Dallas Willard: My Beloved Rabboni

Dr. Aaron Preston, PhD

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