Phronesis: Practical Ethics and the Australian Chin community

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by min cung nung lawngsang

Min has just completed postgraduate study at Stirling Theological College and is the minister of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church in Croydon, a congregation of 300 Chin people. There are roughly 6000 people in the wider Chin immigrant community in Victoria; Min is actively involved in supporting this community. He is also the Chair of the Global Chin Pentecostal Council.

Introduction to practical wisdom

This article will explore Ecclesiastes 7:1–25 alongside Aristotle’s concept of practical wisdom, phronesis. It will correlate the practical wisdom in this passage with contemporary theological methods that are applicable to Christian ministry. This article will demonstrate the relevance of Ecclesiastes for interpreting life experience and ministry. It suggests how to apply this portion of scripture as practical wisdom within the Chin immigrant community settling in Australia.

Practical Wisdom

According to Aristotle there are three forms of knowledge: episteme, which is scientific knowledge; techne, the formula for the application of this knowledge; and phronesis, practical wisdom which recognises that not all knowledge can be applied in a formulaic manner. [1] “This practical wisdom guides us in acting contextually within a particular situation. Phronesis is not learnt, like episteme or techne, but acquired through experience in life”.[2] Exploring the context of Aristotle’s teaching on ethics, Ryken notes: “Aristotle wrote his book on ethics not simply to underline the importance of practical wisdom to a good life and good society, but also to urge the citizens and statesmen of the Athenian city-state to build institutions that encouraged citizens to learn to be practically wise”.[3]

The book of Ecclesiastes exhibits the search for a type of wisdom we might similarly to Aristotle’s phronesis. Phronesis wisdom is deeply humble because it relies on discovering our own particular situation within human existence. Rather than having a fixed set of high-minded ethics, Ecclesiastes suggests that we cannot perceive the absolute source and the exact truth of anything.[4] Using Pascal’s words, the book conveys our ‘range’, a type of phronesis we must learn, for we are something, yet we are not everything.[5] Ecclesiastes, in pointing out that what has been is what will be (1:9-10, 4-11; 3:15, 6:12), opens up this grounded, practical type of wisdom.

One example where phronesis has been needed is when someone in my community dies. In our Chin culture, when a relative dies (for example, if a parent of one of the members of in my church dies) everyone comes to visit the grieving family. This is our culture. If someone dies, everyone must go to comfort them. However here, neighbours complain about traffic congestion and too many cars, because our cars will fill the entire street when someone dies. This is complicated because who shall we value more, the neighbour who cannot park on the street because our community has blocked it, or the grieving member of our church? The phronesis-response I have applied is that, instead of going to their house, we go to the church. We open the church for three days, and people can visit two or three at time and then we will hold a night service for all to attend.

Changing nature of time and culturally contextual ethics

We see throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, otherwise known as Qoheleth, that human beings will never comprehend every aspect of human existence. Ecclesiastes 7:1-12 demonstrates a tension that is distinctive of this text. Qoheleth demonstrates the complex nature of the world and the limited nature of human perspective.

No matter how long and hard we deliberate, our ethical reasoning may fail in practical life because we do not perceive our future reality. We may try to be prudent, but we do not know what the future will hold (Ecclesiastes 7:14).[6] Although we face similar events in life (9:11-12), life’s changes are perplexing and difficult to accept (7:15; 8:14). As a result, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests dedicating our live to the sovereignty of God in recognising our finite nature. For what is your life? It is a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away (James 4:13-14). Actually, death and birth indicate the reality of God as a creator and life-giver. These indicative signs of God take place within the particularities of human life, since everything has its own time.[7] In every new situation we need to invoke phronesis that will help us to discern how to apply ourselves within changing contexts and challenges of life. It is because we cannot control our lives and the things which happen in life, but we have to apply practical wisdom in any context.

In community, in our transition period we have only recently been in Australia. Because our culture is very different to Australian culture, this creates a lot of issues in the family and in our communities and church. In Burma, male and female roles are very different and distinct. In Myanmar, the husband’s role in the family is to make all of the important decisions. However, in Australia it is not appropriate or ethical for women to follow along with everything that men say. So it is not appropriate to teach children the old ways.

We find it very difficult to communicate between children and parents. In Myanmar, parents and children enjoyed family harmony, like heaven. However here, when children become youth and teenagers, we find it impossible to communicate. The parents are distressed and want to control the children; however, the children here know that that is not appropriate and can call the police if parents use tactics such as physical discipline to control the children. In Burma, the children are very obedient. But here, they are very disobedient. Even the teachers are frustrated with the Burmese children. The parents don’t know how to raise them. This situation, we need to organise training for the parents. They need to know how to raise the children in the Aussie way. We must realise that this is impossible to solve completely because there is a cultural divide. It will resolve only very slowly.

