SUMMARY: The most telling thing about contemporary Christians is that they have no compelling sense that understanding Jesus' teachings and conforming their lives to those teachings is of any vital importance.
The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, by Dallas Willard (HarperSanFrancisco, 428 pp.; $22, hardcover). Reviewed by John Wilson.
As we approach the end of the twentieth century and the dawning of a new millennium, commentators far and wide are speculating about the future of the church. Some see harbingers of a global Great Awakening; others contend that the apparent vitality of the faith conceals a hollow core, the consequence of an abject capitulation to secularism in the hearts of countless believers.
Reading the future is a risky business, but there are some predictions we can make with great confidence. Such predictions are based not on our own prescience but rather on the promises of Jesus, whose word is absolutely trustworthy:
"Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness," says the Lord. These are Christ's own words by which He exhorts us to imitate His life and His ways, if we truly desire to be enlightened and free of all blindness of heart. Let it then be our main concern to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.
So begins The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis (ca. 1380-1471). Throughout the history of the church, there have been voices like Thomas's, calling on Christians to become apprentices of Jesus, to "strive to conform your entire life to His." In diverse times and places, this "return to the source" has renewed the church: in the Devotio moderna ("New Devotion") that produced Thomas a Kempis; in the Reformation of Martin Luther and John Calvin and Menno Simons; in the Society of Jesus (whose founder, Ignatius Loyola, read a chapter of the Imitation every day); in the Puritan movement; in Pietism; in Methodism (John Wesley translated the Imitation); in the twentieth-century charismatic movement; in Jean Vanier's l'Arche communities.
Not all of these have been equally conformed to Scripture, but all of them, at their best, have brought genuine renewal. The Holy Spirit has been powerfully at work; without such refreshment, the church would long ago have withered and died, and Christianity would be securely entombed in the Museum of Religion.
Now comes Dallas Willard, longtime professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California and author of In Search of Guidance and The Spirit of the Disciplines. These books, along with the work of Richard Foster and other kindred souls, have already sparked a modest renewal movement focused on the recovery of what Foster calls "the great Traditions" of Christian faith. But good as they are, they do not prepare the reader for the power of Willard's new book. With The Divine Conspiracy, Willard joins the line of Thomas a Kempis, Luther, Fenelon, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, Zinzendorf, Wesley, Frank Laubach, Dorothy Day, and other master apprentices of Jesus.
Because God transcends our understanding, every rediscovery of Jesus will be partial and imperfect (and, yes, some are more imperfect than others). Indeed, one reason for the fading out or distorting transformation of renewal movements is the tendency to elevate partial understandings to the status of absolute truths. But for the chastened imagination, each spiritual teacher offers a fresh approach to the inexhaustible riches of God.
What distinguishes The Divine Conspiracy from many works in its genre is an extraordinary combination of simplicity and depth. With the purity and directness of Thomas a Kempis, Willard invites us to follow Jesus. At the same time, Willard brings to this work a philosophical depth and a penetrating understanding of Scripture missing in many exhortations to discipleship.
At the heart of Willard's book is Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God. As many scholars have observed, this is the central theme of Jesus' ministry, yet—with a few notable exceptions—it is a theme rarely explored from the pulpit. In keeping with the best contemporary scholarship (see, for example, Robert Gundry's magisterial commentary on the Gospel of Mark), Willard emphasizes the present reality of the kingdom. This emphasis does not contradict our expectation of the eschatological fulfillment of the kingdom, but it does provide a much needed corrective to what Willard calls "gospels of sin management":
When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual's sins. On the left it is removal of social or structural evils. The current gospel then becomes a "gospel of sin management." Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living.
To clear up these disastrous misinterpretations, we need to return to Jesus' teaching about the kingdom:
When Jesus directs us to pray, "Thy kingdom come," he does not mean we should pray for it to come into existence. Rather, we pray for it to take over at all points in the personal, social, and political order where it is now excluded: "On earth as it is in heaven." With this prayer we are invoking it, as in faith we are acting it, into the real world of our daily existence.
Now, some of Jesus' contemporaries were hoping for a kingdom. They awaited the coming of a regal leader who would overthrow the Romans and install himself in splendor. And ever since that time, there have been Christians who envision an empire, a theocracy.
But God definitively disappointed all such expectations when he emptied himself and took the form of a child born in the humblest circumstances—a child who became a great rabbi, the greatest ever, and whose kingdom has nothing to do with the ambitions of emperors or presidents. This is the "divine conspiracy" of Willard's title: Jesus "slipped into our world through the backroads and outlying districts of one of the least important places on earth and has allowed his program for human history to unfold ever so slowly through the centuries."
But this does not mean that the kingdom of God exists only "in our hearts," a misinterpretation (based on a false conception of the "spiritual") that has allowed many professing Christians to carry on as if they were under no obligation actually to follow Jesus. Again and again Willard emphasizes the full reality of the kingdom:
God's desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends among us the Way to himself. This shows what, in his heart of hearts, God is like—indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.
For Christians in need of renewal, for seekers who want to know why we worship the one who was crucified, The Divine Conspiracy will be invaluable. If you read only one book in 1999, make it this one.
- Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by Joseph N. Tylenda, SJ; preface by Sally Cuneen (Vintage, 304 pp.; $9.95, paper).
- Bruce Chilton, Jesus' Prayer and Jesus' Eucharist: His Personal Practice of Spirituality (Trinity Press International, 103 pp.; $9, paper).
- Bruce Chilton, Pure Kingdom: Jesus' Vision of God (Eerdmans, 178 pp.; $15, paper).
- Ronald J. Sider, Living Like Jesus: Eleven Essentials for Growing Genuine Faith (Baker Book House, 189 pp.; $9.99, paper).
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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