Dr. Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher beloved by many for his writings on spirituality, passed on to glory today. My debt to him is very great, precisely because of those writings, and so, as a small sign of my gratitude for his work, I thought I might reflect briefly on the intellectual project his life embodied.
If I had to sum up his message into two points, they would be:
(1) Real Reality. Dr. Willard’s philosophical work all surrounded the subject of realism in metaphysics and epistemology. Essentially (pun not originally intended), he spent his career defending something resembling the philosophia perennis. He wrote on subjects like phenomenology, Husserl, materialism, meaning and intentionality, and philosophical anthropology. But his philosophical work was not segregated from his Christianity. The consequence of his realist philosophy for his Christian writing was this: he argued that Christianity offered the objective truth about the world, and that in the area of character formation, the way of Christ was objectively the best. He said in various places: Jesus would be the first person to tell you to take a better path than his own, if you could find it, and to leave him, if you found the truth to be contrary to his message. But of course, Dr. Willard knew this could never truly happen. Indeed, he spent a great deal of time, and wrote an entire book, arguing to the contrary: that we could know Christianity was in fact true.
(2) A Reasonable Approach to Spiritual Growth. The best way I could sum up Dr. Willard on the subject of spiritual growth is to say, he was a true Methodist. That’s true even though, denominationally, he was a Southern Baptist. But Dr. Willard’s general approach to the spiritual life was to ask: If evangelicals really mean it when they say sanctification is a synergistic process, how exactly are we supposed to cooperate with God? And his answer was: The spiritual disciplines. That is, he argued God responds with sanctifying grace to human effort directed along reasonable means – the means being practices we can do now, that enable us to act later in ways that sheer will-power cannot. Examples of the disciplines are: prayer, fasting, scripture memorization, solitude, silence, worship, celebration, simplicity, and secrecy. One of the biggest lessons I learned from Dr. Willard on this subject was that God will not (normally) zap people with good character. He rewards those who seek him. Dr. Willard gave a brief judgment of the failings of charismatics and evangelicals in this regard:
AP Your teaching on the kingdom highlights some of the differences between the charismatic and evangelicals. Charismatics emphasise manifestation, evangelicals Bible teaching. Are you saying they are both wrong?
DW Exactly. If you ask “how is it wrong?” I would say that neither manifestation, nor teaching transforms character. Charismatics flail at the dead horse of experience, evangelicals at teaching, but neither leads to transformation spiritually. The only thing that transforms us spiritually is the action of following Christ
And, indeed, these two points line up quite nicely with the vision of TCI. Seeking for truth, and getting down to business, one might say. I pray that I may continue to live out Dr. Willard’s teaching in this regard, and that others would increasingly see the wisdom of his approach.
Requiescat in pace Dr. Willard.