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Dallas Willard, a Man from Another 'Time Zone'

( [email protected] ) May 22, 2013 10:38 AM EDT
When Dallas Willard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late summer of 2012, one of his reflections was: "I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it." Dallas was always saying things that would never occur to anyone else. He said that a person is a series of conscious experiences, and that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life. Jesus himself said that the one who trusts in him will not taste death.
Dallas Willard Handout Photo

When Dallas Willard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late summer of 2012, one of his reflections was: "I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it." Dallas was always saying things that would never occur to anyone else. He said that a person is a series of conscious experiences, and that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life. Jesus himself said that the one who trusts in him will not taste death.

This morning Dallas Willard passed away. I'm not sure if anyone has told him yet. But I know that for all those left behind, for the lives touched by his mind and heart, there is a great void.

Because Dallas wrote on spiritual formation and taught philosophy at the University of Southern California, one might think he came from a background associated with richness of education and culture and resources. In fact, he grew up in very poor circumstances in rural Missouri. His mother died when he was two; her last words to her husband were: "Keep eternity before the children."

Because of impoverished conditions, Dallas grew up in a circle of different families; electricity did not come until he was mostly grown up.

He read a book by Jack London once that contained a passage describing the world from an atheistic point of view. Dallas said that he'd never known books could contain such thoughts and ideas, and his mind was never quite the same after that awakening. He was nine years old at the time.

He became an insatiable reader. He attended Tennessee Temple and did graduate work at Baylor before receiving his Ph D in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then teaching for nearly 50 years at USC, where for a time he was director of the philosophy department. His particular area of study was the philosophy of mind and logic, and he is regarded as a leading translator and authority on the work of the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. He was, along with scholars like William Alston and Alvin Plantinga, a significant influence in a renaissance of evangelical thinkers in contemporary academic philosophy.

His home, like his mind, was furnished mostly with books. He had a secondary library that occupied a second house; a tertiary library that filled his office at USC. After his diagnosis, a group of us packed up well over 100 boxes of books that only made it to his quaternary library in a nearby garage, books in multiple languages stretching from Homer to the present.

Many of us in the church have been impacted by Dallas through his teachings and writings that are often categorized as being about 'spiritual formation,' although his real preoccupation and concern was focused on the 'kingdom of God', or what he would often speak about as the 'with-God life.' He said the four great questions humans must answer are: What is reality? What is the good life? Who is a good person? And How do you became a good person? His concern was to answer those questions, and live the answers, and he was simply convinced that no one has ever answered them as well as Jesus.

These 'spiritual' writings of Dallas almost never used a technical vocabulary, but they had a density to them that makes them slow-going for most of us. I think the main reason for this is that any given word Dallas uses is a compressed summary of the history of human thought which he has digested and distilled. Words which are vague for most of us were precisely calibrated by him.

One of the games I used to play with Dallas was to ask him for definitions of all kinds of words; every one would come with a clarity and freshness and precision that would require folks to sit and reflect for a while.

Spirit is dis-embodied personal power.

Beauty is goodness made manifest to the senses.

A disciple is anyone whose ultimate goal is to live as Jesus would live if he were in their place.

Dignity is a value that creates irreplaceability. (This he graciously attributed to Immanuel Kant.)

Joy is a pervasive sense of well-being.

Once when I was asking him questions at a conference we talked about work, which he defined as "the creation of value." He said something about play—so I asked him to define that one. There was a brief pause—with Dallas there was always a pause—and he said: "Play is the creation of value that is not necessary."

Dallas has impacted the world of the church—evangelicalism and beyond—through a power of historically informed thought that simply makes more sense of reality and existence than the alternatives that many of us are aware of. He deeply valued the scholarly guild, and contributed to it. But he was aware of the limits of the guild as well, and ultimately sought to contribute to moral and spiritual knowledge in a way that transcended current guild norms.

Dallas had a remarkable mind. (He was always careful to note the distinction between mind and brain. "God has never had a brain," he would sometimes say, "and has never missed it.")

But his life and his heart were better than his mind. My own life was forever changed when I first read his book The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne) 24 years ago; it has effected me more than any book outside the Bible. I contacted him after having read it, and—for no particular reason—he invited me to come to his home and talk. I experienced there what countless others have: the unhurried, humble, selfless attention of a human being who lived more deeply in the genuine awareness of kingdom reality than anyone I have ever known. Somebody said of Dallas: "I'd like to live in his time zone."

In one of his classes a student challenged him with statements that were both offensive and incorrect. Dallas paused and told the class that that was a good place to end their discussion. Somebody asked Dallas afterward why he had not countered the students' argument and put him in his place. "I'm practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word."

This is part of why Dallas would never debate non-believers. He would engage in a mutual conversation where both parties could seek for truth together. He would often say: "I'm sure Jesus is the kind of person who would be the first to say you must ruthlessly follow the truth wherever it leads." Through the last week of his life he was still hoping to help believers engage non-believers by looking together at questions where people get stuck in their actual lives rather than by trying to win arguments.

He would be the first to say that he is not perfect, and would be very impatient with writings that idealize anyone—particularly him. I remember hearing him talk once about how he was struggling with the problem of harboring contempt for people. If he did, it was in a very deep harbor. But God alone knows the human heart.

He leaves behind his wife Jane; his son John and his daughter Becky along with her husband Bill and his granddaughter Larrisa. He leaves an understanding of the nature of the gospel and the kingdom and moral and spiritual truth that is helping the church, which is always reforming to recapture something of the spirit and message of Jesus, about whom Dallas never ceased to marvel. Dallas' work, more than anyone I know in our day, is helping us understand more clearly the reality of Jesus' offer. His influence will continue to trickle down in a thousand ways, in countless sermons and books and churches and disciples.

Among countless other ideas, Dallas thought about the nature of heaven in ways that linger. Our destiny, he used to say, is to be part of a tremendously creative team effort, under unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment. This is what "eye hath not see, nor ear hath heard" in the prophetic vision. Its worth a few dozen read-throughs.

Dallas also used to say that "God will certainly let everyone into heaven that can possibly stand it." This is another one of those statements that becomes more daunting and frightening and wonderful the more you think about it.

"Keep eternity before the children," his mother said. Dallas kept eternity before us in a way no one else quite has. And today he has stepped into the eternal kind of life in a way he never has before.

I'll bet he can stand it. I'll bet he can.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, in Menlo Park, California. He is the author, most recently, of Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Zondervan).