Dallas Willard (1935–2013)

Dallas Willard’s formal studies took him from Tennessee Temple College to Baylor University to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He taught philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles from 1965 until his death in 2013. His philosophical work was deeply influenced by phenomenology, especially the work of Edmund Husserl, many of whose early writings Willard translated into English.

Willard also wrote a number of works on spiritual theology. These include The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (1988), The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (1998), and Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (2009).

Among the organizations whose work follows a trajectory established by Willard’s writing are Dallas Willard Ministries, Conversatio Divina, and the Dallas Willard Research Center at Westmont College. The websites of these organizations present a wealth of biographical and bibliographical information.

Steven L. Porter: Willard’s last book

On Volume 149 of the Journal, Ken Myers talked with philosopher Steven L. Porter about The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (2018), an unfinished manuscript by Willard which Porter and a few colleagues completed. The book traces how modern culture lost the assumption that ethical claims are matters of knowledge, which can be right or wrong. Without a basis in rationality, morality is confined to private opinion, pulled along by rhetoric and tribalism. While Willard held that this disappearance primarily resulted from sociological factors, nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophers did not help matters, as they failed to provide an adequate foundation to ground ethical theory. As Porter explains, Willard grounds moral knowledge conclusively in love — an embrace of the other. Ultimately, toleration and humility grow out of recovering moral knowledge, making space for respect and complexity in the mutual pursuit of what is right.  

 

Listen to this Journal interview with Steven L. Porter

Dallas Willard: religious beliefs involve real knowledge

On Volume 100 of the Journal, Dallas Willard discussed the truth of spiritual knowledge and its epistemological validity. His 2009 book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, arose in response to interactions he had with a wide range of business, legal, and political leaders which revealed their skepticism of the validity of religious, spiritual, or ethical knowledge; as opposed to publicly valid knowledge, spiritual claims were seen as mere subjective traditions or opinions divorced from objective reality. He traced this skeptical belief in the U. S. back to the desire of liberal Christian theologians to protect Christianity from what they believed to be threatening developments in science, and the desire of conservative Christian theologians to emphasize the importance of understanding faith as a gift and not rational knowledge — a dichotomy Willard does not see any reason to accept. He described in detail how this false dichotomy had led to great distortions in the understanding and practice of faith among everyday Christians and in churches, forcing believers to understand themselves as “committing” to essentially irrational claims. This sort of irrationalism leads to damaging consequences, including a loss of authority and the reduction of truth to the imposition of will and desire.

Listen to this interview about Knowing Christ Today

Dallas Willard: training Church leaders

Dallas Willard’s first conversation with Ken Myers was featured on Volume 36 of the Journal. He talked then about his 1998 book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. In that interview he offered his diagnosis and prescribed treatment for the preoccupation in contemporary churches to produce more consumers than disciples. Willard saw in contemporary culture a refusal to acknowledge that there is a Good which should order our actions and to which one should be held responsible. This belief infiltrates the Church, as many Christians understand their “faith” as an eternal assurance which does not inform their lives or shape them as disciples. Thus, many Christians join the culture's abnegation of ordering principles. Willard saw the proclamation of the message of Christ as the cure. However, many pastors have forgotten this message.

This interview was re-issued in early 2021 as part of our Friday Feature series, and can be heard below.

Listen to this Friday Feature