Reflections on Four Final Concerns of Dallas Willard
Comments written by JP Moreland in honor of his lengthy friendship with Dallas and to share an important final conversation.
I loved Dallas Willard.[i] He was like a father to me. I will miss him terribly. Among those who have influenced me most, he stands out like a giant oak in the midst of saplings. In Dallas’ case, all the things said to eulogize him are actually true. We have lost a five-star general in the armies of God, and the world is not what it was when he was among us.
Dallas was a man with a deep, pervasive, penetrating intellect. He was a Christian first and a philosopher second. From him I learned how to do metaphysics and how to think metaphysically. He taught me to make distinctions when I was blurring categories. He was a committed substance dualist, and never tired of defending the existence of and talking about the flourishing of the (embodied) soul. He taught me to be a direct realist in epistemology (see below). And no one knew more than Dallas about the history of ethics, especially in the last 150 years. He will be remembered most for his writings on spiritual formation, but the man was also a first-rate academic philosopher.
His spiritual writings are not only deep in content, but they also have a texture or tone to them that accurately express Dallas’s own life. He lived and practiced what he wrote, and there was a Presence in, around, and through his presence.
I cannot begin to share all the memories I have of him, but I will mention three, one at the beginning of our relationship and two at the end. In 1983, while I was a doctoral student at USC, an undergraduate philosophy student named Joe came up to me and asked if I were religious. I assured him that I was not, but that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. His eyes grew big and he asked me if I thought Jesus could come up to a person. I had no idea what he meant, so like a good philosopher, I pretended I did and replied by asking him a question! Where did he get this idea, I queried. Well, he said, that morning he had been in Dallas’ office, Dallas has lead him to Christ, and Dallas had told him that when he prayed to Jesus, Jesus would come right up to him and listen. In typical Willardian fashion, Dallas had put a truth in terms no one had ever thought of, and the way of speaking had its intended impact on Joe and on me.
My next memory was a phone conversation with Dallas three days before he passed on. He was lucid, in good spirits, but so weak that he could hardly project his voice over the phone. He knew he was dying. I told him that I wanted to take a minute to celebrate his life and remind him of the impact for the Kingdom he had had. Well, being the humble, unassuming person he was, Dallas would have none of this. I told him he had to listen to me whether he wanted to or not, and he responded that he would take the praise as from the Lord, and I filled his ear with his wonderful legacy. He closed our conversation by remarking on “what a glorious future we all have in the Kingdom,” and that was how the man approached his death.
Perhaps more important for present purposes is a conversation I had with Dallas a few months before his departure. Through his wife, Jane, he had asked me to meet him at his home for what may be some final words of encouragement and advice. As I was with Dallas that day, I took detailed noted on what he shared. Some of it was personal, but during our conversation, he expressed four concerns he had for the future health of Christianity in general, and the spiritual formation movement in particular.
The Nature and Importance of Knowledge
Before I share these concerns, I should set a context that informs Dallas’ words to me. As Dallas once noted:
“[T]he crushing weight of the secular outlook . . . permeates or pressures every thought we have today. Sometimes it even forces those who self-identify as Christian teachers to set aside Jesus’ plain statements about the reality and total relevance of the kingdom of God and replace them with philosophical speculations whose only recommendation is their consistency with a ‘modern’ [i.e., contemporary] mindset. 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.’”[ii]
This phenomenon concerned Dallas because he rightly saw that it is on the basis of knowledge—not mere truth or faith—that people are given responsibility to lead and act and to live with confidence. The possession of knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge, is essential to human life and flourishing. Thus is it crucial to approach discipleship to Jesus as part of a knowledge tradition. Unfortunately, under the intellectual pressure from contemporary culture, many postmodernize the spiritual life with the result that it becomes just another language game that is hard to take seriously, certainly, that does not provide the soul what is needed—knowledge--for a radical commitment to discipleship unto Jesus as the very center of one’s life.
Willard’s life and writings provide an alternative to this subjectivizing approach: We need to challenge the culture’s limitation of knowledge to empirical science and defend an extension of knowledge to including theological affirmations at the core of “mere Christianity.” We must insist upon the idea that the rich spiritual formative literature in the history of the church provides knowledge of its subject matter every bit as much as the history of chemistry or other knowledge fields do when they are at their best.
For Willard, knowledge involves representing reality the way it actually is on an appropriate basis in thought and experience.[iii]
Given the magnitude of the role knowledge plays in life and discipleship, it is important to get clear on what knowledge is and is not. Much confusion abounds today about the nature of knowledge, a confusion that hurts people and prevents them from growing in Christ with the sort of confidence that is their birthright in the Way of Jesus.
There are three kinds of knowledge:
1) Knowledge by acquaintance: This happens when we are directly aware of something, e.g., when I see an apple directly before me, pay attention to my inner feelings, or become aware of God. I know these things by acquaintance. One does not need a concept of an apple or knowledge of how to use the word “apple” in English to have knowledge by acquaintance with an apple. A baby can see an apple without having the relevant concept or linguistic skills. Knowledge by acquaintance is sometimes called “simple seeing,” being directly aware of something. In the spiritual life, we can be directly aware of God and his voice.
