Search Results for: Dallas Willard

The Writings of Dallas Willard Featured at the Hildebrand Project Seminar

The 2022 (12th Annual) Summer Seminar of the Hildebrand Project focused on the theme, “readiness to change: conversion and the Christian life.”

From the seminar’s description:

Dietrich von Hildebrand understood our readiness to change not only as the beginning of the Christian life, but also as the source of its continuance and completion. It is, one could say, the fundamental answer to the call, the vocation, to Christ. This was not a mere readiness to change a little here or a little there, but to be changed radically, at all levels of one’s being, to be made “a new creature in Christ” . . .

In our 2022 seminar, we take Dietrich von Hildebrand as a master of the spiritual life. In particular, we will explore the image that Hildebrand gives of the person “transformed by Christ.” For this, we will begin with his account of the “fundamental attitudes,” especially of reverence, in his book The Art Living. We will then explore his account of the supernatural virtues and attitudes — from metanoia (which Joseph Ratzinger says has “seldom been so accurately diagnosed”) and contrition to recollection and contemplation to humility and mercy.

In addition to putting Hildebrand’s work on the spiritual life into conversation with other Catholic writers, a panel discussion was devoted to the late Dallas Willard and the intersection of the themes of his work with Hildebrand. Panelist presentations were made by Aaron Preston, Dan Sheffler, and Walter Hopp (read by Preston).

Conference in Honor of Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California from 1965-2012. He passed away in March 2013 as a result of pancreatic cancer.

Willard taught and wrote on a variety of topics, including phenomenology, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, the history of philosophy, and philosophy of religion, with the express intention of acquiring clearly articulable knowledge concerning topics of ultimate human importance. For Willard, careful investigations into the nature of being, knowledge, the human person, and the good life were the philosopher’s principal tasks, and his own work is brimming with insights on these topics. Those insights informed not only Willard’s thought but his life. To his many students and colleagues, to whom he generously devoted his time and attention, Willard exemplifies philosophical and personal excellence. He was equally dedicated to conforming his thoughts and actions to the objective order of “the things themselves” as he was to the intellectual and personal wellbeing of those whose lives he touched. 

To commemorate his life and work, we will hold a conference in his honor on November 6-7, 2015 at Boston University.

All talks are free and open to the public. Please register here.


  • Friday, November 6: Metcalf Trustee Center, One Silber Way.
  • Saturday, November 7: Photonics Center Colloquium Room, 8 St. Mary’s Street.

Speakers: R. Douglas Geivett, Brian Glenney, Walter Hopp, Burt Hopkins, Greg Jesson, David Kasmier, J.P. Moreland, Aaron Preston, Steve Porter, Erin Seeba, Brendan Sweetman, Gregg Ten Elshoff.

For more information, please visit For questions, please direct them to Walter Hopp [; (617) 358-3620].

The conference is made possible by the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation, the Boston University Center for the Humanities, and the Dallas Willard Center.
Other Evangelical Philosophical Society commemorations of Willard’s life and work, including from presenters at the Boston conference, can be found here

USC Dallas Willard Celebration of Life Memorial

On Friday, October 4, at 3PM, at an on-campus location to be determined, “A Celebration of Life: will take place commemorating Professor Willard’s achievements and contributions as a philosopher and an educator.

In order that USC might reserve a space that can accommodate the number of guests, they are asking those who think they might attend the event to RSVP at

For EPS tributes on Dallas Willard, please click here.

A Victorious Life Overflowing with Grace and Truth: Remembering Dr. Dallas Willard (1935-2013)

O could I flow like thee,

And make thy stream my great example,

As it is my theme!

Though deep, yet clear, though gentle not dull;

Strong without storm,

Without overflowing full

Sir John Denham, “Cooper’s Hill”

Those things, which you have both learned, and received, and heard,

And seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

St. Paul, Philippians 4. 9



n any lifetime, there are at best only one or two people who completely transform the way we think about our short time on this earth.  Such people are exceedingly hard to classify because they see all the ultimate issues of life in ways that their generation has either missed or disregarded.  Unquestionably, Dallas Willard was one of those larger-than-life figures for the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  He grappled as seriously as anyone ever has with the fundamental questions concerning the nature of consciousness, the ontological structures of knowledge, the philosophy of mathematics and logic, the existence of God, the history of philosophy, phenomenology, systematic metaphysics, the philosophy of Husserl, the truth of Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, the process of character transformation, the nature of a good life, and how specifically to become a good person.  One only needs to look at Dallas’ unbelievable output of articles, books, video series, sermons, and lectures to see this. 

