RIP Dallas Willard (1935-2013)

Just two days after announcing via his Twitter feed that he had stage 4 cancer, Dallas Willard died yesterday. At the end of this post, I’ll offer my own small contribution to the collection of tributes that is already proliferating, but first a few words from people who knew him well:

Willard in 2008
Willard teaching at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in 2008 – Creative Commons (Loren Kerns)

Richard Foster wrote of first encountering Willard as a member of the small church Foster served just out of seminary, where Willard the philosopher both shared a friendship with construction worker with a 3rd grade education (“It was for me a vivid example of Christian koinonia“) and taught intensive classes that Foster remembered as being “stunningly creative and life giving, and at the same time deeply rooted in classical thought.” While the two men did as much as anything to remind evangelicals and other American Christians of the value of the spiritual disciplines (see Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines and Foster’s Celebration of DisciplineI quoted from each in an older post on simplicity and education), Foster’s tribute emphasized quiet moments of shared study, fellowship, and love.

• Likewise, while pastor/writer John Ortberg acknowledged the importance of Willard’s writings on spiritual formation, he thought that Willard’s

real preoccupation and concern was focused on the ‘kingdom of God’, or what he would often speak about as the ‘with-God life.’ He said the four great questions humans must answer are: What is reality? What is the good life? Who is a good person? And How do you became a good person? His concern was to answer those questions, and live the answers, and he was simply convinced that no one has ever answered them as well as Jesus.

As a Christian scholar myself (of much less acumen and distinction than Dallas Willard) who feels called to serve both Athens and Jerusalem, I was also taken with this paragraph from Ortberg:

Dallas has impacted the world of the church—evangelicalism and beyond—through a power of historically informed thought that simply makes more sense of reality and existence than the alternatives that many of us are aware of. He deeply valued the scholarly guild, and contributed to it. But he was aware of the limits of the guild as well, and ultimately sought to contribute to moral and spiritual knowledge in a way that transcended current guild norms.

• By the same token, I appreciated what InterVarsity’s Joe Thackwell shared about his conversation last year with Willard. After Thackwell explained his ambition to start a spiritual disciplines research group for faculty and graduate students at the University of Southern California, Willard (a long-serving philosophy professor at USC) affirmed the idea,

Dallas WillardThen he mused. He spoke of non-monastic orders that combined prayer and work — of the basic need to know and the different ways of knowing — of the need for Evangelicals to redefine their presence at the academy. Instead of starting with evangelism and personal devotion, Dallas imagined with me what it would look like to start with the importance and holiness of the academic’s work itself. Imagine the witness of Christian scholars treating their intellectual work as discipleship. Imagine the startling effect of academic work approached as devotion to God.

If I may be so bold, see my own musings on this very subject here.

Wesley Hill sketched a more complex, evolving response to Willard for First Things. After first encountering Willard’s idea by reading his The Divine Conspiracy while still in high school, Hill grew “less enthused about some of Willard’s conclusions. I now think, for instance, that when Willard characterized much of classic Evangelical soteriology as concerned only with ‘managing sin’ or offering ‘fire insurance’ to escape hell, he painted a regrettable caricature.” At the same time, Hill traced much of his own journey in ministry and scholarship back to Willard, and still regards “many of Willard’s insights as abidingly significant. His practical teaching, found in the final third of The Divine Conspiracy and elsewhere, on why and how to practice disciplines (like memorizing Scripture, fasting, and observing times of solitude and silence) has no peer.”

• My own experience of Dallas Willard is also as a reader — of the two books mentioned already, plus two of his major works on spiritual formation: Renovation of the Heart and The Great Omission. (I think of the latter every time I’m sitting in a church leadership meeting, worried about stagnant attendance trends. I hear his voice reminding me that adding numbers is not the same thing as making disciples.) Others have engaged more deeply with him than I, but it happened that I read Willard’s books primarily — providentially — during my first five years at Bethel: when I was entirely new to Christian higher education, learning what it meant to be a teacher, and discovering Pietism on a personal and scholarly level. Hence this passage from my application for initial tenure:

Willard, The Great OmissionReflecting on pietist ideas of education like [Karl] Olsson’s (my current research project) is leading me to understand education less in terms of knowledge acquisition or even intellectual development than as a particular means of spiritual formation in Christ, which Dallas Willard defines as “the process whereby the inmost being of the individual (the heart, will, or spirit) takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself.” [The Great Omission, p. 53] Here I have been guided by Paul’s warning words to the Roman church:

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Rom 12:2, The Message)

Our challenge as teachers is to fix students’ attention on God as He is found in all fields of study. Christian education thereby takes young people “conformed to this world” (in the NRSV) and helps transform them so that they may truly love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves (Mk 12:30-31). It is a challenge because the surrounding culture is so effective at pulling us back into immaturity—so effective that we don’t always realize it’s happening, or that it touches every area of our lives! Willard points out that even our ideas, our “assumptions about reality” have been corrupted and need to be renovated:

…Christian spiritual formation is inescapably a matter of recognizing in ourselves the idea system (or systems) of evil that governs the present age and the respective culture (or various cultures) that constitute life away from God. The needed transformation is very largely a matter of replacing in ourselves those idea systems of evil (and their corresponding cultures) with the idea system that Jesus Christ embodied and taught with a culture of the kingdom of God. This is truly a passage from darkness to light. [Renovation of the Heart, pp. 96, 98]

And not just our ideas: images, information, modes of thinking, and feelings must all be transformed by this renewal Paul describes.

Peace be to the memory of Dallas Willard.

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