What I Learned from Dallas Willard (1935-2013)

May 9, 2013

I loved Dallas Willard.  He was like a father to me.  I will miss him terribly.  Among those who have influenced me most, he stands out like a giant oak in the midst of saplings.  In Dallas’s case, all the things being said to eulogize him are actually true.  We have lost a five-star general in the armies of God, and the world is not what it was when he was among us.

Dallas was a man with a deep, pervasive, penetrating intellect.  He was a Christian first and a philosopher second.  From him I learned how to do metaphysics and how to think metaphysically.  He taught me to make distinctions when I was blurring categories.  He was a committed substance dualist, and never tired of defending the existence of and talking about the flourishing of the (embodied) soul.  He taught me to be a particularist, a foundationalist and a direct realist in epistemology.  And no one knew more than Dallas about the history of ethics, especially in the last 150 years.  He will be remembered most for his writings on spiritual formation, but the man was also a first-rate academic philosopher.

His spiritual writings are not only deep in content; they also have a texture or tone to them that accurately express Dallas’s own life.  He lived and practiced what he wrote, and there was a Presence in, around, and through his presence.

I cannot begin to share all the memories I have of him, but I will mention two, one at the beginning of our relationship and one at the end.  In 1983, while I was a doctoral student at USC, an undergraduate philosophy student named Joe came up to me and asked if I were religious.  I assured him that I was not, but that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  His eyes grew big and he asked me if I thought Jesus could come up to a person.  I had no idea what he meant, so like a good philosopher, I pretended I did and replied by asking him a question!  Where did he get this idea, I queried.  Well, he said, that morning he had been in Dallas’s office, Dallas has lead him to Christ, and Dallas had told him that when he prayed to Jesus, Jesus would come right up to him and listen.  In typical Willardian fashion, Dallas had put a truth in terms no one have ever thought of, and the way of speaking had its intended impact on Joe and on me.

My next memory was a phone conversation with Dallas three days before he passed on.  He was lucid, in good spirits, but so weak that he could hardly project his voice over the phone.  He knew he was dying.  I told him that I wanted to take a minute to celebrate his life and remind him of the impact for the Kingdom he had had.  Well, being the humble, unassuming person he was, Dallas would have none of this.  I told him he had to listen to me whether he wanted to or not, and he responded that he would take the praise as from the Lord, and I filled his ear with his wonderful legacy.  He closed our conversation by remarking on “what a glorious future we all have in the Kingdom,” and that was how the man approached his death.

Upon reflection, Dallas Willard challenged—and still challenges—me to finish my life here well and to have a victorious death.  Please join me in that commitment.

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