Dallas Willard and the Kingdom of God: A Tribute
Dallas Willard, USC philosophy professor and Christian writer, died of cancer yesterday. It is being reported that his last words were “Thank you.” Fitting. I have only known Dr. Willard through his books and speaking, but it was obvious that he lived a life of grace and gratitude. His books were a gift to the church.
The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God has been one of the most important books I have ever read. It had a memorable entry into my personal library. It’s hard to forget. I bought the book on September 10, 2001 from Hearts & Minds Bookstore (recommended by my good friend Byron Borger) and started reading it on September 11th around 8:30am. I put the book aside at 9:05am to turn on the TV to see who had won the Monday Night Football game the day before. I don’t remember who won. But I do carry with me two profound memories from that day: the sight of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center and reading this paragraph from The Divine Conspiracy:
“Jesus came among us to show and teach the life for which we were made. He came very gently, opened access to the governance of God with him, and set afoot a conspiracy of freedom in truth among human beings. Having overcome death he remains among us. By relying on his word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life in the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life. Caught up in his active rule, our deeds become an element in God’s eternal history. They are what God and we do together, making us part of his life and him a part of ours.”
It is, perhaps, my favorite paragraph about Jesus. I reflect upon it every Christmas. I thought about it yesterday when well-intentioned people broke the news by saying “Dallas Willard has gone to be with the Lord.” I understand and appreciate the sentiment. And it is true. Dallas Willard is now with Jesus. But I couldn’t help but think about how much of his life he devoted to inviting people to see that Jesus is with us now. Today. The Kingdom is “at hand.” Jesus is in our midst this moment. No other writer has made me more aware of that reality.
Here are a few other things I learned from Dallas Willard:
Dallas Willard was an astute observer of cultural trends. In The Divine Conspiracy he retells a story of a Harvard University student who received all As in courses on “moral reasoning” and “ethics” and yet continually, sexually harassed a female classmate. He writes, “There now is no recognized moral knowledge upon which projects of fostering moral development could be based.” (Dr. Willard’s book Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge more fully addresses the disconnection between character formation and education.) But my favorite cultural observation is this:
“And just think of a world in which little children sing, ‘I wish I were a [certain kind of] wiener. That is what I really want to be. For if I were [that certain kind of] wiener. Everyone would be in love with me.’ Think of what it would mean to be a weenie, or for someone to love you as they ‘love’ a hot dog. Think of a world in which adults would pay millions of dollars to have children perform this song in ‘commercials’ and in which hundreds of millions, even billions, of adults find no problem in it. You are thinking of our world. ”
Dallas Willard challenged Christians to reconsider the content of the Gospel message proclaimed by the contemporary church. I think this was his greatest contribution. He identified the “Gospel on the right” with only having “good news” for overcoming death and he identified the “Gospel on the left” with only having “good news” for the oppressed. He writes:
“The disconnection of life from faith, the absence from our churches of Jesus as teacher… is largely caused and sustained by the basic message that we constantly hear from Christian pulpits. We are flooded with what I have called ‘gospels of sin management,’ in one form or another, while Jesus’ invitation to eternal life now—right in the midst of work, business, and profession—remains for the most part ignored and unspoken.”
Dallas Willard concluded that many of the problems we face is “nothing but the natural consequence of the basic message of the church as it is heard today.” He continues, “It would be foolish to expect anything else than precisely what we have got.” Dr. Willard offers three important questions to consider when presenting the Gospel:
1. Does the gospel I preach and teach have a natural tendency to cause people who hear it to become full-time students of Jesus?
2. Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural “next step”?
3. What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message?
Dallas Willard helped me to ask better questions about things that matter most. His writing has had a profound influence on my life and work. One more favorite quote from The Divine Conspiracy:
“We are, all of us, never-ceasing spiritual beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God’s great universe.”
Amen. Thank you, Dallas Willard.
I highly recommend these two, short articles as a good introduction to the work of Dallas Willard: