What Dallas Willard Taught Me

One day, almost five years ago, my wife and I were hanging out in a used book store. We went there because she was looking for spanish art books for her classroom. Not interested in this at all, I checked out the vinyl records (where I discovered an extensive collection of Neil Diamond and only Neil Diamond) and then went over to the Religion/Philosophy section.

Usually at these stores all you could find was stuff like 90 Minutes in Heaven or Your Best Life Now. If you were lucky there might be a copy of Desiring God, probably abandoned by a young Calvinist as he grew out of that.

Dallas Willard The Divine ConspiracyThis day I noticed a pretty thick book called The Divine Conspiracy. I had never heard of it. At the time I was interested in reading the new atheists for the sake of the raging they made me do, and assumed this was the same. But when I picked it up I saw it was by Dallas Willard, a name I was only vaguely familiar with. The inside cover had a stamp from the previous owner; I actually knew them, so I bought it just because I thought that would be interesting.

I didn’t know that the book would be so paradigm shifting for me.

I studied philosophy in college. I was really interested in the great minds of history. I read them like crazy hoping that I could maybe get just a little of what they had. Maybe I could be great by osmosis or something like that.

I also studied religion. I was interested in all the just men in history. Chief among these was Jesus. He was the kindest and most compassionate man in all of history. I read the words of the sermon on the mount almost every day my senior year hoping that I could be as nice as Jesus was. I was looking for that “upside down kingdom” all of us young radicals talked so much about.

It seriously never occurred to me, even with my Religion/Philosophy degree, that these two interests were the same.

No, really. Jesus was nice and everything; but he also let himself get killed, betrayed even. He didn’t even write his own stuff down and he hung out with fisherman, tax-collectors, prostitutes. Proof he was nice, and also proof he wasn’t that interested in intellectual stuff.

Then, Dr. Willard, in a single paragraph blew this whole thing up for me.

“And can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived.”

I had never thought about that. Perhaps you haven’t either. I mean Jesus didn’t know how computers worked or how to drive a car. He wasn’t white and American and lived in the 21st century like us. We all have a little bias towards our own age and understanding and Jesus just doesn’t jive with that.

But Jesus’ words aren’t just nice and moral and sweet and (above all) naive. No. They are truth on a level most of us don’t even comprehend.

Those few sentences revealed to me that it is not one pursuit to understand the world and my own existence and another pursuit to be “kind.”

Bloch-SermonOnTheMountThis new Kingdom Ethics – this was understanding life! There was not something in Socrates that I could not find in Jesus. Descartes could not show me what made me exist more than the one who does make me exist.  There is literally nothing more profound and intelligent than Jesus, and he shares this knowledge with us.

The Kingdom Jesus brings isn’t “Upside Down” as some have called it. Not at all. His Kingdom is the only one that is actually right side up. Our whole world is upside down. As soon as I realized this, I could really begin to learn how to love the way Jesus did. It isn’t unreasonable (but also somehow good) to forgive. It is unreasonable not to.

Yesterday, cancer killed Dallas Willard. His work had an amazing impact on countless people simply because he continued to point away from himself and towards the true brains: Jesus.

A few paragraphs after the one quoted above, Willard also wrote:

“And one of the greatest testimonies to his intelligence is surely that he knew how to enter physical death, actually to die, and then live on beyond death.  He seized death by the throat and defeated it.  Forget cryonics! …”

And again, what joy, Jesus shares this knowledge with us. Dallas Willard will continue to learn from Jesus even after death. We all will and in the resurrection we can sit alongside Dr. Willard and learn from the true teacher.