His book, The Divine Conspiracy, was one of the books we included in Besides the Bible, but with my short essay, I was hoping to pay tribute to Willard's insistence on including Christian thought in the academic marketplace and bringing reasoning into Christian circles. If you haven't read his work, you really should.
Dallas Willard was 77.
The essay is after the jump.
Nearly anyone who has ever called themselves a Christian has had a tendency to create their own rules for Christianity, built from an out-of-context collection of verses, seemingly chosen at random. Some tend toward a more legalistic faith complete with tough ethical standards, while others (and this is the category I'd have to put myself in) take grace as a free pass for our activities, instead choosing to see the Christian life through the lens of social justice. Still, if we spend any amount of time thinking about it, we have to realize there's probably more to the calls to discipleship that run through the New Testament than either polarity allows.
However, there are two issues which arise: we have to be able to recognize what the kingdom of God actually looks like, then, once we've figured out what we're missing out on, we have to figure out how to get there. Although there are a nearly infinite number of books, possibly even stocked near this one, all promising some new connection to God with some prescription for real meaning instead of the ersatz substitute we've convinced ourselves we love, there are only a few that really matter. Sure, you might pick up a few pointers in some of those titles, with a newish take on some familiar verses, but why not save yourself the trouble and just read one longish great book by one of the wisest voices writing today?
Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California since the 1960s, is mostly closely identified within contemporary Christianity as part of a movement (with author Richard Foster) to return to the traditions and practices of the historic aspects of our faith, hopefully in the process leading to a personal and collective renewal of faith.
As part of that work, Willard's 1999 book The Divine Conspiracy aims (successfully, which is why we're talking about the book in the first place, right?) to convince the reader that life within God's kingdom is available now and accessible merely by embracing reality as it has been constructed by God through the death and resurrection of His son.
Willard extensively teaches of a life in discipleship, existing within the dominion of Jesus's words and deeds and in the hope of a kingdom that will not fail. Acknowledging that Christ is on the throne now, even if not to the extent that we or his contemporaries would hope, means everything, changing our perspectives, our passions and our ethics, accomplishing what we might try to do by our own unsuccessful means.
What sets Willard and The Divine Conspiracy apart is that Willard finds a way to reintroduce us to Jesus, not as someone existing outside the realm of our existence, and not even just as a savior from the penalty of sin, but instead as someone worth imitating and intensely important to the sort of life we want to live.
Dallas Willard chose to work in the world of university academia because he could influence students and the church and The Divine Conspiracy is a book that is life-changing to nearly everyone who takes the readable and thought-provoking text seriously. What makes The Divine Conspiracy work is that Willard acts as the best sort of teacher - not descending to a simple how-to list or dogmatic lists of rules, instead giving the reader a wealth of information filtered and informed by a lifetime of study and a deep understanding of Scripture.