the good life and not places like philosophy and the humanities.

Jonathan Pennington (04:38):

For sure. For sure. Yeah. The liberal arts exist and have historically been part of education precisely because of a recognition that skills and scientific knowledge are not sufficient to produce a good society and good people and people of character and a good democracy. Like you cannot do that just based on data. You need character. And that’s what the humanities historically were designed to give people in society.

Brian Arnold (05:06):

Couldn’t agree more. So we’re talking about philosophy. One of the things I appreciated about your book so much is that you frame even the Old Testament and the New Testament in philosophy, and I think many people don’t think of it that way. Help us understand that, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Jonathan Pennington (05:24):

Yeah. Well that’s exactly what the book’s about. And I appreciate you taking the time to read it. Again, it stems for me from coming to recognize that what I thought philosophy was, was not at all what it meant in the ancient world. That in the ancient world, again, they thought about philosophy on the big questions like—I can use some big words here for a minute—metaphysics, what’s the nature of reality, what’s the cosmos, how is it constructed, is it earth, wind and fire, or, you know, whatever, is it atomic structure? They thought about those kinds of things. They thought about how do you know stuff, what we call epistemology. They especially thought about ethics. What is the good and the true and the beautiful, and how do you pursue it? And they thought about politics, or like relationships, what should marriage look like?

Jonathan Pennington (06:10):

What should friendship look like? What should society and government look like? They talked about all that stuff. And once I spent quite a few years kind of studying that and thinking about it, then at the same time I would reopen my Bible to teach, or just devotionally, and recognize: oh my goodness, the Bible is actually talking about these exact same things. The problem is, we have stopped asking that set of questions. In other words, we go to the Bible for a lot of good reasons. Devotionally and religiously, we want to know theology from them. But I came to see along with many other people, and what was common in the ancient world, to come to see that the Bible’s…it’s not, not theological, it’s very theological, but it’s also philosophical. That is, it’s giving answers to the great questions. What’s the nature of the universe? How do you know things? What is the good, the true and the beautiful? How do you build relationships that are flourishing? And so once you sort of start asking—Old and New Testament—those questions, it’s like you see a whole other layer of what’s going on in the Bible that’s just absolutely beautiful.

Brian Arnold (07:17):

And I love you pulling those themes out, because if we’re thinking about philosophy as “if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, doesn’t make a sound?” Those questions might have some level of importance, but they seem to not really bear on our actual lives. And yet the Bible is very interested in those philosophical questions, and answering those in teaching us: what is the good life. And when we think about Jesus, when we talk about his offices, we talk about prophet, priest, and king, and you’ve added this kind of fourth office, if you will, of prophet, or rather philosopher.

Jonathan Pennington (07:53):

Philosopher. Yeah. Yeah, well…

Brian Arnold (07:58):

So flesh that out for us.

Jonathan Pennington (07:58):

Well, yeah, and I’ll just say that yes, I’ve tried to add it, but what I just…what I say in the subtitle of the book is rediscovering, because it turns out from the very first century, I mean, I think in the New Testament itself, but from the first century, clearly they talked about Jesus as a philosopher all the time. Like this was one of their main ways of talking about who Jesus was. They depicted him wearing a toga, they depicted him wearing laurel wreath crowns a lot of times, they depicted him standing in the posture and with the certain haircut of a philosopher, not because they were screwing stuff up, but because that’s exactly how he’s presented in real life and in the New Testament. As one who traveled around and taught people how to see and be in the world, that would promise true flourishing in God’s coming kingdom. So, all I’m trying to do is just kind of help us rediscover this beautiful image of Jesus as—he’s not less than being prophet, priest, and king—but he’s also this beautiful wise philosopher.

Brian Arnold (09:01):

And that was really brought to light to me through reading the book of thinking about how the ancients saw him. And we’ve lost touch with that. And so I like your concept of rediscovering there. You’re arguing that Christianity as a philosophy speaks to the way we live our lives here on earth. And you kind of pose two big questions in that, and the first deals with how we order our emotions. And I thought that was pretty interesting. What are emotions and how can they be ordered in line with a good life?

Jonathan Pennington (09:32):

Yeah, such a great question. I mean, I…listeners may want to go to my website, jonathanpennington.com, and you’ll find quite a bit of teaching there that I’ve done for a lot of churches and various places on emotions, because there’s so much more to say. I’ve got a couple hours worth of material that I usually teach on this, but I’ll keep it super short. And that is to say, that one of the most surprising discoveries that I made when studying ancient philosophy, was that emotions was one of their main topics, because it led to what I just said: because they really cared about helping people learn to live well. And we all are driven by so many emotions. Even if you think of yourself as a non-emotional person, just wait until somebody cuts you off in traffic or shames you or whatever else, we all have emotions.

Jonathan Pennington (10:20):

It’s part of what it means to be human. So the ancient philosophers talked a lot about it. And so once again, as I started to listen to them and say, wow, they are talking about this, and then turn back to the Bible and realize, wow, the Bible has a lot to say about emotions. I mean, the heart of the Bible is a big hymn book that expresses every emotion you could imagine: anger, lament, joy. You start thinking about the fruit of the Spirit, how many of those are emotions, or are actions motivated by emotions. You think about how Jesus emphasizes the heart, which doesn’t just mean emotions, but it does mean that if you don’t have certain emotions like compassion, that you are not aligned with God. So you just begin to see, wow, the Bible has a very sophisticated and hearty view—no pun intended—of emotions. And so what I try to explore in the book is to kind of talk about what emotions are in our bodies and what they are in our minds. And then turn to the Bible and show that God really cares about emotions, Jesus has emotions, and that emotions are a big part of being a spiritual person.

Brian Arnold (11:26):

And you talked about the Bible’s sophisticated vision for these emotions. Let’s talk about some practices that we could do in reflection and in prayer that could help us come in line better with the emotional values that Scripture wants us to portray.

Jonathan Pennington (11:46):

Yeah. Yeah. Well the danger, or the misstep, is always to fall off the knife edge of the truth on either side. On the one side, and we have plenty of people in the church that would do this, they would say that all emotions are bad and that they should be avoided, and that they’re misrepresentative of, you know…they will mislead you. On the other hand, there are people that say, “I will only do something if I feel it,” right? And then whatever I feel is what’s right. And both of those are equally missteps. I’m sure both people, both camps would say that they’re not, but the balanced way is neither of those falling off the knife edge. The balanced way is to embrace that having emotions are part of what it means to be human, and learning to educate them over time.

Jonathan Pennington (12:33):

And so I could call that chapter “educating emotions” because God is in the process of maturing us to make us more whole, and that doesn’t come through denying our emotions, but it comes through paying attention to them, and learning over time to shape them through prayerfulness, through reflection on what’s true about God, through stepping towards things, practicing certain acts that help prime the pump, by doing acts of mercy, help increase one’s compassion. Right? And so, again, the point is, the Bible actually gives us instructions and a vision for how to shape and educate our emotions in a God-centered way, including prayer, reflection, and obedience.

Brian Arnold (13:20):

Absolutely. I was helped a lot by that, because I’m probably more on the stoic side of things, of saying, “let’s keep our emotions in check, let’s keep those suppressed a little bit,” and live in a culture full of people who I think are more on the other side, where it is let everything out, all the time. But finding that balance on that knife edge, like you said, between these two errors, where Scripture has a much more balanced approach that really leads to the flourishing of the person. And so that’s how we kind of think about emotions individually, but one of the things I’ve really appreciated, not only about this book, but in knowing you for the past 15 years, is how you put these things in the context of relationships. So you talk a lot even about friendship. And so what’s the connection here from Jesus, the great philosopher, even to how we order our lives as it relates to relationships and especially friendships.

Jonathan Pennington (14:16):

Yeah. Thanks for that. Another great question. Yeah, again, like emotions, one of the things that surprised me the most as I began to read a lot of Aristotle and other philosophers, was that another absolutely central topic to their whole philosophical discussion was the importance of relationships and particularly friendship. That really friendship is seen as the sort of ultimate relationship, which is very different today because in a kind of 19th century and beyond romanticism, we’ve all been kind of taught that marriage is the most important relationship. And marriage is a very important relationship, believe me, if my wife ever listens to this I want to be clear on that…and your wife as well. But I would just kind of push back a little bit and say that I think, at least historically, not only in the ancient world, but through most of human history even, men spent a lot more time with men and women spent a lot more time with women. And the romantic relationship is important and obviously has a biblical backing and is a metaphor for grace in the church, et cetera. But it’s not, it’s certainly not the only relationship. And I think it’s fair to ask whether it’s even singled out as the most important relationship, you know. And we could debate that maybe, but for sure we need a lot more space in our thoughts and minds and practices, of the value of friendship—non-romantic relationships, “of having another self” is the way Aristotle and others talked about it, another soul with whom you connect that helps you figure out life and helps you live well. And a lot of times it’s best if that’s of the same gender, because then it removes a lot of the other things that, you know, come into relationships of sexuality and romance. I mean, so I’m not saying you can’t have good friends of the opposite sex, but generally the best way to think about it is that the relationship you can have with another person of the same gender can be such a powerful and life-giving part of what it means to be human and community.

