Q&a With Dallas Willard

Somewhere, beyond the tension between the pop culture and the exquisitely manicured version of Christianity that continues to “ghettoize” itself into the 21st century, is a kingdom, older than time, available to all those who seek after it.

Very few look for the way to the gates of this kingdom, and even fewer call us in after them. Dallas Willard, noted author and philosopher, is one of those few who have experienced life beyond the gates, and has tirelessly pointed a broken-down generation to the reality of that kingdom. In his books, Willard calls us to the “divine life” where Jesus reigns and the kingdom “comes.” This reality is available to all of us, Willard explains, when we apply our whole lives, minds, bodies and time to the task of seeking after heaven’s kingdom.

A professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Willard has written and spoken widely on topics ranging from spiritual discipline to epistemology and the philosophy of logic. His book The Divine Conspiracy, published in 1998, was Christianity Today’s “Book of the Year.” Renovation of the Heart follows much the same vein, dealing at length with many different aspects of spiritual formation. RELEVANT spoke with Willard about his book, brain-wave theory, pop-culture spirituality and the value of “thinking well.”

[RELEVANT magazine:] I wanted to start off by asking you a question about your book, Renovation of the Heart. In it, you spend a lot of time talking about the interplay between a person’s choices and God’s grace; I think you strike a good balance between the two. Can you discuss this?

[DALLAS WILLARD:] Yes … it’s very important to understand that while grace works in many ways, it does not obliterate a person’s will. Grace cultivates the will and helps to develop it in godliness. It does this by working with all the dimensions of the self. But one has to be open to that, and above all, one has to be turned toward God and acknowledge [his or her] dependence on Him.

[RM:] Has this thinking changed for you over the years? Did you start out at a point where you thought that the Christian life was all grace or all choice?

[DW:] (laughter) Well, I guess I was raised in a theological context where the battle was often fought out in that way, between people who tended to think that one’s will was totally immobilized by sin and others who thought that was not true, and normally those people were charged with works salvation. But, this is just an unfortunate misunderstanding about the nature of the will, which, of course, is not forced. We are capable of receiving or not receiving grace. I’m sure there are actions of God’s grace that go far beyond our consciousness, but at the moment where we are faced with a decision as to whether or not we are going to give our lives to Jesus Christ, that is a conscious decision. And there must be a movement of the will, and it must be supported and met with by grace.

Now, I have to say, from a very young age, I could not accept the kind of alternative between all grace and all freedom that was presented to me. I was raised a Southern Baptist boy back in Missouri and used to give my Sunday School teachers a lot of hard trouble on this. Pretty well depending on whichever side they were taking, I would take the other side because the contrast seemed to me to be one that didn’t make any sense.

Of course, I’ve spent a great deal of my time in philosophy working on issues around free will and determinism and so on, and it has sharpened my awareness that you have to have both elements if you’re going to treat this as a personal transaction and not some mechanical gig.

[RM:] You write quite a lot about the soul, and how it’s important that we, as modern people, bring back the biblical idea of the soul. How do we do this in a culture where in so many ways, the biologists and the psychologists have become our priests and prophets?

[DW:] (laughter) Well, now you’re into something really big … The answer is: we didn’t lose the concept of the soul overnight. It took a century and a half to get rid of it, and it was not gotten rid of on a legitimate basis, but on a basis of a series of philosophical misunderstandings that still plague us today—the most important one being that human life can be accounted for in physiological and chemical terms. Now, the fact is that we aren’t even about to begin to get started [doing] that. It’s just that that is our faith today! Our culture’s faith is in the sciences, and we don’t think of God and we don’t think of the spiritual aspect of the person as real. We still talk about it, of course, in endless discussions on public television or on Oprah. But, religion and spirituality is generally treated like this in our culture: it’s a big discussion and sells lots of books, but it’s not supposed to deal with anything that’s factual.

[RM:] So, in an evangelistic sense, when you’re speaking with someone who already thinks there’s no good rational explanation for the concept of the human soul …

[DW:] You should challenge them to explain life on the basis of physics and chemistry. And you should tell them, “Now, when you’ve done that, or made some progress towards it … I’ll listen to you.” But we haven’t remotely done that. All we have done is correlated certain brain states to certain mental states. The main thing to say here is this idea that somehow we’ve made great progress to understanding the mind or soul by what we know about the brain is pure illusion! We have not done any such thing.

[RM:] But it’s a challenge to get someone who believes firmly in this scientific culture to move to a point where they understand that it is illusion …

[DW:] Right, it is a challenge. And I don’t deny the difficulty because I spend probably a quarter of my professional life as a philosopher dealing with this issue. I know how hard it is. But the simple man on the street type of approach is to say, “Well, show me anything mental in the brain.” And it can’t be done. See, if brain-state theory is right, then what we’d want to be doing as Christians is trying to find a chemical injection that would bring about conversion.

[RM:] Which seems completely absurd …

[DW:] Well, it is absurd. But it’s equally as absurd to suppose that by messing with DNA or brain states you could make a person honest …

[RM:] It’s interesting that at the same time all of that’s going on, there’s this heightened desire in our culture for the supernatural.

[DW:] Oh, absolutely. Yes.

[RM:] How do we, as Christians, respond to this desire for the supernatural?

[DW:] Well, we should respond to it in a very simple and straightforward way that amounts to nothing less than saying, “Take Jesus and His teachings, and put them to the test of experience; put them into practice and see what reality emerges from that.” If you want to know the reality of any view, you have to put it to the test, and that’s what we want to say to people: put Jesus to the test.

You know, what we need to do as Christians is to learn to think carefully and well. And that means, as Paul says, try all things, put everything to the test. But you know, we’re really quite lazy mentally as Christians. We don’t feel, I believe, that God is really on the side of thinking or thinking on the side of God, and as a result, we don’t discipline ourselves to think. Now, I must tell you there are a lot of young Christians who are coming through the universities now who are good thinkers. I think we’re really going to see a change in the future on this. J.P. Moreland has a wonderful book: Love God With All Your Mind, which is a beautiful expression of the right approach to these issues. Then we don’t have to worry about modernism or postmodernism, or anything else. We just put everything to the test.

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[RM:] So, really it’s about challenging people to look at Christianity and ask: “Does this work?”

[DW:] Absolutely. If it doesn’t work, forget it. See, that’s where we really stand on this culture-wide thing about spirituality. I mean, now we have 8500 different kinds of spirituality. Well see, this is nothing but Christianity today being called back to Mount Carmel. And we have to say, “Let the God who answers by fire be God!”

[RM:] Which is such a refreshing view, rather than having to chase after every demon, so to speak …

[DW:] I tell you, if Oprah or Deepak Chopra or whoever can do what Christ can do, then the story’s over. Now, we need to press that and be honest and thorough with it, not be quick or slick. Invite everyone to approach it with the same standards of good reason and appreciation of fact.

[RM:] Any advice for twentysomething Christians?

[DW:] (long pause) Well, my heart really goes out to twentysomethings because of my own children and grandchildren and those I see in my classes every week. I dearly love them. And I guess what I would say [to them] is that there’s a great deal more to be learned about how to live now by how people have lived well in the past, than they can find from their educational institutions. So, they need to look independently, they need to act on their own to find out what are the resources for truly living well; particularly of the Christian church and its past.

RELATED LINKS:

DALLAS WILLARD

BUY IT: RENOVATION OF THE HEART

STUCK IN A CLOSET WITH LEONARD SWEET

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