2) Propositional knowledge: This is knowledge that an entire proposition is true. For example, knowledge that “the object there is an apple” requires having a concept of an apple and knowing that the object under consideration satisfies the concept. Propositional knowledge is justified true belief, it is believing something that is true on the basis of adequate grounds or evidence.
3) Know-how: This is the ability to do certain things, e.g., to use apples for certain purposes. We may distinguish mere know-how from genuine know-how or skill. The latter is know-how based on knowledge and insight and is characteristic of skilled-practitioners in some field. It can also be called wisdom. Mere know-how is the ability to engage in the correct behavioral movements, say by following the steps in a manual, with little or no knowledge of why one is performing these movements.
Before I turn to stating Dallas’ concerns, one more point about knowledge needs to be mentioned: Knowledge does not require certainty. Something is certain if it is utterly impossible that one be mistaken about it. In this sense, few things can be known with certainty. Among them are that I exist, that basic principles of math are true (2+2=4), and that the fundamental laws of logic are correct (something cannot be true and false at the same time in the same sense). That’s about it. But knowledge does not require certainty as Paul’s remark in Ephesians 5:5 makes clear: “For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” If knowledge just is a sort of certainty, then “knowledge with certainty” would be redundant.
This is no small point. Among other things, it means that one’s degree of knowledge can grow or diminish over time. It also means that one can know something and, at the same time, acknowledge that one might be wrong about it. Indeed, the presence of doubt, the awareness of disagreements among experts, or the acknowledgement of arguments and evidence contrary to one’s view on something do not necessarily mean that one does not have knowledge of the thing in question. When we seek knowledge of God, specific biblical texts, morality and a host of other things, we should not assume that our search requires reaching a state with no doubt, no plausible counterarguments, no possibility of being mistaken. When people believe that knowledge requires certainty, they will fail to take themselves to have knowledge if they lack certainty. In turn, this will lead to a lack of confidence and courage regarding one’s ability to count on the things one knows. I am not suggesting that certainty is a bad thing—not for a second. I’m merely noting that it is not required. In the spiritual life, we are after confidence, not certainty.
Dallas’s Four Concerns
Central to Dallas’ mission in life was the re-establishment of spiritual formation and life unto Jesus as a realm of genuine knowledge in the three senses listed above. As he often pointed out, we are largely at the mercy of our ideas. Accordingly, his four concerns expressed to me that day revolve around promoting this agenda. Two of his concerns were philosophical and two directly involved spiritual formation. Here they are: (1) The explication and defense of robust metaphysical realism. (2) The explication and defense of epistemic realism. (3) The continued development of an intellectually defensible, multi-disciplinary model of the human person and of the spiritual life as an expression of human nature and the best path to human flourishing. (4) The continued development of ways to make the different aspects of spiritual formation publically testable. Let me develop these concerns in the order just presented.
Robust Metaphysical Realism
By “robust metaphysical realism” I mean two things. First, “metaphysical realism” is the view that there is a real theory/language/mind independent world “out there.” This is meant to exclude any form of social constructionism according to which we as individual or corporate language users construct reality, e.g., gender, by our acts of theorizing or talking. Dallas would have none of this (he called it “the Midas touch view”). One day in a doctoral seminar I attended in my Ph.D. work at USC, a graduate student claimed that we create the colors of objects such that when we stop looking at them, they have no color. After a few rounds of interaction between Dallas and the student, Dallas put a white cup in the middle of the seminar table, told the student to look away from it, and the rest of the class would see it lost its color! Well, when the experiment was performed, the cup stayed white. The student responded that this was because other people were looking at it. So Dallas had each person in the seminar take turns looking away from the cup to see if it lost its color. After one or two did this, the point was made.
As Dallas often said, reality is what you bump up against when your beliefs are false, and for him, reality and truth were at the very core of life, especially life in the Kingdom.
By “robust” metaphysical realism, Dallas meant that the physical, sense-perceptible world is not all there is. In addition, there is a vast unseen world containing abstract objects (numbers, properties and relations), consciousness and the self, values, laws of logic, God, angels and so on. Regarding the human person, Dallas had little regard for any form of physicalism. For him, it was obvious that the soul was real and that people leave their bodies at physical death.[iv] Reductionism and physicalism were false, destructive belief systems in Dallas’ way of thinking.
If anything was central to the entire scope of Dallas’ philosophical career, it was epistemic realism according to which human knowers have direct access to objects of knowledge—e.g., trees, numbers, God—by way of knowledge by acquaintance.[v] This stands in stark contrast to the Postmodern view that “everything is interpretation.”
