Letís just put it this way. There is a reason Dallas
Willard is a professor in the School of Philosophy at one of the most
prestigious universities in the world Ė USC. He is smart. We thought we would
nail him with some questions about Edmund Husserlís Ueber Den Begriff Der
Zahl. But it turns out he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Husserl. Just
our luck. So we quickly changed the subject to Edmund Schmuck, a guy who works
at McDonalds in Yreka, CA and says some great things during his break. Dallas
had never heard of him.
Dallas Willard has an authority about him. It is not
his words as much as it is the power of his words. There is a wisdom, a
knowingness about Dallas, and you get the feeling that Jesus is someone he knows
well Ė like a friend or something. Anyway, we met him in the dark caverns of
the Philosophy Library at USC. We had read his book The Spirit of the
Disciplines (Harper and Row) and wanted to ask about spirituality. We did.
He started talking and, once he did, we didnít want him to stop. After you
read his interview we think youíll feel the same way.
Dallas has been teaching at USC since 1965. And, we
almost forgot Ė heís a Baptist minister.
DOOR: The Spirit of the Disciplines has sold very
well. Are you surprised?
DOOR: Why do you think people are so anxious to read
WILLARD: We are not only saved by grace, we are
paralyzed by it. We have lost any coherent view of how spiritual growth occurs.
Our churches are dominated by a consumer religion that has nothing to do with
spiritual growth. But within those churches, thereís a huge number of people
who are hungry for spiritual growth.
DOOR: What do you mean that we are paralyzed by grace?
WILLARD: We have been taught that grace means
"you can do nothing to be saved." Such thinking has been extended to
"you can do nothing to have spiritual growth." So spiritual
transformation occurs, according to this thinking, in one of two ways Ė
inspiration or information. Inspiration means that in one golden moment, one
great experience, you will be transformed. I donít want to criticize
experience. I have had many wonderful experiences with God, but they donít
transform you. The other view, information, is the means whereby you pour truth
into your head and suddenly you are transformed. Inspiration isnít going to do
it and information isnít going to do it. The only way human character is
transformed with grace is by discipline and activity.
DOOR: But weíve read your book. You spend a lot of
time suggesting that people do nothing Ė like silence and solitude.
WILLARD: There is nothing that requires more energy
for the typical American Christian than the discipline of doing nothing. The
hardest thing you can get anyone to do is to do nothing. We are addicted to our
world, addicted to talk. Talk is the primary way we have of managing our image
for ourselves and for others. You may have a perfectly intelligent person who is
alone and, when they do something stupid, they will talk to themselves and
explain to themselves why they did that. Believe it or not, controlling our
tongue is very important. James said that "anyone who can control their
tongue is perfect." How do you control it? You get it to stop. You discover
that you can breathe without talking. You discover that life goes on. The issue
is the same with solitude. The problem with solitude is not being alone, it is
convincing ourselves that we are unnecessary, that the world will not collapse
if we go away. Solitude is the discipline of letting go of our self-importance,
letting go of our belief that we are necessary for the world to continue.
DOOR: You are right. The more you talk about it, the
harder spirituality sounds.
WILLARD: The interesting thing about spirituality is
that it is self-verifying. If you can get people to try the disciplines for
awhile, theyíll never turn away from them. The problem is, as I mentioned
earlier, grace. People believe there is something essentially wrong with any
kind of energetic involvement in the process of spiritual growth. People think
of religion as a little something you add on to your normal life. Add a little
God to your life. But Christ says throw your life away. Forget about it. He can
give you a new one. You canít grow if you give God a little bit of your life.
DOOR: Forgive us if we sprinkle a little sawdust in
the tent here, but is sin the problem?
WILLARD: I call that kind of thinking the
"sin-management" model of the Gospel which, interpreted, means that if
it werenít for sin, we wouldnít need God. Of course we need our sins
forgiven. The question, however, is not whether we need our sins forgiven or
even if the forgiveness of sins is essential to the Gospel. The question is,
"Is that the Gospel?" Jesus never preached that if it werenít for
sin we wouldnít need God. Never preached that.
DOOR: What did He preach?
WILLARD: That He came to give us life.
DOOR: But there are so many interpretations of what
WILLARD: You know the real problem? The real problem
is that people in the Church do not believe we can have the kind of spiritual
reality they had in the New Testament.
DOOR: Maybe they donít believe itís possible but,
if the sales of your book are any indication, they still want it. We see a real
hunger for spirituality in this culture with the increased popularity of writers
like Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and Sue Monk Kidd.
WILLARD: Youíve mentioned the good people, but there
is a lot that worries me about this hunger for spirituality. There is no doubt
in my mind that spirituality is a big thing. What is most significant about
human beings is not physical, itís spiritual. There is a spiritual world that
is very big. Itís bigger than materiality, much bigger. The trouble with
Evangelicals is that we have defined spirituality carefully within the confines
of Christianity. Shirley MacLaine was raised in a Texas Baptist church, and she
reacted against that narrow view of spirituality. Now she thinks she has found
something else ... and she probably has. A radical feminist lesbian comes along
and wants to teach us about her spirituality. She probably has a spirituality.
