Spiritual Formation in the Academy

June 22-26, 2008
Intervarsity Midwest Faculty Conference

Dallas spoke at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's National Faculty Conference, June 22-26, 2008. His teaching sessions blended spiritual formation and the academy, "and there is no place more important for spiritual formation than the academy."


1: Spirituality and Christian Spiritual Formation

Dallas lays the foundation for a three subsequent talks probing “spiritual formation in the academy.” He examines spiritual formation, starting from the biblical perspectives in Romans 5:1-5 and 2 Peter 1:5-11, with an eye toward contemporary spiritualities, with their focus on identity and power. Christian spiritual formation is presented as both an active and passive process, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Dallas explores an integrated approach that addresses the various dimensions of the human self: spirit, mind, body, social context, and soul. 

2: Discipleship and Spiritual Disciplines

Dallas Willard discusses the reshaping of our spiritual lives through discipleship and spiritual disciplines. Uncover the transformative journey of aligning our inner selves with Christ's teachings, moving beyond mere practices to a life of obedience and love. A compelling call to rekindle our approach to spirituality, aiming for genuine change from within.

3: Christian Teachings Banished from Knowledge

Dive into a compelling exploration where the realms of faith and knowledge intersect, challenging modern academic norms. Discover how historical shifts have marginalized Christian teachings and why integrating belief with evidence could transform our understanding of reality, morality, and the very nature of existence itself.

4: The Disciple in the World of Knowledge

Join Dallas Willard in an exploration of discipleship within the academic context. Critiquing secular academia's limitations, Dallas presents a compelling case for integrating faith deeply into our understanding of reality and personal transformation, all while guiding us towards an eternal destiny in God's great universe.

Spirituality and Christian Spiritual Formation

This talk starts with a comparison between spiritual formation as depicted in Romans 5:1-5 and 2 Peter 1:5-11. Dallas emphasizes the importance of blending the passive and active modes of spiritual formation evident in these scriptures. He highlights how the process involves moving from understanding tribulations as part of character development to recognizing love (agape) as the pinnacle of Christian character. This progression, from faith through various virtues to agape, showcases the active participation required in spiritual formation, where one actively adds to their faith virtues like knowledge, self-control, and godliness, leading ultimately to agape love.

Dallas then explores the contemporary context of spirituality, contrasting it with the New Testament's depiction. He notes how modern spiritualities promise identity and power, reflecting deep human needs often addressed in secular contexts, like media or various spiritual movements. These promises, however, do not fulfill the deeper spiritual yearnings that only a relationship with God can satisfy. He criticizes the secular attempt to find identity and power outside of this divine relationship, using Romans 1 to illustrate how turning away from God leads to idolatry and dissatisfaction. This section of his talk warns of the dangers of seeking spiritual fulfillment outside of the Christian framework.

Finally, Dallas looks into the essence of Christian spiritual formation, defining it as the process by which one's inner self is transformed to resemble Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. He outlines the multifaceted nature of the human being—heart, soul, mind, strength—and how Christian spiritual formation involves the transformation of each aspect. Emphasizing discipleship and the practice of spiritual disciplines, Willard argues for a holistic approach to formation, one that integrates all aspects of the self under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This transformative process aims not just at external adherence to Christ's teachings but at a deep, inner change that naturally expresses itself in actions and character aligned with Jesus's example.

Discipleship and Spiritual Disciplines

Dallas emphasizes the core idea of transforming into Christlikeness through obedience, moving beyond mere engagement in spiritual disciplines for their own sake. He addresses the common misunderstanding of spiritual formation as an end goal, instead underlining its purpose as a means to foster an inner transformation that manifests in loving obedience to Christ's teachings. He argues that true spiritual formation involves a deep change within the self, aimed at aligning one's intentions and actions with those of Jesus.

