Farewell, Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard, 1936-2013

Dallas Willard has succumbed to cancer at age 77.

I first met Dallas Willard in 2001. I was organizing the first ever Emergent Village Theological Conversation. I had scheduled Nancey Murphy and her husband, Jim McClendon, to be in conversation with us — both of them had been professors of mine at Fuller Seminary. But Jim died in late 2000, putting the whole event up in the air. Nancey decided to keep her commitment, and we were her first public event after Jim’s death.

Dallas agreed to join us as well, in Jim’s stead, even though he and Nancey agreed on virtually nothing. And it was magical. Dallas was kind and generous. He and Nancey talked and laughed and cajoled one another. At one point — and everyone who was there will remember this — he was telling us about his childhood Christianity. He stood up and broke into the cadence of a Southern preacher, spun around, and mimed skipping sinners across the lake of fire. To see such an accomplished philosopher do such a thing was, frankly, breathtaking.

I also remember this: Dallas needed someone to move his car, so I got his keys and went to move it. He drove a humble car — a sedan of some kind. And when I started it up, a tape started playing in the tapedeck. It was the Bible on tape. Then I noticed that strewn across the passenger seat were all the books of the Bible on tape. Again, I was astonished: one of the most accomplished Christian authors of our time was listening to the Bible on tape. (To this day, I keep a small iPod with the audio Bible on it because of his example.)

I saw Dallas at several other conferences and events over the years after that. But my last encounter with him was just as memorable as my first:

I was leading my cohort of Fuller Seminary D.Min. students, and we were staying at a monastery not far from Pasadena. There was another D.Min. class at residence in the monastery at the time, being taught by Keith Matthews and Dallas. At first it wasn’t much fun mixing with them, because the other D.Min. students were on a silent retreat. But after they broke their silence, we decided to get the two groups together and have a Q & A with Dallas, Keith, and me.

It was a wild experience, I’d say. Dallas’s students were loyal to him and his ideas. I wasn’t. I pushed him on things like the confidence with which he held his perspective on personhood and identity. He pushed back on my reliance on postmodern philosophy. In one exchange, I asked him about the possibility that we will be able to download our memories onto harddrives, and what that will do to his theory of identity. His response: “I choose to believe that will never happen.” Wow, I saw my opening. It got lively after that.

It was a wonderful experience for me, to be taken seriously by a well-regarded philosopher and best-selling Christian author. In spite of the fact that his students and mine were both somewhat aghast that I didn’t show him proper deference, he didn’t mind one bit. In fact, he told me afterwards that he greatly appreciated it. He didn’t want the teaching in his 70s to be his valedictory — he wanted to keep debating and stretching and thinking.

Disagree as we might have over this issue or that, I had great respect for Dallas Willard. He was just the kind of rigorous thinker and generous spirit that Christianity needs. Rest in peace, Dallas.

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