I have never met anyone who was so singularly alive to the lifelong pursuit of truth concerning the crucial questions of human existence, while remaining thoroughly humble and approachable.  In appearance, he seemed utterly ordinary—even slightly grandfatherly— (he once said to me, “Greg, I’m just a peasant”), until he began to speak.  Within a few sentences, you would realize that you had never heard anyone say so much in so few words.  However, it wasn’t only the content of his words that was compelling; it was also the way he said them.  There was such a firm, warm, concern conveyed in his voice that one seemed to get a glimpse into his sterling character through his words.  Although he was never the least bit pretentious, his lectures and sermons were almost always an accessible and inviting tour de force of insights, humor, quotations, stories, and Scriptures presented in a wholly new light.  Listening, one kept thinking, “I never thought of that before.”  I recall that he started one sermon by saying, “The key to all of human history is man’s rejection of God and His ways.”  Again, “God loves to forgive if He can only find a way” (Matt. 23.37).  The surprising part was that he made it look so effortless.
He often said that his fundamental guiding principle was “the drive for cognitive clarity.”  He thought that adopting this attitude was the only way to hack through the hopeless tangle of confusions, absurdities, trivialities, and falsehoods that make up so much of the contemporary world.  (Accordingly, he said, “People don’t like the truth because they want a little room to wiggle around in.”)  Like C. S. Lewis (and just as rare), he could deftly uncover the ultimate issues upon which an entire complicated controversy turned.  Simply put, he was the smartest person I ever met.  Dallas could argue powerfully for a point, weighing in with logic, history, fine distinctions (especially modal ones!), Scripture, and the nature of one’s own experience, but he never tried to force acceptance.  He would constantly say things like, “This is how it seems to me, but you must examine the evidence yourself as you try to honestly and diligently search for the truth” (Lk 10. 26).  This approach, equally rigorous and relaxed, allowed people to look at the relevant evidence and data for themselves without retreating into a debate and win-at-all-costs mode.  He wasn’t interested in academic victories.  He was interested in the truth.  What else could explain his statement, “If Jesus knew of a better way to live than following him, I’m sure that he would be the first one to tell you to take it”?
Even more amazing was Willard’s kindness.  In his irrepressibly winsome and unassuming manner, his acceptance of others, even when disagreeing, gently disarmed even the most severe critic.  I remember how Richard Rorty was visibly moved by Willard’s sensitive critique of his views when they participated in a dialog on “The Question of Authority” at Stanford in 2005.  The closest I can get to succinctly describing Dallas is best captured in two characters from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: Great-heart and Valiant-for-Truth. For a more contemporary comparison, if you can remember George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, the most generous and loved man in Bedford Falls (played by Jimmy Stewart), you are on the right track. 

Over the decades, we discussed almost every topic under the sun, and sometimes he would be moved to tears over the brokenness of humanity.  Many academicians relish making others feel intellectually inferior.  Not Dallas.  I was always amazed at his sensitivity in adjusting his words to the person and circumstances.  He tried immensely hard to discern the truly important question often hidden behind the presented question.  Many were surprised to find that he was often quite transparent about his own inadequacies and disappointments.  Dallas would never have wanted anyone to think his life was without problems, and tribulations.  (He used these as an entry into the need for God’s grace.)  

Dallas, possibly more than anyone I have ever met, was completely comfortable laughing at himself.  I think that he saw funny situations as part of the human condition, and he had a wonderful sense of what should be taken utterly seriously and what should not.

Willard’s humor is legendary, not only because he could be so nonchalantly witty, but because his spontaneous quips always pointed to something profound.  It’s not that he told yarns or stories in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.  Rather, his humor was insightfully woven into all his teaching whenever it helped reveal the truth.  For example, the philosopher David Hume famously argued that knowledge of the self or the mind is impossible.  Hume said, “When I look into myself I cannot find myself.”  When lecturing on this, Dallas said, “This is like a man who tries to discover whether he’s at home by going outside and looking through the windows to see if he’s there.”  (For philosophy, this is funny!)  As everyone who teaches college painfully knows, some students love to defend absurd views.  Dallas was profoundly skilled at helping students break through their resistance to reality.  Another time, after a student had taken up a good portion of the class arguing for an absurd position, Dallas gently said, “You don’t believe what you are saying.”  But, the student persisted.  Finally, Dallas said in a non-confrontational way, “Okay then, will you run your view by your grandmother and see what she thinks?”  The student was momentarily stunned, and then burst out laughing.  Then the whole class and Dallas were laughing too, because, given the look on the student’s face, we all knew that he didn’t need to run anything by his grandmother.  He had just discovered some truth.  I’ve never forgotten Dallas’ buoyant laughter, nor his weighty question.  

