Dallas Willard died late last week after a battle with panreatic cancer, and the news was particularly heavy for me, even though I never met him.
I picked up Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy, in seminary at a time when I was beginning to wonder if the church had anything to say that would engage my intellect beyond cliches and overdone figures of speech. I felt that I was living in a bubble where asking questions about the way we said things was almost considered off-limits.
Then I started hearing the heart of a teacher’s in Willard’s words. I know there are plenty of good Christian scholars out there who speak intelligently about our faith, but Willard crossed over into writing in a way that engaged my intellect, but also avoided the tendency to loose the true-to-life implications in the midst of high-level discussion. I’ve always thought of his writing as not so heady that it was impractical, but also not so practical that it was shallow.
I was immediately drawn to his unique way of saying things. Christianity Today reported that his comments after hearing of his cancer diagnosis were that “I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it.” Who says things like that? Only Willard.
The Divine Conspiracy was the first book of his that I read, and I went on to also enjoy The Spirit of the Disciplines and Hearing God. The reason I give him partial credit for keeping me in the faith is simple:
His accessible, yet challenging intelligence paired with his passion for showing us eternity, reminded me that Christianity had both intellectual depth and real humanity. Another way to say it is that I was able to see the mind of our faith, but also the flesh and blood of our faith.
You don’t have to read much of Dallas Willard to see that he knew how to translate his astute observations into an accessible writing style. But it was never so pared down that I was bored with it; he knew how to raise the bar at just the right time so that the reader would keep reaching to understand. Also, he had a way of saying things that woke me up to old concepts by giving them new language. This made his writings irresistibly appealing to me.
Another reason I always refer back to Willard is that he consistently challenged the status quo of the Evangelial church mind. For example, throughout his book, The Divine Conspiracy, he confronts the notion that Christianity is exclusively about what happens when we die:
“Does Jesus only enable me to “make the cut” when I die? Or to know what to protest, or how to vote or agitate and organize? It is good to know that when I die all will be well, but is there any good news for life?”
This is what I mean by his way of presenting faith in God as a flesh-and-blood endeavor. Jesus had every intention of ushering in a new age of religion that had bearing on every dimension of our being. We are called out to be a student of Christ and involved in this new Kindom from the soul to the flesh on our bones. This theme is the heartbeat of Willard’s teachings.
He believed that the basic message of the Jesus “presents the resources needed to live human life as we all automatically sense it should be and naturally leads one to become his student, or apprentice in kingdom living.”
And what was Willard’s summary of Jesus’ message? “Rethink your life in the light of the fact that the kingdom of the heavens is now open to all” (Matt. 4:17),
At a time when I was already busy rethinking my life, I welcomed his guidance to do so within God’s kingdom.
I don’t know what direction my life might have taken without this guidance, but I do know that I came upon Dallas Willard at just the right time.