We had better recognize that there is a spirituality. The fundamental thing
about non-Christian spirituality is that it is all-inclusive. The kind of
spirituality Ė Joseph Campbell, Shirley MacLaine, Father Leo Booth Ė we see
diffusing around us is a human project. Spirituality is not a set of practices.
You can run a set of practices without any spirituality at all. For the
Christian, spirituality means a new kind of life that is given through the word
of the Gospel and the person of Christ. The goal of Christian spirituality is
conformity to Christ Ė not togetherness, or meditation, or acceptance. The
issue is discipleship. Discipleship is learning from Jesus Christ how to live my
life as He would live it if He were me. The New Testament describes it as
"putting off corruption and putting on immortality." Paul calls it
"the mortification of the flesh."
DOOR: Now thereís a catchy phrase.
WILLARD: Donít hear it too much. There is a reason
for that. Churches and Christians, by and large, embrace the principle that you
ought to be able to do what you want Ė human desire is good. So is it any
wonder in our churches that the copulating statistics are no different among
youth within the Church than youth outside the Church? Once you accept that
human desire is good, then anything goes. The prevailing accepted belief in our
society is that genetics determine action. I do not believe that. Genes donít
determine action. But try getting up in church next Sunday and telling everyone
that their desires are bad.
DOOR: All desires are bad?
WILLARD: Desire itself is not bad. God has desires.
Even angels have desires. But in human beings they have been malformed and
twisted so that you must always be suspicious of desires Ė even desires for
holiness. We live in a world where the pursuit of desire is conceived of as good.
No civilization has been able to prosper on that principle. All of the great
civilizations have been suspicious of desires. Great civilizations have been
able to set limits and say "no" to desire. We canít say no to
anything today. The only thing we can say no to is saying no.
DOOR: At first you said desire was not good. Then you
said it was good but twisted. It sounds like you lean in the direction of
"total depravity" Ė the idea that man is basically bad, even though
desire is good. Do you believe in total depravity?
WILLARD: I believe in enough depravity.
DOOR: Uh ... what does that mean?
WILLARD: There is enough depravity where no one will
ever be able to say "I did it." God will not pour holiness upon our
heads. God will cooperate with us, but we cannot make it on our own. Total
depravity means there is nothing we can do about evil. That is not true. There
is just enough depravity so that we must cooperate with God.
DOOR: What is your opinion of the condition of the
WILLARD: We live in a period where the Church is
desperately floundering around for something to make it go. Most churches are
going under. One phenomena contributing to the decline of the Church is the
WILLARD: The mega-church drains off people from the
smaller congregations around. We are going to see a withering of the small
congregations. They canít survive. The mega-church says, "Weíve got a
better show on Sunday." The smaller congregation cannot compete on the
basis of entertainment. Really, the mega-church is the swan song of a system Ė
an economic and social system Ė that really has nothing to do with
Christianity. It has to do with owning property, running programs, and
exercising influence in the community. The small church canít do that anymore.
The demands on them financially and socially are so different now. Thirty years
ago, churches didnít have to worry about being sued out of their existence.
Now they do. Church was a simple matter of people who lived fairly close
together coming together to worship and to help one another.
DOOR: The decline of the small church and the rise of
the mega-church seems so sad.
WILLARD: The argument, of course, is that the
mega-church meets peopleís needs. We now have "full-service"
churches. These churches have dating services, employment agencies, counselors,
childcare facilities. What we are talking about is a need-based religion.
DOOR: Isnít that what itís all about Ė meeting
WILLARD: The deepest need of the human soul, from the
viewpoint of the New Testament, is to get rid of our needs. Just get rid of them
and say, "Lord, you know what I need and I am going to leave all that up to
you." That is what I would define as a need-based religion. But that isnít
what most people mean. What they mean by need-based religion is a religion that
responds to whatever I feel I need. Most people suggest that you need good music
in a program. What would a service be without music? To be honest, it wouldnít
matter if your church was non-instrumental because the problem is not music, the
problem is that most churches are still putting on a performance. They are
performing to satisfy the people. Growth is understood in terms of an increase
in numbers. I have never heard a church-growth advocate suggest that you might
have a congregation of 55 people with no new members, no budget increase, and
yet the church is growing because these people are becoming prayer powerhouses.
What if spiritual growth occurs when the people who are already there grow?
DOOR: Thatís a novel idea. Your indictment of a
need-based religion, a performance-oriented religion, a religion of oppression
seems so ... right. It also seems so ignored. How do we call people back to what
the Church was intended to be?
