My senior pastor, Lance Pittluck, regularly teaches in such a way that as a result of sitting under his teaching I not only come to know and love God more and gain appropriate self-knowledge, but I also receive material and motivation for thinking philosophically about something related to what’s real about life.
To receive such material requires more than just expecting to get information dumped on me come Sunday morning. I have to listen in such a way so as to gain wisdom, and Lance has to teach in such a way so as to want to instruct me and the congregation to grow in the wisdom and character of God and not just teach for the sake of promoting correct doctrinal beliefs or to teach so that I receive information from the latest work in theology or biblical exegesis or to just lead in the pulpit for the sake of strictly teaching me the meaning of the text (however important these all may be for different reasons).
Lance is not an academic philosopher and he would probably find most specialized, professional philosophy to be boring, complicated, and exhausting. Frankly, how can I blame him? But Lance has wisdom, and not just because he’s older than me, but he’s been steadfastly tracking with what’s real, good and worthwhile for several decades as an apprentice of Jesus. In short, the knowledge that Lance gives is credible and trustworthy; it’s testable, public, and attempts to be grounded in what’s real. He is a source of knowledge about how to better integrate my life with reality and not merely a source of how to correct my religious beliefs or behavior. He regularly helps me to keep the “sophia” in philosophy.
It seems to me that one of the responsibilities of Christian philosophers in a congregation is to be formed by the genuine teaching of scripture (including its questions, and the contours of its epistemology, ontology, ethics, etc) in that environment in such a way that we help to make sound, philosophical sense of it from the advantage point of both the character of the text and its intersection with ordinary life (There is much to be considered here, but I won’t unpack that now). Christian philosophers profit from being integrated in Christian community in such a way that we are willing to let the values and culture of our congregations shape us instead of us merely existing to bring about world-change in that setting or insisting that such a community conform to any of our academic, high brow sensibilities.
Recently, Lance was teaching about compassion. In the course of his talk, he made an important point about how “being smart” often does not entail being compassionate, such that for many smart people, they are often not compassionate. Of course, being smart and being compassionate need not be mutually excluded from each other. For as Lance noted, a significant, real counter-example is the life and character of Jesus. Now, that wasn’t merely the “Christian thing” to say at the moment. For Lance proceeded to show (echoing Dallas Willard) that “Jesus is the smartest man who ever lived,” and yet, he clearly and habitually had compassion on those with whom he interacted.
As a result of Lance’s talk, I was prompted to reflect about compassion and its winsomeness. These are some of the questions that came to mind.
- How is compassion rooted in knowledge of what’s real? Can compassion succeed if it is based on ignorance or a mistaken view of what is the case?
- How does one become a compassionate person? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions? Is compassion better “caught” [by modeling and doing it] rather than taught by instruction? Both?
- How does compassion affect how I know? Do I know with compassion? How does the practice of doing compassionate acts form my epistemology of the “other”?
- What kind of knowing is most conducive to underwriting growth in compassion? Knowledge by acquaintance? Propositional knowledge?
- If compassion means something like “with passion” – meaning, being with someone in their passion/suffering – is that a distinct way of knowing? If so, are there virtues more empowering or less empowering to that way of knowing?
- If teaching and leading others helps to integrate people’s lives with reality, is that compassionate?
- Is compassion a virtue that undergirds all other virtues?
- How can one grow the “life of the mind” without, as J.P. Moreland would say, “live in our heads”? Why does smartness seem too often to lead to a cold, indifferent heart toward others? How does emotional/relational, moral and spiritual indifference affect our epistemology?
These, and other questions and considerations, were engendered by Lance’s teaching as I interacted with his thoughts while trusting his leadership in my life. For I know that he cares for me; he has had compassion toward me as a knower and lover in his congregation, and he regularly leads me in a Christian knowledge, wisdom and affective tradition that normalizes by beliefs, habits and practices for the sake of my flourishing in goodwill toward others. That’s my Lance Pittluck, a pastor of philosophers and the poor in spirit.
The community and culture of the congregation that Lance leads (with the rest of our pastoral team) gives me space to practice or work-out what I know. It’s not merely a religious space; it’s a space that transcends the geographical boundaries of our church’s property. It is a community of disciples that exists for the sake of the world that God so loves. It is a community that is “in my heart” as my wife and kids are in my heart; they are before my attention, present before my thoughts and affections. That community goes with me wherever I am in the world, whether at the office, at the shopping mall, the park, a restaurant, the library, or when I watch a movie, read a book, sleep, or go to an academic conference.
When I was in Atlanta for our various EPS events, I had some opportunities to enter into some degree of compassion with people: whether praying with and also paying the homeless person that walked me to my hotel from the local transit stop, to the conference attendees that I got to pray for on-site, or to the half-a-dozen words of encouragement that I gave to people that I met for the first time.
Might there be more fruitful, Christian philosophical endeavors and frontiers to explore if philosophers viewed pastors as stakeholders of, and collaborators in, our Christian knowledge tradition and if pastors viewed their ministry and calling, as philosopher Dallas Willard has said, as “Teachers of the Nations”? (from Knowing Christ Today).