Russell and Duenes

Dallas Willard: 1935 – 2013

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Dallas-WillardI was first exposed to Dallas Willard as part of a Bible study I attended in the mid-90’s. My good friend Duke Dillard, who was leading the study, gave us portions of Dallas’ book, Spirit of the Disciplines, to ponder over. The “spiritual disciplines” were not entirely new to me, having read bits of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline in college. Yet Dallas seemed to have a way of writing about the spiritual life that at once appealed to both my intellect and my heart. I wish I could say that these readings immediately “hooked” me, but Dallas’ influence was instead something that grew on me over the years.

Another of my friends, Greg Edlund, was also quite taken with Willard’s thinking. I don’t remember many of our conversations about Dallas specifically, but I do remember Greg’s remarking about a particular phrase that Dallas had used in describing the plight of humanity apart from God’s redeeming grace, namely, that we were in a “spiraling disaster.” This idea was found in chapter 11 of Spirit of the Disciplines, entitled “The Disciplines and the Power Structures of This World.” It is still one of the most powerful expositions of our daily reality that I have ever read. Indeed, before I even owned a copy of Spirit of the Disciplines myself, I had photocopied this chapter so that I might mark it up with comments. It is rare, even now, that I watch a movie, read a story or reflect on some life event without being able to relate it to something Dallas said in that chapter.

Some highlights: “More often than not, faith has failed, sadly enough, to transform the human character of the masses, because it is usually unaccompanied by discipleship and by an overall discipline of life such as Christ himself practiced.” (p.221). By this Dallas meant more, of course, than having “quiet times.” It was the failure of practical discipleship in both individual and communal terms, that hobbles us. Such a failing is certainly central to the weakness of my own spiritual life, such as it is.

When it comes to “the evil that men do,” Dallas asked: “Why ask why?” He further questioned: “What is it about our lives that always leaves us astonished and wondering at the evils people do? Indeed, at the evils we do? What makes us expect any better, given a track record like the one just cited (i.e., various examples of murder, war, abuse, financial scheming and the like)? There is something very deep here to be explored, for it is closely tied to our cowlike confidence in banal decency and to our corresponding failure to take appropriately strong measures against evil as it rests in our own personalities and in our world.” (p.224). Indeed, G.K. Chesterton wondered openly at the western world’s profound denial of the doctrine of original sin when it was the one doctrine that could be empirically verified. Yet Dallas was able to lay bare our sinful lives with a plain clarity that could not help but arrest one’s attention. I have found nothing better on the subject, other than Jesus and the other biblical writers, than Dallas’ conclusion that “the persistence of evil rests upon the general drift of human life in which we all share. It rides upon a motion so vast, so pervasive and ponderous that, like the motion of the planet earth, it is almost impossible to detect. We delude ourselves about the sustaining conditions of people’s evil deeds because we wish to continue living as we now live and continue being the kinds of people we are. We do not want to change. We do not want our world to be really different. We just want to escape the consequences of its being what it truly is and of our being who we truly are.” (pgs.224-25).

The key word here was “want.” We do not want to change. So Dallas used to say that we need to ask God to “fix our ‘wanter.'” That’s a great way of putting it. Our “wanters” are broken, and we need to have God change our deepest desires. Of course, in saying this, Dallas was simply adding his own stylistic flourish on a truth long preached by Christian men and women. Dallas went on to say that there was a “readiness to do evil” in each human being, the “sin in our members” waiting for the right circumstances, which always came along. “It is no mere abstract possibility but a genuine tendency, constantly at work. It does not take much to get most people to lie, for example, or to take what does not belong to them, and shamefully little to get them to think of how nice it would be if certain others were dead. Thus, if in our lives we are not protected by a hearty confidence in God’s never failing and effective care for us, these ‘readinesses’ for various kinds of wrongdoing will be constantly provoked into action by threatening circumstances. And when we act, others around us will, of course, react. And then we will react to them, and so forth, until we and others are stunned into quiescence by the spiraling disasters.” (pgs. 226-227). But Willard went further, proclaiming that “the impersonal power structures in the world are, though independent of any one person’s will and experience, nevertheless dependent for their force upon the general readiness of normal people to do evil.” (p.231). We tend to downplay the way in which our common wickedness and sin leads to greater disasters such as war or famine or economic futility or slavery or genocide or . . . Yet Dallas saw it clearly, and it was no mere theory in his mind.

Dallas was one of those rare people who combined a sustained level of intellectual achievement with the lived experience of walking with Jesus, such that he could say things that went far beyond Christian boilerplate. Though he was brilliant, Dallas’ words were never in the obscurantist ether. Rather, he had so imbibed the life of Jesus that he could talk about spiritual reality in clear and concise terms.

Dallas’ most popular work was likely The Divine Conspiracy. He once again laid bare our fallacious notions of “discipleship,” saying that we accepted a kind of “bar code” faith. He called this the “gospel of sin management,” and said that “the theology of Christian trinkets says there is something about the Christian that works like a bar code. Some ritual, some belief, or some association with a group affects God the way the bar code affects the scanner. Perhaps there has occurred a moment of mental assent to a creed, or an association entered into with a church. God ‘scans’ it, and forgiveness floods forth . . . We are, accordingly, ‘saved.’ Out guilt is erased. How could we not be Christians?” (p.37). And of course, all too often, this is indeed how I conceive of my “faith” in Jesus.