Under his extraordinary teaching at University of Southern California for the last 47 years (1965-2012), thousands of students attended his lectures.  Most had absolutely no idea what they were in for.  Similarly, scores earned a PhD in philosophy under his wise and even fatherly guidance.  (In his home office, literally overflowing with books, is a card tacked up to a bookshelf with all the names of his PhD students who are carrying on his work.  It is simply entitled, “Our Boys”).  They now carry on his vision of ontologically-driven philosophy and life-transforming Christianity wherever they are teaching.  It is not off the mark to say that Willard was the dominant thinker in our time who reintroduced a detailed evidentialism to Christian thought—both on the apologetic and theological sides.  (His exhortation to us was, “Logic will provide the principles on which you will fight your philosophical battles.”)  The singular aim of his life, to convey in the most reasonable and detailed way the loving presence of God in this world, was accomplished: we heard, we watched, we learned, and we remember.

Nobody can be a great teacher without being supported by a myriad of people.  Of course, there were all the great thinkers of the past whose thoughts filled the thousands and thousands of books Dallas carefully studied during his entire life, and there were his great professors.  Things really came together for Dallas at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in graduate school.  It was Professor William Hay who said to Dallas, “Well you are asking all the right questions, so you are now ready to read Husserl’s Logical Investigations.”  This would set the direction for all of Dallas’ subsequent work in philosophy and religion.  (William Hay had been greatly influenced by Gustav Bergmann when Hay taught at the University of Iowa in 1946-1947.  Bergmann had the highest regard for Husserl and introduced Hay to his writings.  Hay and Bergmann corresponded often until Bergmann’s death in 1987.) 

However, far eclipsing these powerful influences was the inspiration that came into Dallas’ life from a young woman who had been born in Macon, Georgia.  One day in 1954 while walking across the campus of Tennessee Temple College in Chattanooga, Miss Jane Lakes, heard the voice of a young man singing in a classroom.  Not only was she profoundly intrigued by that voice, but also soon after by the nineteen-year old man behind it.  That love and friendship grew and inspired him for the next six decades.  Dallas often said that apart from the knowledge of God, Jane had been the greatest blessing in his life. “She not only made my life possible, but she held me steady and preserved me from going off track.”  In the fullest sense of the word, they were partners—not only in life but also in ministry.

For those of us who knew and loved him, studied under him, or labored with him, ten lifetimes with him would not have been enough.  The experience of missing a loved one is a small clue that we were made for eternity.  Each time with him was an intellectual, emotional and spiritual adventure as his mind and heart were always open to, and overflowing with, new insights and applications of the great truth that God has poured out His unfathomable love in the historic Jesus.

The last time I spoke with him on the phone he was as joyously content as ever, fighting to regain his strength so he could get back to his beloved writing.  He expressed his interest in helping others by writing about all the new things he had been learning in his struggles with cancer.  We spoke about getting together this summer, sitting in his backyard garden relaxing and drifting from topic to topic, “talking the old, old talk that has no end.”  Now, that garden will have to be on the other side of what he liked to call “the pre-life,” when he will no longer be “a peasant” in any sense, but a cherished child of the King Himself.  And, He “shall wipe away all tears.”

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is   with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

St. John, Revelation 21. 3-4         

Greg Jesson, PhD
Department of Philosophy
Luther College

On Dallas Willard’s Work: An Interview with Bill Heatley

Recently, I interviewed Bill Heatley in light of Dallas Willard’s passing on May 8, 2013 (memorial service videos here). Bill is, among other things, the son-in-law of Dallas and Jane Willard. We discussed Dallas’ work, including his “unfinished” work-in-progress. Bill, along with his wife Becky, have played and will continue to play a crucial role in helping to bring Dallas’ work to the public.  Bill and I share a common vision and affection for some of Dallas’ (often under-appreciated) work on the Professions and the theology of work entailed therein, which we also discussed in light of Dallas’ long-anticipated manuscript on The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. Below is the full-text of the interview.

First, Bill, I must ask, how are you and the family doing?

Dallas showed us how to live in Christ and now he has shown me how to journey from life to life through death and the present reality of the great cloud of witnesses. So, there is great joy covering and infusing the deep sense of sorrow and loss. My mind turns to a question or event that I would talk with Dallas about and he’s no longer there to chat with. A problem confronts me and he’s no longer there backing me up. So, we carry on and live, as best we can in God’s grace, like Jesus would if he were we, and everywhere we go we remember to “give ’em heaven” as Dallas told Larissa, my daughter, to do. We miss him and look forward to seeing him again.