Dallas further delves into the practical aspects of discipleship, describing it as a lifelong journey that encompasses every dimension of human existence.  He introduces the concept of being Jesus’s apprentice, which entails learning from Jesus how to lead one's life in the Kingdom of God as He would. This involves a holistic approach where discipleship extends to every part of one's life.

Dallas, also, addresses the topic of spiritual disciplines, clarifying their role as practices that enable believers to grow in their ability to live in accordance with God’s will through grace. He challenges common misconceptions about grace and effort, stressing that disciplines are not about earning God's favor but about opening oneself to His transformative grace. The talk ends with a call to reevaluate the content and aim of the gospel preached within the church, advocating for a message that naturally leads to the formation of disciples who embody Christ's teachings in every aspect of their lives, thereby impacting the world with the reality of God's kingdom.

Christian Teachings Banished from Knowledge


  • Knowledge in Spiritual Formation: Dallas emphasizes the crucial role of knowledge in spiritual formation and the understanding of God, challenging the separation between faith and knowledge by referring to scriptural instances where knowledge of God is foundational to faith and life.
  • Historical Displacement of Faith: He discusses the historical displacement of Christian teaching from the domain of knowledge over the past century, highlighting how society and academia have increasingly marginalized Christian beliefs.
  • Reason vs. Faith Dichotomy: The modern division between reason and faith, strips religion of its rights and responsibilities, thereby diminishing its influence in the public and political arenas.
  • Public Nature of Knowledge: knowledge is inherently linked to truth and requires a public method of verification. This public aspect of knowledge demands responsibility and opens the individual to scrutiny from others.
  • Political Aspect of Knowledge: Knowledge has a political dimension because it confers the right and responsibility to act, influence policy, and teach, which is why the exclusion of religious knowledge from academia has significant societal implications.
  • Four Great Questions of Life: Dallas critiques the university's failure to address the fundamental questions of life, which he believes can indeed be known and should be part of academic inquiry. What is reality? Who is well-off? Who is a really good person? How do you become a really good person?
  • Argument for the Existence of God: He explores the philosophical arguments for the existence of God, emphasizing that the physical universe's existence and causality point towards a non-physical source, which opens the door to accepting miracles and the supernatural within the framework of knowledge.
  • Faith Environed in Knowledge: Dallas calls for a reconsideration of how faith and learning are integrated, suggesting that faith should not be seen as deficient knowledge but as something that can and should be environed within a broader framework of understanding and knowing, including scriptural revelation.

The Disciple in the World of Knowledge


  • Discipleship Defined: Discipleship involves learning from Jesus how to live one's life within the Kingdom of God as if He were living it, entailing an intentional commitment supported by a vision of life in God's Kingdom. This commitment leads to the practice of spiritual disciplines designed to receive grace, emphasizing training over trying.
  • Reality and Knowledge: Dallas critiques the academic world's inability to provide intellectually responsible answers to fundamental questions about reality, well-being, goodness, and knowing. He asserts that ultimate reality is found in God and His Kingdom, emphasizing the importance of knowledge over mere belief or profession in spiritual formation.
  • Adequacy of Knowledge: Addressing the adequacy of knowledge, Dallas distinguishes between professional norms, human needs, and the inherent nature of subject matter. He challenges the secular assumption that knowledge is complete without God, advocating for a comprehensive understanding that includes the divine.
  • Interdisciplinary Approach: Dallas encourages a discipleship approach for those in academia that remains constantly aware of the big existential questions, promotes interdisciplinary connections, and highlights the importance of unasked questions within academic fields. 
  • Personal Transformation: He underscores the ongoing process of spiritual transformation, advising individuals to guard their hearts diligently as the source of life and to engage in rest, worship, and celebration as disciplines for maintaining spiritual health and growth.
  • Eternal Destiny and Hope: Dallas concludes with a vision of hope rooted in the eternal destiny of human beings within God's universe, challenging secular narratives of finality and emphasizing the continuous, unending spiritual existence beyond physical death.