Many of us benefited immensely from the writings and teachings of Dallas Willard, some of us benefited even more from his personal influence. I know Kris and I have, and we are glad we met and spent some time with Dallas at a Renovare event in Wichita a few years back. When someone of that magnitude dies we miss them, but over time we realize we miss the steady outpouring of their writings. So I’m glad to begin a series on what I think (I could be wrong) is/was Dallas’ last book, called The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God’s Kingdom on Earth (with Gary Black, Jr.).
Dallas Willard’s theology and philosophy, as is made clear in Gary Black’s book, The Theology of Dallas Willard, was shaped toward spiritual formation, and that was understood by Dallas as Christlikeness. Divine Conspiracy, his most famous study, showed how a kingdom theology oriented Christians toward such a spiritual formation process of transformation into Christlikeness. But that was the supposed end of that kind of book by Dallas.
Until The Divine Conspiracy Continued, which takes his divine conspiracy theory into the public realm. If there was one element of Dallas’ theology I thought was least developed, it was that his emphasis on individual discipleship and transformation seemed to block the “we” and “us” themes — so I was glad to hear Dallas was at work with Gary in producing a book that took the themes into a more public realm. And public realm is the major theme, not the ecclesial realm, though there is some ecclesiology in this new book.
What was it like to encounter Dallas Willard for the first time? Gary Black Jr tells his story and I want to draw our attention to this because I suspect it is the case with many of us.
We may have been in a state of liminality. Gary: “I was a closet, hopeless C.S. Lewis-esque romantic who deeply longed to find a Narnia” (viii) when through his friend Keith Matthews, he was introduced him to Dallas and his writings, and “God used Dallas’s insights and wisdom to stoke those fading embers of hope in my heart and mind” (viii).
Many encounter Dallas from an evangelical world where spiritual formation and especially the major spiritual writers, who are often Roman Catholic, are unknown categories. So also Gary: “my traditional evangelical roots kept me mildly skeptical of Willard’s description and use of the spiritual disciplines. It all sounded a little too ‘Catholic’ or works-centered for my ‘Protestant’ grace-first tradition” (ix). Then comes Divine Conspiracy, then comes the Sermon on the Mount, then some Bonhoeffer and…
Many encounter Jesus as if for the first time: “Dallas was the first teacher or minister I had met who inspired me to pursue the idea that I could know Jesus — really know him, and be convinced of that fact — in an experiential and relational way” (ix). In fact, Dallas “almost seemed to reminisce about Jesus” (ix).
Such experiences are not uncommon with Dallas, and once they occur many of us become students of Dallas Willard, which is the case especially with Gary Black, who became a close friend, so much so that Gary, having seen some of Dallas’ unpublished notes, wondered aloud to Dallas if there might be another book in the making. And eventually Dallas agreed, and because of Dallas’ pancreatic cancer, Dallas asked Gary to be the coauthor.
What this book does is extend the themes of Divine Conspiracy into the realm of leadership and influence. But “Our desire for this work was to cast and articulate a broader vision for the way the gospel must move first in and through the church. The church is the means God uses to bring his kingdom to fruition” (xvi). This, knowing as I do how Dallas himself thought, is very Kuyperian in orientation. It is about influencing the institutions and systems of government, etc, with kingdom themes.
“Gary,” Dallas once said, “we must help the church understand that JEsus is leading a subversion of all human governance. And that [subversion] will happen by the transformation of individuals, through the power of the gospel. And the community that emerges as a result is the divine conspiracy” (xviii).
This is why I have entitled my next book, coming out this fall, Kingdom Conspiracy. Stay tuned.