By Derek Penwell
Diana Garland, Dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, preached yesterday on the text of the Good Samaritan at the church I serve. She said something that struck me, especially in light of some of the conversations I’ve had recently about who, as followers of Jesus, we’re responsible for. It had to do with neighbors.
The lawyer, who asked Jesus about just who were the neighbors he was required to love, was just as interested to find out who he didn’t have to bother with. Dr. Garland said that the issue of neighbors, at least in Jesus’ hands, doesn’t have to do with figuring out who the “others” are to whom I’m called to act as a neighbor. Instead, the story of the Good Samaritan points up the fact that our responsibility revolves around trying to figure out how to be neighbors to those whom we’d never choose to love if it were left up to us.
According to Jesus, the question of the neighbor is a question about how not who.
That got me to thinking.
That field known as “Philosophy of Mind,” or perhaps more commonly, “Epistemology,” concerns itself with what we can know and how we know what we know. In other words, epistemology is concerned with knowledge and how we arrive at it. One of the classic epistemological debates is between the rationalists and the empiricists.
The rationalists—led by Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza—argued that true knowledge comes principally through the use of reason. I can know that 2 + 2 = 4, sitting alone in a dark room. I can know, without the aid of anything more sophisticated than my own mind, that my brother’s wife is my sister-in-law, by definition. A priori—knowledge I have prior to my experience kicking in. Stuff I just know. Me and a couple of rules are enough to arrive at truth.
The empiricists, on the other hand—led by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume—contended that knowledge comes to us through the experience of the senses. Knowledge, they say, isn’t innate. We can’t just sit in a dark room and intuit truth. We must observe, make connections, feel, taste, touch, hear in order to know. It’s a bad idea to stare at the sun. I know water is cold not through intuition but by sticking my hand in it. A posteriori—knowledge I get through empirical investigation. Any knowledge that I can get through rationality alone cannot possibly be sufficient for negotiating a complex world. To arrive at the kind of knowledge necessary for everyday life, I need dirty hands and a keen eye—or at least the ability to listen to people with dirty hands and a keen eye.
I’ve observed some discussions lately about the issue of the limits of diversity—that is, who ought I rightfully to consider my neighbor, and what are my responsibilities in light of that knowledge? Unfortunately, for some these discussions have often tended to focus less on how, as a follower of Jesus, I am called to be a neighbor, than on what should my neighbor do in advance to straighten herself out, so that we can truly be neighbors.
I’ve noticed a tendency in these discussions to think about neighborliness as an activity that can be accomplished only after the other has met certain conditions. That is to say, in order truly to be a neighbor that man should never have gotten on the road going from Jerusalem to Jericho by himself in the first place. But even if he did, before we can truly be neighbors, he must promise never again to walk on that road by himself. If he’s willing to meet these conditions, only then can we fully be neighbors.
I’ve noticed a rationalist penchant in the church on the question of what it means to be a neighbor. What I mean by this is that I see when it comes to figuring out what it means to be a neighbor too many people believe it is sufficient, with a couple of rules from the Bible, to know in the absence of any other information just who qualifies as neighbor, and who, by definition, does not. (Sadly, it is reckoned that, like the rationalists of old, these rules are self-evidently true.)1
Jesus, I think, takes this rationalist view of neighborliness on in the Good Samaritan. It’s not enough to know in advance the rules about who qualifies as neighbor or when it is permissible to pass by on the other side of the road. For one thing, following Jesus is never first a matter of who gets to be my neighbor, but how am I going to be a neighbor to those who cross my path.
For another thing, the knowledge I have of others isn’t first rational a priori knowledge available to me in the comfort of my own mind, but empirical knowledge that requires that I actually get out on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. To know my neighbor, I must get my hands dirty.
Following Jesus, loving those whom Jesus loves, requires us to figure out not who it is ok to walk past, but how we are to manage the often difficult task of applying the bandages of healing to those whose wounds we often fail to understand.
I’m thinking in this instance about my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But here’s where the Good Samaritan analogy breaks down for us and for them: in the church we play all the roles—beaten traveler, Priest, Levite, and Good Samaritan. Here’s the thing we rarely talk about, though: all too often, we’re also the ones who beat up the traveler, and leave him lying by the side of the road for dead.
And if we’re ever going to truly know our neighbor, let alone be a part of the healing of wounds we’ve helped to inflict, we’d better be out walking the Jericho Road looking for people who feel they have no other choice but to travel it.
- It might be argued here that God’s revelation must by definition be truth—that is, analytic and not synthetic knowledge. On this reading, Scripture forms a repository of knowledge that doesn’t require experience to be true. If God said it, it is self-evidently true. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it assumes that God’s truth is available to us in unmediated form. Unfortunately, though, God’s choice of human beings as the channel through which Scripture comes to us—taking into consideration, for instance, slippery things like language and culture—makes that truth mediated, synthetic, contingent. Even revelation, therefore, cannot but be mediated through somebody’s human experience. ↩