Postmodernists often reject the notion that rationality is objective on the grounds that no one approaches life in a totally objective way without bias. Thus, objectivity is impossible, and observations, beliefs and entire narratives are theory-laden. There is no neutral standpoint from which to approach the world. Therefore, observations, beliefs and so forth are perspectival constructions that reflect the viewpoint implicit in one’s own web of beliefs. For example, the late Stanley Grenz claimed that Postmodernism rejects the alleged Modernist view of reason which “…entails a claim to dispassionate knowledge, a person’s ability to view reality not as a conditioned participant but as an unconditioned observer—to peer at the world from a vantage point outside the flux of history.”[vi]
Dallas had little patience for Postmodern thought, at least as it is expressed philosophically, and he once told me that it was not consistent with historic Christianity. One of the main reasons epistemic realism was so important to Dallas was that experiences of truth itself were so crucial to the life of the disciple. And that life requires being able to be directly aware of God and His voice, an awareness that is prior to our interpretation of it.
It is beyond the scope of this article to engage in a discussion of epistemic realism vs. Postmodernism.[vii] Suffice it to say that, for Dallas, the spiritual life needed to be understood as having a foundation in knowledge, and epistemic realism was the best way to undergird that foundation.
Developing Models of the Human Person and Spiritual Life
For over sixty-five years, the central battleground issue in Western culture, especially in the universities, has been the debate about the nature and identity of a human person. And great confusion abounds in this area. As Dallas pointed out, when one is confused about a matter, say, what to do in a situation, then one is not responsible for that matter.[viii] How could he be since no one knows the correct thing to do? Similarly, confusion about the nature of the human person funds ambiguity about how we are and are not to live which, in turn, gives people license to be guided in life by sensuality and the immediate gratification of desire.
In this situation, what is needed is a clear, rational depiction of the human person. Dallas’ two works—The Spirit of the Disciplines and Renovation of the Heart—represent his attempts to meet this need. This depiction should be consistent with biblical teaching, but it must be supported by rational discoveries from various disciplines, e.g. psychology and philosophy. In developing such a depiction, scientism, reductionism and physicalism must not only be avoided, but also soundly exposed as the irrational, truncated views that they actually are. By developing an intellectually sound model of human persons, the nature of the good life and its relationship to spiritual formation can be located within a framework of publically accessible knowledge, rather than being promoted as part of a faith tradition for people who need to be comforted by private beliefs.
Publically Testable Spiritual Formation
There are two reasons why Dallas believed it was crucial to develop ways of testing different aspects of spiritual formation. The first one should be obvious: If spiritual formative practices can be tested for their tendency to produce human flourishing, and if those practices pass the tests, then this would enhance those practices as items of publically testable wisdom and knowledge. In this way, spiritual formation and the claims made on its behalf could be established as a set of truth and knowledge claims on a par with, say, those in the discipline of psychology. Among other things, such a situation would prevent spiritual formation from being privatized and marginalized from the public square.
There is, however, a second reason Dallas thought such testing was important. Dallas regularly insisted that we make experimentation central to our own spiritual journeys. By this he meant that we should try a number of practices until we found those that worked best for us. If praying the Jesus prayer a thousand times a day is fruitful, then do that. If using breathing relaxation exercises enhances one’s prayer life, then experiment with that. In short, experiment, experiment, experiment! Now, one of the important things about such experiments is their ability to be tested against one’s own progress in Christ likeness. In this way, testability becomes an important aspect of staying on course in our hot pursuit of Jesus. And Dallas saw this clearly.
A Final Reflection
These, then, were the four concerns Dallas expressed to me the final time I saw him as we visited in his home. At this point, I think it would be fruitful to step back for a moment and ask a question: Exactly why did Dallas become a philosopher? After all, as a young man he was on fire for Jesus and His Kingdom and there were many different career paths available to him for expressing his passion. The answer is clear: Dallas did not govern his life on the basis of truth alone; no, he was centered on knowing the truth. And he believed philosophy would help him in that quest for knowledge. I happen to agree with him, but that is neither here nor there for present concerns. What is important to note is that for those of us who treasure the man and his work, and who very much desire to stand in, enhance and develop his legacy, we must similarly be committed to knowledge. It is not adequate if we merely promote his spiritual teachings and allow the culture to continue its depiction of spirituality as a privatized, personal “religious” quest for people who need that sort of thing. We must also do the hard work of grounding this quest in knowledge. I hope you will join me in engaging in that work.
[ii] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), p. 92. Cf. pp.75, 79, 134, 184-185.
[iii] Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
[iv] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress 2002).
[v] See Dallas Willard, “How Concepts Relate the Mind to Its Objects: The ‘God’s Eye View’ Vindicated,” Philosophia Christi 1:2 (Winter 1999): 5-20.
[vi] Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 15.
[vii] See J. P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 2007), chapter 3.
[viii] Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pp 28-29, 43-44.
JP Moreland studied under Dallas at USC 1982-1985 and was honored to have him as his dissertation supervisor. JP and his wife have counted Dallas and Jane as dear friends and mentors for thirty years. Dallas impacted JP through his combination of a rigorous intellect with a vibrant walk with Jesus, his fresh, penetrating ideas about the kingdom and how to live in it, and by the reality of God that poured out of his life. JP is currently Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in La Mirada, California.
--See also JP’s contribution to Dallas’s Memorial Celebration, May 25, 2013.