Can you say what is the status of Dallas’ manuscript, tentatively titled, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge? I know many in the Christian philosophical community want to know. Is it now considered “finished”? Also, over the years, Dallas has done various talks related to “Christian apologetics,” including a few years ago for the EPS. Is there any future plan to compile Dallas’ work in this area toward a posthumous book? Is so, what might that look like?

Yes, before Dallas passed away, there were two book projects in various stages that Dallas was working on: a) The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge and b) Gentleness: Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus. The plans for publishing Disappearance and Gentleness are proceeding and I look forward to reporting on progress in the near future. There were also several other book projects where he was guiding others.

Can you be a little more specific about the status of the Disappearance manuscript?

There are two basic ways to understand the status of the Disappearance manuscript. There is the “completeness” factor and then there is the “maturity” factor. Before Dallas passed on, all of the chapters were completed. So, we have the entirety of the manuscript. But in terms of the manuscript’s maturity, all of the earlier chapters are more mature than not. But the last chapter needs some maturity. There is a team of scholars looking at this chapter as it stands now, comparing it to other versions, and seeking to reconcile it with notes from Dallas during the last time he taught on the subject at the University of Southern California in 2011. We want to ensure that nothing relevant is missing here in order to bring closure to this work.

Do you have a publisher?

Currently, there is not a publisher. We are looking for a reputable, mainstream academic publisher that will do great service to the presentation and widespread marketing and publicity of this title in academic contexts, such as in philosophy, history of ethics, and religious studies areas, and more.

Disappearance is a more academic project than not and intended to persuade fellow scholars. As a practitioner at heart, did Dallas intend to ever write a non-academic version of Disappearance?

Through his speaking and writing, Dallas had two primary types of audiences. He was attentive to both his academic and non-academic readers and listeners. I would say that his primary audience was his academic audience.  One of his intentions in writing Knowing Christ Today was to bring some of the Moral Knowledge material to a general audience. Of course, those same ideas are treated in much more depth in this current manuscript.

In light of all he’s written, do you know how Dallas viewed the stature of Disappearance? For example, did he view it as his magnum opus?

Those of you who know Dallas know that the words “magnum opus” would never leave his lips. I would say that he tended to view the Disappearance manuscript as an extremely important academic work, but I don’t think he would have said that all of his work to date culminated there. For remember his two types of audiences: academic and non-academic. Our family certainly considers his Divine Conspiracy as a magnum opus on the Christian spiritual formation side of things.

In fact, some of the earliest, rudimentary seeds for Disappearance are actually available in the Divine Conspiracy, and then you see further developments in The Great Omission and then well into Knowing Christ Today. He was ruminating, writing and speaking on themes relevant to Disappearance for probably the last ten years of his life.

Do you know what were Dallas’ hopes or aspirations for Disappearance?

He really wanted this work to penetrate into the academy and to make a difference among scholars. For 125+ years ago, it was common (even among scholars, let alone among practitioners) for moral knowledge to be seen as an actual body of knowledge intended to be integrated into life. For it gives authority to lead and guide life. But how moral knowledge is viewed today is very different.

Although it is not a widely-reported fact, Dallas was thoroughly interested in the history of the Professions and understanding their role in shaping “common goods” in society, correct?

Yes, in the last year he had turned his focus toward the “next phase” of The Divine Conspiracy and was investing time toward the professions and the common good. Another way he spoke about it was the common goods of the classic professions, “what are the common goods of the Legal Profession, Medical Profession etc., in terms of the kingdom?” It was an area of increased attention in his talks. For example, one of his last talks for The Oikonomia Network was on this topic. In his discussions with me and others, he saw the “next phase” as the bridging of the Christian “Spiritual Formation” stream in American culture and the “Faith and Work” stream. The impact of disciples in the workplace was, in Dallas’ mind, the next wave of The Divine Conspiracy. As he told me, “spiritual formation that doesn’t include work, isn’t spiritual formation.”

How might the work on the Professions and the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge be related?

Good question. I think they can be related as two parallel tracks. For the first track, Dallas believed that the “next wave” of The Divine Conspiracy would crash into the professions and the work of all Christians as we live out our discipleship 24×7. The second track is that many of the professions today suffer from a tangible disappearance of moral knowledge.  You see this in the many ethical issues within business that have flooded the news for years now, and in the business courses offered in college that teach ethics merely as what I prefer to call “litigation avoidance” rather than something that has an effect on actually improving the character of the students in the class. In this regard, it’s not surprising that it is essential that moral knowledge is regained as a body of knowledge in academia.

Any indication of what Dallas wanted to start writing but was never able to do so?

Nothing further started as a book idea but many areas of interest and attention. The two books mentioned above were where he was investing his thoughts and energies. He desired to have a similar impact on the Academy as he had on Spiritual Formation and he also wanted to redeem the field of Apologetics back to its original ethos.

Can you say a little more about what Dallas saw needing to be “redeemed”?

As of late, Apologetics – as both an area of study and practice – has been divested of gentleness and the life that Christ came to bring, which Peter references prior to the infamous 1 Peter 3:15 passage. Instead, Apologetics has been reduced to being like a game; an intellectual sport of sorts. It was never intended to look  like that. 1 Peter 3:15 refers to giving an answer to those that ask “why” about the kind of life we have in Christ. It is a life-based response in the character of Jesus. As a study and practice, it has lost its gentleness.

Dallas’ 2014 book on apologetics with HarperOne will seek to develop this understanding further. The heart of the book is based on a series of talks on apologetics that Dallas gave many years ago, with additions from other talks over the last few years.

Now, more than ever, it seems like a good time to let people in on what has been your involvement over the years with helping to bring Dallas’ writings to the public. You and your dear wife Becky – coupled with Dallas’ Lady Jane – have been as he would say, indispensable! How have you been at work behind-the-scenes?

Dallas always had a steady family of friends helping him with his writing. He was always so gracious in acknowledging their input. The “Willard Council” was instrumental in helping balance Dallas’ teaching schedule and increase his focus on writing. The family of friends helped with feedback, editing of various kinds, suggestions and encouragement. I’m not sure there was anything “special” about what we did. We just loved him and supported him in any way we could. Dallas always had my back on everything and I had his back on whatever he was doing.  And of course, as he said on the dedication page of Hearing God, Jane has been by his side every step of the way as a “Sweet lady, Good soldier, Faithful companion on the way.”

To enable us to continue that aspect of ministering with him, Dallas gave me and Becky his blessing to establish “Dallas Willard Ministries” which, in conjunction with The Dallas Willard Center, is committed to furthering the good work of Jesus through the writings and teachings of Dallas. Information about both of these ministries is available on our websites: and

Many seem to think Dallas’ work was “unfinished” at the time of his death. What do you think he would say to that claim in light of what he knew and believed about one’s vocation, God’s providence, and the Kingdom of God?

I think he answered that on page 399 of The Divine Conspiracy

We should expect that in due time we will be moved into our eternal destiny of creative activity with Jesus and his friends and associates in the “many mansions” of “his Father’s house.”  … We should think of ourselves as being absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment.

So Dallas is still working at whatever is next for him in his “eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”

The work of Dallas here among us isn’t done either, and the baton has been passed to those of us willing to carry it on. Dallas always had a unique way of seeing and explaining things.  He lived his life immersed in the Trinitarian Reality and because of that reality there was always more for us to learn from Christ through him. The Lord measured his days and Dallas’ work on earth was finished on May 8th, 2013 at 5:55AM PST, but the work of Jesus that was made manifest in and through Dallas’ teachings and writing; that work continues.

At the “Knowing Christ Today” conference sponsored by the Dallas Willard Center in February there was a great awareness that we were being commissioned to carry on the work that Dallas had showed us needed doing. We must decide to either remain by-standers and spectators to The Divine Conspiracy or active participants in the kingdom among us who intentionally engage the with-God life that is presently available.

That’s wonderful, Bill. Can you elaborate a little further on how you see the Dallas Willard Ministries nonprofit differentiating itself from the work of the Westmont Center?

The two are intended to operate as Siamese twins; you know, joined at the heart. At the heart, there is a commitment to collaboratively work together to further Dallas Willard’s teaching, whether for academic or non-academic audiences. The Center will be primarily focused on the academy and the Dallas Willard Ministries nonprofit will be primarily focused on non-academic equipping.

I am reminded of Dallas’ perspective about the indispensability of “pastors as teachers of the nations.”

Yes, pastors as teachers of the nations are both an “academic” and a “ministry” interest. Because “pastors” have the epistemic right and obligation to guide life on the basis of moral and spiritual knowledge of reality. So, yes, it all comes together with the pastors. And that’s how Dallas saw it, even at his last conference at the Westmont Center, where he commissioned pastors to be teachers of the nations.

Bill, any final words?

Just what Dallas said to my Larissa, his Grand Daughter, in April: “Give ’em heaven!”


