Imagine that after a routine checkup, your doctor says, "My hunch is that you have cancer and must undergo extensive surgery." Would you feel confident going under the knife based on a hunch? Would your confidence grow if the doctor said he had a "strong feeling" or "believed" you had cancer? Obviously not. When the bodily stakes are high, we want to be guided by knowledge—not belief, opinion, or conjecture. Only knowledge gives the doctor's counsel authority.
Why, then, in matters of the soul are we content to be guided by a faith consisting of deep feelings or inner experiences? Why should we be surprised when nonbelievers politely decline to change their lives because we have pious opinions and strong sentiments?
Sadly, says Dallas Willard, those outside the church (and many within it) have ceased to see the Christian religion as a source of knowledge, as a system of claims that successfully tracks the truth and by which we can be guided confidently. So too, says Willard, has the longstanding tradition of objectively true moral knowledge given way to talk about one's feelings and preferences. Willard's Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne) calls on Christians to recover their faith—and the moral claims that accompany it—as a body of knowledge that can withstand appropriate testing and be proclaimed with confidence.
At the heart of our faith is a belief in a personal God, perfect in wisdom, power, and goodness, the Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and earth. How do we know (as opposed to merely believe or opine) that such a being exists? In answer, Willard offers the standard first-cause argument.
The universe couldn't have popped into existence from absolutely nothing, nor could it be the cause of itself. So, there must be a non-physical cause. And whatever caused the universe to exist must have had great power, intelligence, and will. The mind, will, and power to initiate activity without oneself having been caused—to be an unmoved mover—is precisely the trait we ascribe to the God of theism. Willard follows the cosmological argument with a teleological (design) argument to explain how the universe came to enjoy its remarkable order.
Willard thinks the causal argument provides a firm basis for knowing that God exists, which no one can gainsay without losing oneself in "a maze of empty logical possibilities and imaginings." And he claims the design argument has no "remotely plausible" alternatives. Yet many thoughtful Christians, not to mention nonbelievers, find these arguments less than sufficient to say we know that God exists. Willard mentions but does not discuss that there are alternatives. For example, philosopher Robin Collins cogently argues that our universe is but one of perhaps an infinite number of universes. Whether his or other alternative theories are right is not the point. But we can hardly say that there are no "remotely plausible" alternatives.
Willard rightly thinks that knowing a claim to be true constitutes the best basis for guiding one's life by it. But what constitutes knowing a claim to be true? Willard says, "To know something is to represent it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience." But he doesn't say what it means "to represent" something, nor what an "appropriate basis" is, nor what kinds of thoughts and experiences are appropriate bases for knowledge. (At other points, Willard concedes that probability, not certainty, is an adequate basis for belief and action.)
What about Jesus and his life and earthly ministry and resurrection? Are these things matters of knowledge? Willard pursues the standard apologetic approach, defending from objection the possibility of miracles and the veracity of the apostolic testimony of Jesus' resurrection. Willard says the evidence "strongly favors the resurrection of Christ as an actual event," and that "the factuality of a major miracle in this world can be known by those who would like to know." But to say that evidence "strongly favors" a conclusion is to back off from saying it "conclusively establishes the conclusion."
The whole goal of the book is to remind Christians that they can have knowledge (not just belief or opinion) that allows them to have full assurance and boldness in sharing the gospel with others. Yet Willard also says we can know something without knowing that we know it. But if I don't know that I'm in the state of knowing rather than opining, how can I have the confidence this book is supposed to inspire?
Still, one can hardly blame Willard for refusing to make a popular book more technical. "I should alert readers," he says in the introduction, "that this is not a devotional book, and this will require considerable mental effort to understand."
Despite such philosophical concerns, the chapter "On Knowing Christ" is well worth the price of the book. The book's central chapter on knowing Christ—not knowing about Christ—explores the "living experiential reality," the "firsthand interaction" with Jesus. Here he echoes and extends themes broached in his 1999 Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. Such a relationship is available to all who humbly acknowledge their need of "total transformation." Drawing on his deep knowledge of the spiritual disciplines, Willard counsels readers on how practices such as silence, solitude, worship, spiritual reading, prayer, and fasting open us up to the reality of Christ's living.
I also found Willard's defense of Christian pluralism compelling. His pluralism is grounded in the generosity, love, and work of the eternal Word (Logos), the Cosmic Christ who has come into the world to enlighten all persons. Willard affirms that all have sinned and that no one merits heaven apart from the atoning work of Christ. But he denies that to benefit from Christ's work one must have explicit knowledge of the historical Jesus, or that one must have all one's doctrinal p's and q's in order. Many Christians, he notes, cannot articulate an orthodox account of the Trinity: "Groups and their institutions tend to confuse what they need to teach with what one must believe in order to be saved."
Some Christians, says Willard, display the outward, identifiable marks of the faith—baptism, church membership, having prayed to receive Christ, having received the sacraments—but lack a heart of true devotion. "On the other hand, any who lack those recognizable marks but have the inward heart God looks for is acceptable to God—no matter in what other ways they may or may not be identifiable." The Roman centurion of Acts 10, though lacking knowledge of Christ, nevertheless had his prayers answered by God, prompting Peter to conclude that "God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34–35, ESV).
Willard's book is a peculiar mixture of philosophy, theology, intellectual history, and pastoral guidance. Popular books that take on as many tough topics as his do have to simplify. My overriding reservation is that Willard simplifies without adequately alerting his readers that he's doing so. Still, Knowing Christ Today has flashes of the spirituality Willard has become deservedly famous for.
W. Jay Wood, professor of philosophy at Wheaton College and author of Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (IVP)
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Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
More information on Dallas Willard and his books can be found on his official website.
Christianity Today articles on Dallas Willard include:
A Divine Conspirator | Dallas Willard is on a quiet quest to subvert nominal Christianity. (September 1, 2006)
Dr. Willard's Diagnosis | Why we need to really die before we can really live. (September 1, 2006)
The Making of the Christian | Richard J. Foster and Dallas Willard on the difference between discipleship and spiritual formation. (September 16, 2005)
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