A Review of
Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life
Reviewed by Noemi Ortiz
The question that Tertullian once asked, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” reverberates to this present day. There has been, for quite some time, an estranged relationship between philosophy and religion. But this has not always been the case. In his compelling book, Jesus the Great Philosopher, Jonathan Pennington reintroduces Christianity as a viable source to a supreme philosophy of life and reintroduces Jesus as the greatest of philosophers.
Pennington begins by pointing out that Jesus and other great biblical prophets such as Moses had been depicted as philosophers, as great sages of old, in ancient times. However, in today’s churches, Jesus is most often depicted solely in a theological sense, with the title of Savior (and rightfully so), but the title of philosopher seems to be missing. Because philosophy and religion are often pitted against each other, it is not surprising that Jesus would not be connected with the area of philosophy. Thus, Pennington carves out a title that is not often attributed to Jesus Christ, which is that of philosopher. Philosophy deals with the big questions of life, and who best to answer them than the greatest philosopher of all, Jesus Christ?
Ancient philosophers were primarily concerned with achieving eudaimonia (human flourishing) and ataraxia (tranquility of soul); these are what humans have been searching for and continue to ultimately seek out. With the ancients, they sought teachers who modeled what it was to live the good life and that included all aspects of being human—body, mind and spirit. The emphasis was on the development of one’s habits and character. The practice of philosophy extended beyond today’s Philosophy 101 class; it was a lifelong journey to achieving the good life.
Philosophy is the vehicle by which humans ask questions, seek answers and derive guidance. These matters have not gone away but continue to be a need for humans. Many turn to religions, and even ancient philosophies such as Stoicism, for practical guidance on living. However, even for Christians, Christianity has not been approached as a philosophical guide to life. While other religions do contain truths, they are partial. It is Christianity that offers the true philosophy that will get humans from point A to point B.
It is always good to start out with the root of the problem, and while it is a large topic all its own, Pennington does point out some key factors that have contributed to this philosophical disjunction. For example, he observes that the faith Christians practice is often disconnected from other aspects of their daily life. The main disconnect is that Christians have ceased to adopt Christianity as a philosophy of life. In this sense, Christians have grasped the vertical aspects of Christianity, which are the important tenets of faith—who God is and what Jesus has done on behalf of humanity—but they have not implemented the horizontal aspects of faith, which is applying Christianity into the nooks and crannies of daily life.
Christianity is more than a religion—it is a philosophy of life. It is a philosophy that not only promotes human flourishing but shows the way to achieve and maintain such a life. The ideas of the ancient Greeks ring truer to Christianity than they do to modern philosophy. For instance, the ancient Greek Philosophers’ notion of a philosopher king rings true with the person of Jesus Christ. The philosopher king was a ruler who loved and possessed wisdom, and could therefore serve as the ultimate model and guide. True philosophy extends beyond academic walls into the nitty gritty parts of life. The best philosophers model what they teach and preach. Thus, Jesus was, and continues to be, the greatest of philosophers.
The section on the Bible as a source of wisdom, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, presents a consistent guide to issues of life and beyond. The Bible contains wisdom needed to navigate this life, in our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. In the Old Testament, we find God-given instructions on how to live the good life so that in doing so, humans honor one another and most importantly honor God. In the New Testament, the same philosophy continues with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter, so that living the good life does not solely consist in doing the right thing, but in becoming a person of virtue. Consequently, we see that character formation is a key element in Christian discipleship.
The book touches upon crucial aspects such as emotions and relationships, which are an integral part of living a well-balanced life. In Christianity, there is wisdom in managing emotions rather than suppressing them, because emotions are part of what makes us human. The importance of friendship was a main topic of the ancient Greeks and relating to others is important overall in the structure of any society. Christianity offers guidance in these matters but steps it up a notch with redefining what it truly means to be a neighbor. Pennington briefly mentions Alain De Botton who offers a holistic philosophy of life. He does this to show just how much a holistic approach to life is needed and how it is missing from today’s culture.
Jesus the Great Philosopher invites Christians to look at Jesus in an even wider lens, as a great philosopher of life and at Christianity as the best philosophy on living the good life, achieving the lifelong human quest for eudaimonia and ataraxia. While it would have been nice to have explored more of Jesus’ philosophy in application, Jesus the Great Philosopher effectively serves as a guide to rediscover Jesus and Christianity. Christianity is the optimum philosophy on how to live the best life in the here and now in order to prepare for the and then.