Dallas Willard: “My Beloved Rabboni”

Aaron Preston, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Valparaiso University, writes a moving tribute to Dallas Willard, which he aptly summarizes as follows:

Dallas Willard was the most wonderful person I have ever known.  I was privileged to have him as my teacher both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, and to have him as my mentor, friend, and – in the truest sense of the word – my pastor, the shepherd of my soul, over the last two decades.  Here is my very inadequate attempt to describe what Dallas was like in these roles.  Of course it is somewhat misleading to call these “roles”.  In reality, they were all expressions of the brilliant, patient, caring, nurturing person Dallas was (and is!), a person who united great intelligence and great virtue in the substance of his own being so powerfully as to palpably manifest the goodness of God like no one else I have ever encountered.   

The full-text of Preston’s reflection offers insights into Willard’s own character and his ability to shape the lives of others – and not just their “spiritual life” or their “professional life” – beyond the public eye. Consider this final anecdote in Aaron Preston’s reflection:

On one occasion I was suffering from a rather severe depressive episode related to my spiritual angst.  Dallas spent an hour or more praying over me after which the depression was simply and entirely gone, and it has never come back.  Life has not been a bed of roses ever since – that’s the stuff of fairy tales – but since that moment I’ve always been able to find the strength to cope with life, often by remembering his prayer and invoking it over myself again. 

… Dallas was not just my teacher and my dissertation supervisor.  He was my beloved Rabboni.  I am grateful for his life. I will miss him for the rest of mine.

On Dallas Willard, Husserl and the Perennial Problem

Gregg Ten Elshof, chair of Biola’s department of philosophy and director of the Center for Christian Thought, observes the following about the impact of Willard on his life and whether Dallas was a scholar for the sake of Husserlian scholarship:

In the early 90’s someone introduced me to Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. That book completely reorganized my thinking about what it meant to be a Christian. Strangely enough, it was the first time that I can remember seriously entertaining the invitation to follow Jesus – this though I’d been a Christian my whole life.  I am, and will eternally be, grateful for the opportunity to follow Jesus. So I am, and will eternally be, grateful for Dallas Willard.

For five years I was a student under Dallas’s direction at USC. Having been so deeply impacted by his written work, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he, himself, was far more compelling than anything he had written. To be with him was to draw near to the Kingdom of God. He seemed effortlessly to communicate the peace, security, love and acceptance of God by his mere presence. I found it nearly impossible to remain anxious about anything while with him. And it was my repeated experience to witness the disarming of anger, contempt, fear, and countless other inner ailments with a simple look, a gentle word, a touch.

Dallas is the best teacher I’ve ever met. His work in philosophy always penetrates to the perennial problem – that issue of central importance to the human condition – in whatever discussion he’s a part of.  During his time with us, he loved to think, write, and talk about a philosopher by the name of Edmund Husserl. He saw in Husserl a few crucial insights required to make sense of our ability to have knowledge of the world. But he didn’t allow the world of Husserl scholarship (and it is a real world unto itself) to define his research agenda. Rather, he brought the insights of Husserl to bear upon urgent questions about life, meaning, and the Kingdom of God.

The simple and relaxed confidence so palpable and contagious in his person and so visible in his writing is the result of having deeply internalized these insights by means of decades of careful, nuanced, and often erudite scholarship. For Dallas, the big ideas and their relevance for life mattered more than did anything like Husserl expertise.  As a result, his students (as I’ve experienced them anyway) are among the least likely in the field to lose the forest for the trees or to get bogged down in the technical trivia that often animates academic dialogue. He passed on the insistence on finding and addressing the urgent questions of our day.

Here is a life deeply worthy of celebration and imitation. I am grateful to God for the gift of Dallas Willard.

Gregg Ten Elshof

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, and Lord Aragorn

Dallas Willard was a magnanimous man in his vocational capacity as a professor and scholar and also in his capacity as a friend, mentor, and colleague. Greg Ganssle, a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Rivendell Institute, discerns a vision of human greatness in Willard’s work and its convergence with Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Greg writes the following:

I defended my dissertation in January of 1995. Once the dust had settled, I decided to read or re-read all of the books I had put off for so many years. On my list, of course, was another trip through Middle Earth. At the same time, I read through Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines in my devotional time. I was struck with the convergence between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Spirit of the Disciplines. Both held forth a vision of human greatness. What does it mean to be a great person? Willard led the reader through the wise practices that enabled one to put down deep roots in character. Tolkien painted a picture of character in action.

A great person is one who can live and act with patience and confidence because he both knows who he is, and he is centered on something larger than himself. For the Christian, the center is Christ. His call to us is our anchor. Our keel is deep because we draw upon the depth of his love and work in our souls. Through the habitual drawing upon his strength, we flourish. We may look strong from the outside, but it is the strength of his might.