Balance and limitation in the search for wisdom

We face the challenge of discerning goodness and ethical virtues within changing contexts. We need to respond wisely within any given situation. Whatever we do we must deliberate what will be good for our dignity and for others’ wellbeing.

Qohelth encourages living with balance and avoiding extremes. In this context, Qoheleth may have in mind the attempt to gain security by careful religious observation.[8] Similarly, Aristotle advocates one general, fundamental rule:

“In all our activities we must keep to the safe middle way and avoid faults that may arise either from insufficiency or excess. Thus, we need manliness, which is a virtue that lies between two extremes: cowardice and thoughtless bravado. Both avarice and extravagance are faults; rational generosity is free of both extremes. Moderation will preserve us both from excessive pride and from on overly harsh opinion”.[9]

In my community, I must remember the limitations of human wisdom even within denominations. I am a United Pentecostal minister, yet people in my Chin congregation come from a very different doctrinal stances. Their backgrounds are Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God and “Believers”, even Seventh Day Adventists. They are all members of one church because we are connected through our relationships, our language and our culture. Sometimes it is difficult as a pastor to hold it all together. The denominational divide causes conflict in our community from time to time. For example, even though some are baptised in a Trinitarian name, others are baptised in the name of Jesus only. There can be very tense meetings about this. Despite my own opinions according to my denomination and the opinions of many others, I have decided in wisdom that if the adults are happy with their old baptism, in whichever name or style, I accept them as they are and do not force another baptism. We have settled on only one baptism.

The value and fleeting nature of wisdom

In the beginning of Ecclesiastes, we see that the writer failed to figure out what matters in life, yet he still wants to know the right way to live. He really valued wisdom as a “precious gift” and showed its practical benefits, writing that wisdom can be a lifesaver (7:12), and that it makes one wise person more powerful than ten rulers in the city (7:19). There are many scriptures that value wisdom in similar ways: wisdom is pricier than pearls (Job 28:18), better than jewels (Proverbs 8:11) and the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook (Proverb 18:4). 

The writer of Ecclesiastes also tells us how hard wisdom is to find. He was a man who had dedicated his whole life to find the meaning of life. He says, “All this I have tested by wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 7:23). He also says, “I turn my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and foolishness that is madness” (Ecclesiastes 7:25). However, he admits that he had failed to find wisdom he had been seeking all his life. He admits that it was far from him and it is very deep to find. Pascal states as follows:

“When I consider the short duration of life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the title space I fill, and I see, engulfed in the Infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Who put me here? Who now rather than then?”[10]

However, the preacher did not stop his search for wisdom seeking the meaning of life. The best alternative is to admit that we do not have all the answers, but we also need to believe that God can do so we need to wait for whatever wisdom God provides.[11]

There are several issues within Chin Immigrants community in Australia in this decade. There is a tension between our old cultures and the cultures of Australia, between youth and the aged, between husband and wife, between parents and children. We are in a transition period since we recently arrived in a different situation from a different background. We have many issues and difficulties to resolve or get through, that we come across in many places. We work the best we can to figure out solutions and compromises which care for everyone. Yet we have to admit that there are some mysteries we do not understand. This is practical wisdom in accordance with our range, wisdom as the phronesis we seek to apply within our own context.

 

BACK TO BATCH 2, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomas (London: Penguin), 2004.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 209.

[3] Phillip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway), 2010, 175.

[4] Stephen Curkpatrick, “Phronesis” in Ecclesiastes: Wisdom for Ministry unit material (Stirling Theological College) 2018, 30.

[5] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krrailshemer (London: Penguin), 1966, 1995, para 199.

[6] Curkpatrick, “Phronesis”, 31.

[7] Curkpatrick, “Phronesis”, 31-32.

[8] Edward M. Curtis, Teach the Text Commentary Series: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 2013, 71.

[9] Leszek Kolakowski, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? : Questions From Great Philosopher, trans. Agnieszka Kolakowska (London Penguin), 2008, 40-41.

[10] Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, The Harvard Classics, Vol.48, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: P.F. Collier & Son), 1910, 78. 

[11] Ryken, Ecclesiastes, 175.

Bibliography

Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics: translated by J.A.K. Thomas. Penguin Book Ltd, 27 Wright Lane, London W8 5 TZ, England, 2004.  

Bridges, Charles, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 1860: repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961. 

Curtis, M. Edward, Teach the Text Commentary Series: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, BakerBooks a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2013. 

Eaton, A. Michael, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVersity, 1983. 

Kidner, Derek, The Message of Ecclesiastes. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976. 

Kolakowski, Leszek, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? : Questions From Great Philosophers. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska. London: Penguin, 2008.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Translated by A. J. Krrailshemer, London: Penguin, 1966, 1995.

Pascal, Blaise, Thoughts. The Harvard Classics, Vol.48. Translated by W. F. Trotter. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910.  

Ryken, Phillip Graham. Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters. Illinois: Crossway, 2010.

Schwartz, Barry and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Penguin, 2010.