STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/08/2009

ARTICLE | The Man Behind The (Divine) Conspiracy: A Conversation with Dallas Willard

He is soft-spoken and unassuming, but there’s no mistaking the influence of Dallas Willard. Best-known for his three books on spiritual formation--The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988), The Divine Conspiracy (1998) and Renovation of the Heart (2002)--Willard’s work is far reaching. He’s a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and also a popular speaker across the country. STILLPOINT interviewed him during a recent visit to campus.

STILLPOINT: How did a Southern Baptist become interested in the classical spiritual disciplines?

Dallas Willard: As a young Southern Baptist pastor I tried to do the best I could with what I had--and it wasn’t very much. The most serious people in my congregation were the ones I seemed unable to help. I could evangelize and do a lot of things, but when it came to spiritual growth, I honestly had nothing to say. That’s what led me to understand the role of spiritual disciplines and spiritual growth first of all for myself. Over time I came to understand how that integrated into the work of pastoring and teaching. It took me a number of years to back my way into those things. I had a lot of resistance at the conscious level. I didn’t understand the relationships that are appropriate between grace and works. I have to say the Lord led me into one thing after another that I had not enough sense to figure out myself. The experience of lengthy periods of solitude and silence, for example, and learning what it’s like to memorize passages of Scripture instead of verses. Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ captured me from the first line: “He that followeth me walketh not in darkness, saith the Lord.” And I picked up others--a wide range of Christians who, in different ways, actually used what I would later understand to be the spiritual disciplines. Fasting was a big part of the journey for me. These autobiographical writings helped me to see that all of the wonderful material talked about in the Scriptures can actually be used; they are not just distant ideas that only make you feel guilty. I returned to Scripture and had greater access to the whole book. A picture emerges of what spiritual life is--you can live it, work with it, teach others--it actually works.

SP: Your chapter “St. Paul’s Psychology of Redemption” in The Spirit of the Disciplines was enormously helpful to me in understanding the body’s role in our spiritual lives.

DW: Psychology is bodily. The body is a primary spiritual resource. I love this quotation from Sir William Ramsey’s St. Paul, the Traveler and Roman Citizen: “In Paul, for the first time since Aristotle, Greek philosophy made a genuine step forward.” It’s so appropriate to put him in that context because it’s actually true. Ramsey was able to help me see Paul in a different light, to see how really bodily spirituality is. Paul really meant it. Take those passages like “I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage: lest by any means, after that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.” That doesn’t mean asceticism--just sensible training of the whole person to do the will of God.

SP: There’s so much you miss in the Pauline writings if you’re only looking at him through the lenses we often see him through.

DW: Before I began studying the spiritual disciplines, I was reading St. Paul through the lens of dispensational theology. Basically what that does is relieve us of any genuine responsibilities to do anything except believe correct doctrine. That’s important, but that’s not life. I had to get past the idea that grace had only to do with forgiveness; that grace was opposed to effort--which it isn’t; its opposed to earning--and to understand the power of grace as an activity and a life . . . that was difficult coming from the theological sources I had.

SP: You are also a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, and have studied and written extensively about the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. In a sense you’ve lived two careers, two writing lives. Is there a connection between your academic work and your work on spiritual formation?

DW: Yes. Phenomenology is interested in the life of the person, the mind, the soul. There’s very little good writing on this in philosophy. Most of what we read of the subject in the great philosophers--like Locke, Kant, or Hegel--is miserably poor in its description of the human soul. They’re obsessed with a few problems, and they do not fill out a picture of life in the world. But that’s just what Husserl is focused on: life in the world. That means a description of the mind and how it works, but not of a disembodied something like that which Descartes and others seem to be talking about.

So Husserl’s focus fits right in with spiritual disciplines, spiritual growth--it’s really very much the same topic. In much recent Protestant theology too they often talk as if all that matters is what you believe. In my work I try to bring in the whole person--the will, the feelings, the thoughts, the body, the social life, the emotions--and then the soul as the integrative part of the self. Husserl himself was a convert to Lutheranism and died in the care of the Catholic Church--he was serious about his faith, though, like many philosophers, almost impossible to understand. Anyway, that’s the connection.

SP: So you became a university professor after you were a pastor?

DW: I didn’t ever intend to become a university professor. I’m just a peasant from the Ozarks--I never thought about anything like that. I’d already graduated from Baylor University and didn’t intend to take a higher degree. But while I was an assistant pastor I became convicted about my ignorance of God and the soul. I decided to do a couple years of graduate study and then return to the pastorate. But after I finished my degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, they asked me to stay and teach. I was pastoring a couple little Congregational churches out in the countryside. And the Lord said to me, “If you stay in the churches the university will be closed to you; but if you stay at the university the churches will be open to you.” I had no idea what was going to happen, but I said okay--we’ll take it a year at a time. I took a position at USC 42 years ago, and it’s been wonderful.

SP: There’s still quite a gap between Protestants and Catholics. Do you see yourself as having been called into that gap?

DW: I do believe that. What I have found, when dealing with Catholics or Protestants, is that living the spiritual life is common ground. If you get into transubstantiation, consubstantiation--all those “stantiations”--that’s the end of the discussion. But when you’re talking about prayer, holiness, virtue, following Jesus, living the life--you’re right on common ground. I’ve come to call obedience to Christ the true ecumenicity. Because that is the meeting place. And as long as people focus on that, there will be very few arguments. One of the highlights of my year is holding a two-week retreat in a Catholic monastery in Southern California, mainly for Protestants. It’s usually one of the greatest things they’ve ever experienced. They’re able to have long periods of solitude and silence—they experience the reality of things they’ve never experienced before.

SP: You also talk about the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit.

DW: It’s so important to understand that the gifts are given for service. They don’t mean you are necessarily a very advanced person; they mean that God has something he wants accomplished, and though you’re on the spot, he judges you to be able to bear this. When we study gifts of the Spirit we need to also study people like Samson, who was not exactly an admirable character, but the Spirit came upon him for things that God wanted done--and that’s what the gifts are for: to serve one another. In 1 Corinthians Paul says they are “distributed severally” to the people. One of the main things that holds the community together is the way we serve one another in our gifts.

Dallas Willard is a professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He has taught at USC since 1965. Aside from his many books on spirituality, his has written scholarly works in the areas of epistemology, the philosophy of mind and of logic, and on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl.


Dallas Willard