The vision of human greatness held forth by Willard and Tolkien shines brightly when compared with the anemic pictures of greatness in our culture. A bit in Peter Jackson’s production of the Lord of the Rings makes this clear. In the first film, the character Aragorn was made to wallow in uncertainty about whether he could or would take up the task at hand. In Tolkien’s books, Aragorn never doubted and never hesitated. Why the change? I think it is because Jackson knew that the only categories contemporary viewers have for a deep person are those of overcoming self-doubt. In order to make Aragorn deep, he had to make him struggle with self-doubt. For Tolkien, it is much deeper to be a man who is confident and unwavering about one’s identity and destiny and to be patient in realizing one’s highest aspirations. Such virtues are invisible to a culture that is living in the triumph of pop-psychological entertainment.

Dallas called us to be people who do not doubt or hesitate because we are built upon the firm foundation of the work of God. He challenged us to embody those virtues that are real and visible to God, even if they cannot be seen by those around us. He blazed a trail for all of us. He pointed us towards a distant horizon, one that many of us had only glimpsed in imaginary worlds such as Tolkien’s. That horizon is not new. But every generation needs someone who can see it more clearly and point towards it more decisively.

We are all better people because of Dallas Willard’s faithfulness.

Dallas Willard: My Beloved Rabboni

Two lines come to mind whenever I think of Dallas Willard.  The first is from John’s Gospel:  “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46). The second is Plato’s description of Socrates from the closing line of the Phaedo: “the best, the wisest, and most righteous of all the men whom I have ever known.”

I first met Dallas when, as a sophomore at USC, I enrolled in his course on British Empiricism.  At the time, I had no idea what Philosophy, let alone British Empiricism, was.  Nor had I heard of Dallas previously.  But some of my Christian friends at USC had told me that he was a major Christian thinker, a “C.S. Lewis type”, and that I should really take a course with him while I was there.  And so I did.  Little did I know how it would change my life.

I found the reading dry, but Dallas’ teaching so rich and interesting that I couldn’t get enough.  With his encouragement, I decided to major in Philosophy.  At least that’s what it says on my diploma.  But looking back I think it’s more accurate to say that I decided to major in Dallas.  For me, philosophy doesn’t seem nearly so interesting or worthwhile when it’s done too differently from the way Dallas did it.  But done his way, I find it very worthwhile indeed – so much so that I took as many additional courses as I could (roughly ¾ of my major courses!) with Dallas, and after graduation and a brief stint studying Theology, I returned to USC to take my Doctorate under his supervision.

Dallas’ “way” of doing philosophy is difficult to adequately describe, because so much of it was a function of who he was as a person, an expression of his unique combination of intellect and character.  As Joe Gorra has so rightly observed, Dallas never approached philosophy from the standpoint of current disciplinary norms, which tend to be narrow, technical, and faddish.  Instead, he focused on broad, fundamental, and enduring issues, approaching them in a way that was rigorous but non-technical, and always historically informed (as opposed to focusing only or mainly on “the current debate”).

But this general description fails to do justice to the unique grandeur of Dallas as a thinker and teacher.  Part of that grandeur came from the astonishing scope of Dallas’ knowledge.  USC’s Philosophy Department Director and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Scott Soames, describes Dallas as “the teacher with the greatest range in the School of Philosophy [at USC], regularly teaching courses in logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, history of ethics, philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy from the 17th through the 20th centuries, including both sides of the 20th century split between analytic philosophy and phenomenology.”   His colleagues at USC might be surprised to know that this impressive range represents only a portion of Dallas’ learning.  His range in Philosophy was matched by an equally impressive range in Christian theology and spirituality.  Several years ago Paul Weithman wrote of Robert Adams’ introduction to John Rawls’ posthumously published theological work, “I doubt that there is anyone else in the academy with the breadth of philosophical and theological learning needed to write it.”  My immediate thought upon reading this line was “He must not know Dallas!”

And then there were the countless lines of verse and song, from Shakespeare to Janis Joplin (yes, Janis Joplin!), and of course countless lines of Scripture, that Dallas had committed to memory, with which he’d occasionally season his talks, lectures and conversations.  I’ll never forget an instance after a talk at Wheaton when, in response to a question, Dallas quoted from memory what must have been nearly a full chapter from the book of Hebrews (the quote went on and on), weaving it into an impressive answer that left the audience amazed!