WILLARD: We have to reformulate their thinking. Jesus
said in John 14, "If you love Me, youíll keep My commandments. The one
who doesnít keep My commandments doesnít love Me." If you say to the
ordinary congregation, "How many of you love Jesus?" every hand goes
up. Then if you ask, "How many of you keep His commandments?" well,
the response is a little different. Weíve set up a system where you have
trusting Jesus over here and obeying Jesus over there, and no connection between
the two. Evangelicals have cut the Gospel down to mean simply believing that
Jesus died for your sins. That is the Gospel, they say. And what they mean is
that if you believe that Jesus died for your sins, then enough merit will be
transferred from His account to yours, so when you show up at the pearly gates,
they wonít be able to find a reason to keep you out. That is the version that
is preached today. You can understand why, in an age where people are not
worried about their sins, that kind of "Gospel" doesnít have much
effect. The odd thing about this "sin-management" view of the Gospel
is that even though they talk about sin, what they are really talking about is
peopleís needs. Strangely, evangelism today is centered on peopleís needs,
not their sins Ė believe that Jesus died for your sins, and your needs will be
met. God is supposed to meet your needs because you believe He died for your
sins? That is the contract most people have in mind. If people want to go deeper
into their faith that is nice, but itís not required. But if they still
persist, they can go into full-time Christian service. I want to ask this: What
have they been in? Part-time Christian service, or no-time Christian service?
Tragically, if anyone wants to get serious about what Jesus said, they are
shunted off to seminary. It takes more grace to drive a truck for Jesus than it
does to teach Hebrew in a seminary.
DOOR: When you get the chance to speak to ministers
and leaders of the Church, what do you tell them?
WILLARD: I ask them "What are trying to do to
people? What is the outcome of your ministry in terms of its effect on your
people?" The hardest thing for the minister to deal with is the contracts
or expectations the people have of their minister.
I was with a number of ministers in South Africa, and
the people there believe that the minister should come to visit them every so
often. He should sit and talk with them, read a little scripture, pray, and go.
The minister was expected to do that.
In our country, of course, most people would prefer
that their minister not visit them. These "contracts" are the hardest
part to get past.
If you read the Old Testament and watch how the Jewish
people responded to God throughout their history, you will see the same thing.
The people had contracts. You see it especially in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and
Isaiah, where the prophets are debating these contracts with the people. They
are saying, "We are the people of God. We come here and worship. It is very
difficult to interrupt our adultery and murder to do this, but we do it. This
worship cuts into our sinning time, but we are worshipping, so just let us
worship and keep your mouth shut." They wanted a nice, safe contract with
the prophets and, of course, the prophets didnít cooperate.
DOOR: But arenít ministers and leaders encouraged to
make these contracts in seminary?
WILLARD: Seminary traumatizes people. Most ministers
and leaders rarely get free from the voices that still ring in their head from
that period. So much of seminary education is crowding out the things a person
really needs to know in order to live before God and help others do the same.
DOOR: What things?
WILLARD: At the least, a person in seminary ought to
know how to pray, how to keep from lying. That is all covered by Jesus in the
Great Commission, "Teach them to do everything I have commanded you."
Honestly, I donít know of a single seminary that tries to do that.
DOOR: We have often noticed people entering seminary
with a real passion for God, a real passion for ministry, and graduating three
years later passionless. You talk to people in their jobs or at home and they
seem to have lost their passion. Why do you think that is?
WILLARD: Only reality creates passion. When you are
not in touch with reality, you donít have passion. We have an inverted,
twisted view of passion Ė that it is mainly something you have to carry. You
force it. You make it go. That is what religion has become for most Ė just
another job. When people hear about the disciplines of spirituality they often
say, "Oh, more work." But the disciplines are really a way into living
from reality. Thatís why Jesusí yoke is easy, His burden light. You find
rest in it. So your efforts to minister are not strained when you take on Jesusí
DOOR: Now if there is one thing you want people to
understand about the Gospel, what would that be?
WILLARD: What Jesus said to us is true. Itís really
good for us, and the best thing anyone can do is to bet their lives on Him. That
is what trusting Jesus is Ė it is believing that He had it right. So much of
what goes on in the Church and in organized religion is nothing more than a
systematic attempt to protect our way of living against the wild claims of Jesus
on us. Trusting Jesus means that whenever He says something I think is wrong, I
say, "Heís right and Iím wrong." When we actually begin to live
like that, we learn. We progress. It isnít trying that gets us there, itís
training that gets us there. As we try, we will have His assistance, as He said
in John 14: "Obey my commandments and I will send the paraclete and he will
help you." He didnít say, "Iíll send you the paraclete and then
you will obey my commandments."
We want the help before we try, but it doesnít work
that way. That is characteristic of all Jesusí work. He says to the man with
the withered hand, "Stretch forth thy hand." The man might easily have
protested, "Itís withered. I canít." And if he had said that, he
would still have a withered hand.
Real faith in Christ means we choose His way and we
take what comes with that. Thatís what we call sowing to the Spirit, and of
the Spirit we reap everlasting life. Thatís the Gospel.