My introduction to Dallas Willard came in my first semester of seminary when we were assigned read his Renovation of the Heart in a class called Shaping the Heart of a Leader. We read other books on the soul of a leader, but this was the most difficult one. I do recall the professor admitting this was a tough book. But the assumption seemed to be that we had all read The Divine Conspiracy in bible college, so time to move on to other books by Willard. What about those of us who did not attend bible college? Oh well.
I did read The Divine Conspiracy on my own a few years later and consider it one of my favorite books. I wish I had read it when I was younger! And I imagine that if I ever dive into Renovation of the Heart again, I’ll get it a bit more. But those were the only two books by Dallas Willard I had read. I always wanted to read more, so this summer, motivated by his death and the books being on sale on Amazon (geez, that sentence just sounds morbid), I did. I figured if I was going to claim him as a favorite author, I should read more than two of his books, may he rest in peace.
Knowing Christ Today: How We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (2009)
I started with this book, one of Willard’s more recent ones. His purpose in the book is to argue that Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, rests on actual knowledge. Our world tends to reserve “knowledge” for one sort of thing, such as science. Religion, it is said, is mere opinion. Hence people can assert that all religions are the same, since they are all equally devoid of truth or knowledge. But if there is truly spiritual knowledge, truly a way things really are, then religion is more than mere opinion.
Honestly, having read my share of apologetics books, I did not expect apologetics here. So I was somewhat surprised when Willard began rehearsing familiar arguments for God’s existence and miracles as part of his reasoning for why we can trust spiritual knowledge. I am not sure how I expected him to argue for how we can trust spiritual knowledge when I began the book, but I didn’t expect arguments for God’s existence. That said, apologetics of the usual sort only supplies a portion of Willard’s arguments (plus, his casting of the arguments is a bit different then those familiar with them might expect). He goes on to talk about how we can know Christ where we are. His method for this are the spiritual disciplines, “time-tested spiritual practices that can help us in our learning process.” In other words, we grow in knowledge as we interact with God. It should be said then that while we can trust spiritual knowledge, it is still not the exact same as scientific or historical knowledge. We can trust all these things, but we learn what each says in its own way (i.e., the scientific method is not how we learn spiritual truth).
Perhaps the most important chapter is the second-to-last where he discussed pluralism. If, as Willard argues, there is spiritual knowledge and this truth rests in Jesus Christ, then how one handles diversity and disagreement becomes vital. In other subjects where knowledge exists, those who take a minority view may be shunned – think of those who question the received view of science or history. Religion, more like politics or philosophy, has a myriad of views. Willard greatly emphasizes humility and that even though there is spiritual knowledge, we know that none of us are perfect in our understanding of it.
Overall, this is a fantastic book.
The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship (2006)
This book is the compilation of a series of essays and other works from Willard. The overall theme that holds all works together is that there has been a great omission from the great commission. The Great Commission comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus commands his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded. Willard sees a contemporary Christianity that has failed to “make disciples”. This is not just about obedience to rules, it is more akin to apprenticeship to Jesus.
The positive of this book is that since it is a compilation of many points, the most important points of Willard’s thoughts are repeated throughout. For that reason, I almost think this would be the best book to suggest to someone who has never read Willard but wants to. It is not as heady a read as Knowing Christ Today or The Divine Conspiracy. Willard often goes back to the importance of spiritual disciplines here, emphasizing that God’s grace is not opposed to effort but to earning. This is one of the clearest lessons to come through my reading of Willard. The Protestant Reformation did right in returning the Church to the truth of God’s grace, that nothing we do can earn God’s love. But over the years this has grown into an almost knee-jerk reaction against any sort of effort. It is as if the idea of training yourself in your faith by certain disciplines is seen as working to earn God’s love. Willard identifies this as the reason why so few Christians mature in faith. We expect God to just zap us and automatically change us and it does not work that way. Like anything else we must train ourselves, never forgetting that in this we are not earning God’s love for we are already loved.
The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988)
This is the last one of Willard’s book I read, and it may be my favorite. Many themes he only touched on in his later works are fleshed out fully here. Willard does not go into great detail on the disciplines, though there is one chapter on them. The emphasis here is more on why such disciplines are so important. Willard often says grace is opposed to earning, not to effort and this book, to some degree, is a detailed explanation of how this is the case.
Willard argues that the choices we make will shape who we become. Thus we can either take steps, discipline ourselves, to become disciples of Christ or we can do nothing. This doing nothing is a choice too and our natural inclinations will put us on a path. So if we resist disciplines for fear of works-righteousness we will find ourselves never really changing into a more Christ-like person. Having been around the Christian church my whole life, I think Willard is right on. We go to church week after week, maybe read the Bible occasionally because we feel like we have to but year after year most of us find our lives to be more or less the same. We cry out to God asking for our sins to be purged, before living a life filled with choices that contribute to those sins becoming habits.
While this is my favorite of the three books, I do wish Willard had spent more time on practical issues. Specifically, how does this apply to people with families and jobs? I can see the college students I work with diving into the practices. But what happens to solitude when you are caring for a toddler all day? How does silence happen between the noise of kids and coworkers? As much as Willard talks of these disciplines as time-tested, most examples throughout history are still superstars of faith – monks and other unattached people who had the flexibility to do such things. I do think the disciplines can be applied to the daily life of normal people with jobs and kids. I just think how that happens is different then how it may happen for students, single people, the elderly or anyone else. It is not a one-size fits all sort of thing.
Overall, fantastic books. Do yourself a favor if you want to grow in faith in Christ – read Willard.
Knowing Christ Today – 5 stars
The Great Omission – 4 stars
Spirit of the Disciplines – 5 stars