The scope of Dallas’ knowledge distinguished him from all but a handful of intellectual heavyweights.  But what distinguished him even from them, intellectually, was his ability to distill the wisdom of the ages and present it in accessible, memorable, and maximally insightful terms.  John Ortberg has given some examples of this in his recent tribute to Dallas.  Here are a few more:

  • Knowledge is the ability to represent something as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.   (I like to call this “JTB without the jargon”!)
  • Reason is the ability to know things merely by thinking.
  • Wisdom is the settled disposition of the soul to act in accordance with knowledge.
  • A good person is one who has a settled intention to advance the various goods of human life with which he or she is effectively in contact.

Lines like these, defining important concepts and encapsulating key insights from the history of philosophy, were common fare not only in Dallas’ lectures, but also in informal conversation.   They fell from his lips like rain, usually expressed with a nonchalance that was entirely disproportionate to their significance, but beautifully consonant with Dallas’ own intellectual humility. Many of them burned their way into my mind upon first hearing them as an undergraduate, and they have stayed there ever since.  Even now I hear his voice echoing in my mind.

Dallas’ ability to formulate these intuitively clear and maximally insightful statements on just about any topic or concept you might ask him about, even off the cuff, is the single most impressive intellectual gift I have ever observed in any human being.  I have never seen it matched, and (alas!) have never been able to come close to doing it myself despite having studied with him for so many years.   In virtue of this gift, and insofar as the sorts of concepts Dallas dealt with are ultimately more significant than gravity and motion, it has always seemed to me that Sir Edmund Halley’s tribute to Newton is actually more fittingly applied to Dallas:

Then ye who now on heavenly nectar fare,

Come celebrate with me in song the name

Of [Willard], to the Muses dear;  for he

Unlocked the hidden treasuries of Truth:

So richly through his mind had Phoebus cast

The radiance of his own divinity.

Nearer to the gods no mortal may approach.

Of course, Dallas himself would balk at any such comparison – he was humble to a fault.  This fact points beyond Dallas’ intellectual gifts to his equally unmatched character.  Almost everyone who has ever written anything about Dallas mentions, and describes more adequately than I can, the aura of otherworldly peace and love that he exuded, and which suffused the whole atmosphere around him.  There was a calmness and stillness in Dallas that pervaded all of his other virtues, and which I think tended to impress people more than almost anything else about him.  He “radiated” peace and love, but not like a microwave or a light bulb; more like a “radiant heating” system which slowly and subtly sends heat through the floor, gently warming the air above.

Imagine, if you can, the kind of intellectual feast described above, held in a room warmed by Willardian “radiant heating,” gently bathing his students in peace and love while showering them with the aforementioned pearls of wisdom.  That is what it was like to be a student in one of Dallas’ classes. I count it as one of the greatest blessing of my life to have had this as a regular weekly experience for the better part of a decade.

Obviously, all of this entails that Dallas had a profound effect on my intellectual and professional life.  It is no exaggeration to say that whatever degree of intellectual sophistication and academic success I’ve achieved, I owe entirely to Dallas.  But Dallas was much more than a teacher and an academic supervisor to me.  Some people’s spiritual lives are colored more by angst than joy, and characterized better as a series of crises than as a consistent movement from glory to glory.  I am one of those people.

For me, philosophy began not in wonder, but in painful confusion about God and about the character of Jesus in the aftermath of a run-in with what Ronald Enroth would call an “abusive church” during my Freshman year at USC.  In that year before I met Dallas, I had been struggling to make sense of the experience, to figure out what true Christianity looked like, and how to carry on in the Christian life after having my faith shaken to the point of collapse.

Dallas’ calm kindness and deep wisdom were my most important sources of guidance and reassurance as I continued to struggle with these issues for many years.  He taught me not only philosophy, but theology; and not only taught me, but counseled me; and not only about faith, but about dating, about marriage, about having children, and on and on.   And not only did he counsel me, he also prayed for me, both in general, and in very specific terms when I needed it.

I have never told this story publicly, but I feel compelled to tell it now, to honor this great Man of God (and just so you know, “Man of God” is a term I never use precisely because it’s overused in some Evangelical circles; but when it comes to Dallas there’s no way around it:  that’s what he was).  On one occasion I was suffering from a rather severe depressive episode related to my spiritual angst.  Dallas spent an hour or more praying over me after which the depression was simply and entirely gone, and it has never come back.  Life has not been a bed of roses ever since – that’s the stuff of fairy tales – but since that moment I’ve always been able to find the strength to cope with life, often by remembering his prayer and invoking it over myself again.

As you can see, Joe Gorra’s statement that Dallas “never lost sight of the value of shepherding and caring for people” even in his role as a Professor is absolutely true.  Dallas was not just my teacher and my dissertation supervisor.  He was my beloved Rabboni.  I am grateful for his life. I will miss him for the rest of mine.

Aaron Preston
Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy
Valparaiso University