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'Divine Conspirator' Dallas Willard Dies at 77

Editor's note, added May 8, 2013: Dallas Willard died today at age 77, days after being diagnosed with cancer. This profile originally ran in our September 2006 issue.

We have also posted John Ortberg's tribute to Willard.

It's the first week of class at the University of Southern California, and a young woman named Sarah is standing on a soapbox in Hahn Plaza giving her testimony. She describes her first girlfriend, and says that when her mother found out about their relationship, she sent her to therapy. It wasn't until Sarah came to USC that she fully embraced her identity as a lesbian.

Stories like this may strike fear in the heart of many a Christian parent, but for the past 41 years, USC students have also had the opportunity to hear the teaching of a provocative Christian thinker named Dallas Willard.

It's a short walk from Hahn Plaza to Willard's office in the Mudd Hall of Philosophy. A stately brick building with a clock tower stretching to the sky, Mudd Hall was modeled after an Italian monastery and built in 1929. The father of the building's architect and the department chair that year, Ralph Tyler Flewelling, was a Methodist who wanted to establish a Christian intellectual outreach to the Far East. It's a fitting home for a man devoted to reestablishing the exalted place moral reasoning once held in the academy.

Willard is most familiar to Christians from his books: The Divine Conspiracy (Christianity Today's Book of the Year in 1998), The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, and, most recently, The Great Omission. But philosophy is both his primary vocation and the foundation of his devotional writing. According to Willard's wife, Jane, his book on German philosopher Edmund Husserl's early work, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, was the "other woman" in their marriage for the 15 years it took him to write it. Conversely, she had to press him to write The Divine Conspiracy after he had been teaching its principles to church groups for several years. "He works individually," she says. "He doesn't process things out loud. I would hear it when he preached it."

Learning to Question

Willard says that when he left the ministry to study philosophy in the early 1960s, God told him, "If you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you; but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you." He had no idea what this meant, because, at the time, the church was still the primary cultural authority. However, as a young Baptist assistant pastor, he had become convinced he was "abysmally ignorant" of God and the soul. He decided to study philosophy, because he believed that "Jesus and his teachings and the philosophers and their teachings were addressing the same questions."

Willard's provocative thinking was evident even in the 1960s. He recalls shocking his college classmates with statements like this one: "If you could find a better way, Jesus would be the first one to tell you to take it. And if you don't believe that about him, you don't have faith in him, because what you're really saying is that he would encourage you to believe something that is false." This realization freed Willard "from ducking or trying to avoid issues raised against the content of the teachings of Jesus. … It made it possible to do honest inquiry in any area and to meet those of different persuasions on the field of common inquiry, not on that of assumptions to be protected at all costs."

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'Divine Conspirator' Dallas Willard Dies at 77