A Scholar’s Mind and a Saint’s Heart

I admit it: I sometimes write with a hidden agenda.

When I quote writers and thinkers – poets, like the renaissance poet George Herbert and the contemporary poet Billy Collins; philosophers from Augustine to Alvin Plantinga; apologists, like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis; and many others – my secret hope is that the reader’s curiosity will be piqued, that he or she will investigate these writers for himself or herself, and will come to cherish them as I have done.

No writer (with the possible exception of C. S. Lewis) has been quoted more often in this column than Dallas Willard. I first came across Dr. Willard – philosopher, U.S.C professor, writer, speaker – in a philosophical debate between theists and atheists. When he came to lecture at Notre Dame and neighboring Bethel College, I went to hear him speak.

Since then I have read everything I could find by Dallas Willard and have gone to hear him speak whenever possible. I found him to be erudite, yet accessible; brilliant, but humble; a knowledgeable guide to the life well lived.

Dallas Willard died on May 8, 2013.

This is my tribute to him.

Dallas Willard had a scholar’s mind and a saint’s heart. He translated works of Edmund Husserl, wrote extensively on phenomenology, and was recognized as an expert in that field. But outside the academy, Willard is known best as a Christian leader who understood both the theory and practice of spiritual formation.

Willard’s friend and colleague, Richard Foster, once told me how he met Dallas. Foster was just out of seminary and called to his first pastorate in a Southern California church. Among the congregants was Dallas Willard, who was sometimes called on to preach. Foster told me with a smile that when he preached, people took notes but when Dallas preached, people brought their tape recorders. They didn’t want to miss a single word.

Willard’s book “The Divine Conspiracy” was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 1999. Foster called it “the book I have been searching for all my life.” In it, Willard exposed different versions of what he calls “the gospel of sin management,” as expressed in both liberal and conservative circles, which he differentiated from the good news that Jesus brought.

The Jesus to whom Willard introduced us is “the smartest man in the world.” He pulled back the curtain and gave us a glimpse of the God that Jesus knew, and the God-bathed, God-permeated world that Jesus saw. He explained why we can have confidence in Jesus and why that confidence should lead us to become his “apprentices.”

In his 2002 book, “Renovation of the Heart,” Willard described the process by which an individual’s spiritual life is formed. He emphasized the fundamental importance of the mind in spiritual formation and explained the role the Bible plays in it. There is hardly a page in my copy of “Renovation” that is not marked up.

Willard’s 1984 book, “Hearing God” is the most helpful resource I know for living a life guided by God, for “developing a conversational relationship with God.”

It’s true that Dallas Willard had his critics, some of whom accused him of being soft on the doctrine of the atonement. But in an email reply to a question of mine, Willard explained that the atonement “is everything” and that, apart from the atonement, there is no salvation.

Dallas Willard was a great man. But more importantly, he was a good man. We will miss him.

Published in the Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/21/2013

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