Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dallas Willard, 1935-2013

Dallas Willard died today.  He recently revealed that he had very advanced cancer.  Willard was an ordained Baptist minister, a philosophy professor at USC, and the godfather of the contemporary spiritual disciplines movement.  I have been hugely influenced by his work and had the privilege of spending a few days with him.

Back in the year 2000 we had just instituted the philosophy major at Bethel.  We wanted to have an inaugural lecture of some sort to properly christen our new program.  We talked about the people who might best embody what we hoped our program would be like, and after a few names were brought up, everyone settled on Dallas Willard.  So we invited him, and he graciously came.  I picked him up at the airport and was immediately struck by his gentle demeanor and the holiness that seemed to ooze out of him.  For the next few days I accompanied him about everywhere.  Because of the personal impact he made on me, I was determined to read everything of his I could get my hands on.

Particularly important for me was his Spirit of the Disciplines which details the "why" of spiritual disciplines. Willard's disciple Richard Foster (who is more well known by the mainstream of Christian people) has written importantly on the "how", but for me it took the "why" before I understood these things well enough to implement them in my own life.  I'm sure there is some disciplinary bias here, but I think it is because Willard is a philosopher that was able to penetrate so insightfully into the topic.  I remember the first time reading through the book I was taking a retreat at the local monastery and got to chapter seven, "St. Paul's Psychology of Redemption" and I had an epiphany of sorts.  Since then, I've taught through the book and spoken on the topic numerous times.  I tell people that I'm basically a Willard impersonator.  I can't leave this book without quoting from the appendix on the good life.  Lots of people want to talk about the cost of being a disciple, because it takes some work, it means denying yourself and so on.  But Willard asks about the cost of nondiscipleship:
Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God's overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.  In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).  
I also highly recommend Hearing God, The Divine Conspiracy, and Renovation of the Heart for spiritual formation.  Willard is not the easiest writer to read, but just like the disciplines themselves, if you persevere, they amply reward the effort.  (And remember, as Willard used to say quite often, the grace of God is not opposed to effort on our parts.)

A few years after Willard visited Bethel, I was at a conference where he was one of the speakers.  I was hoping to get a chance to talk to him again, but wasn't very optimistic about this because of the throngs of people that were constantly around him.  Then one afternoon I was skipping some sessions and sitting in the fairly deserted lobby of the conference center, and I saw him walk by himself into the men's room.  I decided then and there that I too had the urge to relieve myself, and tried to time things so I'd be able to "bump into him" in less than awkward circumstances.  I went in and pretended to do my business in the amount of time it took him to finish his so that we would meet at the sink.  It worked like a charm!  I said very casually, "Professor Willard, you meet hundreds of people and I don't expect you to remember me, but you had a big impact on me when we spent a few days together when you were at Bethel College in Indiana a few years ago."  We shook our newly washed hands and he looked at me more carefully and said he did remember that and wondered how things were going for us there.  A bit more chit chat followed, and then I asked a more substantial question and he said, "That might take a little longer to answer.  What are doing now?"  If I would have had an appointment with the queen, I would have said "nothing".  So we went and sat down at a table and talked for an hour.

Willard has said that he thinks the best one word descriptor of Jesus is "relaxed".  Jesus was completely confident that the Kingdom of God was being enacted and that no matter what happened among the affairs of humans, that kingdom would prevail.  Willard himself was relaxed in just this sense.  Would that we might all cultivate the same attitude and approach to life.


Joel Aric Schwartz said...

I will never forget going through Spirit of the Disciplines with you my sophomore year. While it didn't completely sink in at that point, it has grown more and more on me. My dive into phenomenology with my dissertation brought even more and deeper life into his works. I had no idea how much his writings and what I observed of his character would influence my life for the better. Thank you for introducing me to this great man, Jim.

ericdemeter said...

Thanks Jim. I remember when he came to Bethel in 2000-that was the year I started working there. I'm glad to know that you interacted with him personally, and wish I could have done so myself.