Jonathan Pennington (16:23):

And so when you turn to the Bible, once again, you see this idea of friendship and even male and female relationships are called brother and sister, which kind of intentionally de-romanticizes them as well. And the idea is that really, to flourish, we need to live in authentic, humble, open, vulnerable relationships with each other, of friendship. And even God even thinks of us in that way. I’ll say, just to end this, there’s so much more that can be said, you remember what Jesus says on the night in which he’s betrayed in the Gospel of John. He finally turns to them after this three years of ministry with them and he calls them friend. And that is like a crucial moment, because he’s saying “we are on the same team, we are together from now and forever. I’m going to send the Holy spirit who will attend to you as a friend.”

Brian Arnold (17:19):

So oftentimes I see in the church, and in the body of Christ, superficial and shallow relationships, especially with men. I think women have seemed to do a lot better, of having those deep intimate relationships. Why do you think men often have more shallow relationships?

Jonathan Pennington (17:39):

Yeah, boy, there’s a lot there, isn’t there? I talk about it a little bit in the book. Some of it is that I think a lot of our culture has really made male friendship weird now. That if you’re really close to another guy, sometimes our culture has kind of demonized that, some parts of our culture have demonized that as homosexuality or something, versus other parts of our culture, you know, celebrate homosexuality. But I think that’s part of it, that we kind of have lost the vision for the value of non-romantic relationships. I think that’s part of it. I think it’s also that, you know, men do generally tend to compartmentalize more than women do, and it’s easy to kind of get stuck in that non-relational, non-emotional, compartmentalized part of our being, and to sort of just find enough life by just working hard, or making a lot of money, or escaping, or pleasures of the flesh, or various sorts, good and bad ones.

Jonathan Pennington (18:45):

And so it’s kind of easy for a man to live his whole life that way, but it’s really empty at the end of the world, at the end of the day, because we really do need authentic, open, genuine, vulnerable relationships. One of the things I do at my church is that I’m the spiritual formation pastor. So I preach a lot, but I also run the men’s ministry, and I’ve got a really simple vision statement for our men’s ministry: connecting them with God, and connecting them with each other. And both of those are essential. I’m not just doing one. Both of them have to be there. The men need to learn from God and connect with God spiritually and through Bible study, but they really need each other as well. And so that’s the vision I’ve been trying to cast for our men’s ministry.

Brian Arnold (19:27):

For me, one of the most impactful things in my life was Campus Crusade for Christ and getting into a Bible study with a group of 10 guys, where you live life together, quite literally in dorms, as roommates. And some of those friendships that I’ve kept now for almost 20 years. And without those men in my life, you know, I don’t know where I would be right now. What advice do you give to men in your church? Because you want to see them make this connection to do that. Because I’m imagining there’s some men listening right now who would look around in their life and say, “I’ve got no deep relationships like this, people who I can walk through with to understand that great life that Jesus puts forward as a philosopher.” So what would you say to them?

Jonathan Pennington (20:08):

That’s a great practical question. Well, I’d say that vulnerability begets vulnerability. I think you have to…if a man doesn’t see that around, he needs to not just moan and complain about that, and just wish it would be, you need to make it happen, be an agent of change. And be a man of action, meaning that you start to seek out relationships, and sometimes you’ll get burned, sometimes you’ll get hurt, sometimes you think your relationship is going to work out and then it fizzles out. That’s okay. You pursue active relationships, and you do that by being vulnerable yourself, being honest about your struggles, being honest about your brokenness and your failure. And then you also create a safe space. One of the ministries I’m involved with called Men at the Cross, we talk a lot about creating a safe container—that you are a safe person, that when somebody comes to you and is vulnerable, you don’t throw 19 Bible verses on them, or shame them or kind of go, “ooh, I don’t know about that.” That you create a safe space where somebody can be vulnerable. So I’d say be vulnerable yourself and then create a space where people could be vulnerable too. And if you do that over time, you will find that men are hungry for relationship. So the same applies to women as well, people are hungry to relate, but you have to be the agent to create such environment.

Brian Arnold (21:32):

Well, I hope people listening will take you up on that advice, because it is transformative. When I think about the ancients, one of the people who comes to my mind is the great Saint Augustine, and how friendship plays out in his life. And some of the books that we even have from him that were impactful for me to read, came as a result of some of those rich relationships that he had with other men. So you see this throughout the great tradition of the Christian faith, something we’ve lost today, even as people look towards alternative gurus, as you mentioned in your book, I think about like talk shows today. And here we are on one, hopefully doing a better job than many of them do, as they point to other worldly things as ways that people can find that good life. I think about people like Oprah and Dr. Phil and prosperity preaching, people like Joel Olsteen, who are helping people identify what that good life is, and so often falling short of that. But I think what you’ve produced for the church here with Jesus, the great philosopher is nothing short of essential in our day, as we seek to recover that good life that the Bible puts forward, this idea of human flourishing that can be found in the life that Christ has set out. So Dr. Pennington, thank you so much for your words of wisdom today, and for joining us.

Jonathan Pennington (22:50):

Such a joy, thanks so much for having me on.

Outro (22:52):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry, for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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