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.

  • Shawn Smucker

    Beautiful post, Tony. I have always enjoyed Willard’s writing, and your anecdotes prove that he is very much the person he seemed to be.

  • Craig

    My impression is that Dr. Willard inspired a lot of fawning students, and that these students were often the sort of conservative evangelical apologists who gave and continue to give intellectual support to the more disreputable and vile elements of American Christianity. Personally Dr. Willard strikes me as good, sincere, intelligent guy. But to what extent, if any, did he take to task the conservative ideologies of his students and colleagues?

    • Beorn

      Lighten up, Francis!

    • http://www.facebook.com/teejbuddy Tony Jones

      Craig, my take is that his theory was much more radical than most of his evangelical readers understood. Much like Bonhoeffer in that way.

      • http://www.facebook.com/garyblackjr Gary Black Jr

        Tony, I agree. I think most conservative evangelicals who advocate for Willard’s theology don’t actually understand how unconventional he has been on several key issues. Shameless plug alert!: My dissertation-to-book on this theology should be out this winter.

        • Craig

          Tony, just a two-cent thought: it might be timely and interesting to read a couple of guest posts on this topic by Gary Black Jr.

    • Sarah

      Craig, for what it’s worth, the few times I witnessed Dallas addressing particularly students, I never saw him invest too much concern in building or tearing down ideologies. In helping people develop a fuller understanding of God and their own spirituality, I think he believed their deepened hearts would result in them living better lives for themselves and those around them. It was a different path than intellectualizing over various doctrinal and social issues, but I think he challenged many in the way you suggested through his methods just the same.

      • mhelbert

        Having only known Dr. Willard through some of his books, I really agree with you. He seemed to be much more concerned about being open to God’s Spirit and cultivating that relationship than to theological ideologies.

    • BradC

      Craig

      No doubt he contributed to the current philosophical platform used by conservative evangelicals (JP Moreland, McArthur, Pipper, etc). But keep in mind we all use the assumptions that work within our construct – he was just being consistent to his construct, yet still open to ideas. His ideas on spiritual formation and disciplines really chaffed at some of the logocentic-foundationalist.

      I’ve often wanted to label some of the conservative evangelical philosophical assumptions as “sin” because I knew it would bother them. Honestly, it was only in desire to engage in a philo-fight – I was cautioned by Brian, Tony and others not to do this as the desire was conversation not fighting so I didn’t. I must say – I was impressed Dallas was willing to engage in conversation with any of us and really listen and challenge our thinking. I actually understand his vantage point, because I once embraced it. I have deep respect for Dallas because of his willingness to engage in the conversation and his contributions to my thinking.

  • Michael Jordan

    thanks for this lovely piece, Tony.

  • Pingback: » Dallas Willard, Rest in Joyful Peace :ericswalberg.com

  • BradC

    I love Dallas Willard!

    I was at that first Emergent Theological Conversation with Nancey and Dallas – it truly was magical to have these two with that small group to discuss philosophy/theology. I remember Dallas scolding me: “…you don’t want to embrace postmodern thought”, I assured him “I understand the concepts and am comfortable with many of the ideas.” I think he was surprised to learn that many in the group actually had taken time to read and listen to some of the postmodern thought leaders and knew what they were talking about.

    I think he was especially surprised after he learned I graduated from the same small college he graduated from – Tennessee Temple University. TTU was an ultra-conservative baptist school – when I was in school they thought the southern baptist church was going “liberal” and moved to become independent. Dallas was one of the most well known alumni from the school and very popular among the students studying philosophy/theology.

    Dallas has been a real important voice on my journey and a real inspiration in many ways. We disagreed on some key philosphical ideas but, I will never forget that gathering in Pasadena and his willingness to engage the group.

    God Bless Dallas Willard

  • Sarah

    I have some good Dallas Willard memories of my own. One of the things I loved about him is how widely he read–not just within the realm of Christianity, or even faith, but in a wide number of fields. That openness to critical thinking and opposing ideas gave him perspective that many other figures in his generation of spiritual leaders lacked.

  • http://www.facebook.com/garyblackjr Gary Black Jr

    I remember that evening well. I recall you showing great deference/respect to Dallas and I learned from both of you. I also recall him reflecting on the evening with great fondness for you the next morning over coffee.
    Thanks for this post Tony. Dallas finished well. He left a great legacy to follow.
    Blessings

  • Pingback: Tributes to Dallas Willard and Geza Vermes | Near Emmaus

  • http://www.idelette.com idelette

    Such a great tribute.

  • Pingback: Remembering Dallas Willard - A Man Who Invited Others to Live in the Reality of God's Kingdom | JR Woodward

  • BradC

    *omni-competence of human reason
    *absolutism
    *certainty
    * logo-centrism
    to name just a few
    All are sinful assumptions (IMHO) elevating the human above God. Conservative evangelicals have become enslaved to these assumptions and defend them as if they are a part of christian faith – they aren’t.
    I could go on and on but I won’t – thanks for asking

    • Ken

      To the extent that I understand what you mean when you employ these terms, it would be hard to make the charge of idolatry stick.

      In my experience, conservative evangelical philosophers are not card carrying Cartesians. Their epistemological foundationalism does not requires certainty. And they would certainly be the first to admit to limitations in human reason. I’m not sure what you mean to encompass by your charge of “absolutism,” but if you mean simply that some propositions are determinately true or false, then they are guilty as charged.

      Anyway, this might help me understand where you’re coming from: is Thomas Aquinas also guilty of these same idolatrous assumptions?

      • BradC

        Interesting response – never used the term “idolatry” seems like you’ve been wrestling with these concepts as well.

        you minimize the evangelicals embrace of certainty and omni-competence and defend absolutism. If you minimize certainty – it’s not certainty any longer, I assume you are suggesting that evangelicals have repented from this position (I’m not sure they have but I will take your word) Why would they repent from this assumption? is it “wrong”? is it “sin”?

        Perhaps the emergent movement is having impact after all!

        This originated as a compliment to Dallas – Good convo but wrong place. We should talk at the next emergent gatehring


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