Yet the best part of Dallas’ thought, in this book or any other, was his exposition of the truth that Jesus is the smartest man who ever lived. Dallas writes: “The ‘real’ world has little room for a God of sparrows and children. To it, Jesus can only seem ‘otherworldly’ – a good-hearted person out of touch with reality. Yes, it must be admitted that he is influential, but only because he affirms what weak-minded and fainthearted individuals fantasize in the face of a brutal world. He is like a cheerleader who continues to shout, ‘We are going to win,’ though the score is 98 to 3 against us in the last minute of the game.” (p.91). Moreover, “in our culture, among Christians and non-Christians alike, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informed, brilliant, or smart. Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked at as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.” (p.134). I remember well how mercilessly President George W. Bush was mocked for saying that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. What a rube, eh?

But Willard would have none of it. He said that “to become a disciple of Jesus is to accept now that inversion of human distinctions that will sooner or later be forced upon everyone by the irresistible reality of his kingdom. . . . We must, simply, accept that he is the best and smartest man who ever lived in this world, that he is even now ‘the prince of the kings of the earth,’ (Rev.1:5).” (p.90). He went on to say that “the powerful though vague and unsubstantiated presumption is that something has been found out that renders a spiritual understanding of reality in the manner of Jesus simply foolish to those who are ‘in the know.’ But when it comes time to say exactly what it is that has been found out, nothing of substance is forthcoming. . .  You can be very sure that nothing fundamental has changed in our knowledge of ultimate reality and the human self since the time of Jesus.” (p. 92-93) Therefore, Dallas concludes: “Can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived?” (p.94).

Willard’s other books besides The Divine Conspiracy and The Spirit of the Disciplines also deserve a wider readership. Anyone would profit from having Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, and The Great Omission in his or her library, to be pulled off the shelves and mined for wisdom. His exposition of “the cost of non-discipleship” (see The Great Omission) is worth the price alone. Dallas’s stuff is water for parched souls.

Willard, of course, was not only a theologian with a pastor’s heart, but a philosopher of the first order. Yet here again, he was able to break epistemological reality down into something clear and concise. His main formulation of life was summed up in four questions, which he repeated again and again: 1) What is ultimately reality? 2) What is ‘the good life’? 3) Who is a ‘good person?’ 4) How does one become a ‘good person?’ These four questions became a major part of the curriculum for my freshman Bible class when I taught at Redwood Christian. We spent weeks trying to mine the depths of these questions. You could profitably spend an entire semester on the first question alone, for if God Himself and His kingdom is ultimate reality, then there is no spiritual neutrality anywhere in the universe. As Willard says, “Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one who knows the truth about our lives and our universe. It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent. We cannot pray for his help and rely on his collaboration in dealing with real-life matters we suspect might defeat his knowledge or abilities.” (The Divine Conspiracy, p. 94). The practical applications of Willard’s statement are legion. The reality that Willard conveyed was that God’s kingdom was everywhere present and everywhere and always available to those who would look for it. This should serve as a constant reminder to me to “seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all [things needful] shall be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33).

It has always been heartening to me as a Christian to remind myself that a man as smart as Dallas Willard had almost boundless confidence in Jesus and His words to us. One dictum born of Dallas’ mental acuity was the exhortation to sometimes “doubt your beliefs and believe your doubts,” but equally to “doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs.” I simply cannot emphasize the wisdom and comfort these words convey. All too often we are willing to assume that our doubts are valid, and that our beliefs should always be open to question. But what about questioning our doubts? This has brought me to the realization that there is no worldview – religious, agnostic, or atheistic – that does not have “problems” that must be wrestled with. And once I began to doubt my doubts, I realized that the promised intellectual “liberation” that so many say comes from jettisoning God, is largely a fiction. People like to jettison God without owning up to all the other things that must be also jettisoned along with Him, namely, meaning in life, morality, truth, falsehood, love, justice, compassion, and eternal life. I am simply no longer willing to believe that the abandonment of these things is “liberation” (and I suspect most atheists agree with me, for they are largely not consistent enough in their atheism to abandon them either. They want “no God” while retaining virtually all the blessings that come from inhabiting a God-suffused world).

There are too many things to admire about Dallas Willard to recount, but one last thing that has always stood out to me was his generosity of spirit, particularly with those who disagreed with him. I remember attending a Veritas Forum event at Stanford University where he was presenting his views in opposition to those of the famed post-modernist, Richard Rorty. There was no snarkiness or sarcasm to anything Dallas was saying, and in fact, he recommended a particular chapter in one of Rorty’s books as a “must read.” On his recommendation, I remember going to my local bookstore and reading Rorty’s chapter right there. Willard was always so confident in Christ that he never needed to emphasize his points with a particular tone of voice. A gentle and calm manner pervaded all that he said and did, and I cannot help but believe that this was born of his own practiced experience in the spiritual disciplines.

Dallas Willard was truly a great man. He was humble, yet courageous. He melded heart and mind in devotion to Jesus. He did not abandon the academy to the forces of secularism. He profoundly influence other great men, J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae of BIOLA University being among them, and turned them loose upon the culture as well. I count it a great blessing to have heard him speak in person on a couple of occasions, and to have been led to his writings. My prayer at this point is that his writings will have an even greater impact on me in whatever years I have left in this life, that my life in the next world will be the richer. Thank you, Lord God, for your servant Dallas. Thank you for the time we had with him.



One Response

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  1. “The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.”
    “Few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs.”

    I found Dallas Willard’s thoughts to be great challenges to me.

    russell and duenes

    May 13, 2013 at 11:17 am

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