Interview by
Hope McPherson

Photos by
Greg Schneider Jimi Lott



"Don't just make Jesus an icon of some sort. Take him seriously as a companion in life and become his disciple. Learn from him how to live your life, as he would live your life if he were you."


On January 5, Dallas Willard became Seattle Pacific's first guest speaker of the new century. Over two days, he spoke on campus at a Community Chapel, a Faith and Learning Forum, a Pastoral Leadership Luncheon, and a faculty luncheon.

One of today's leading Christian thinkers and writers, Willard left a Southern Baptist pastorate in the late 1950s because, he says, "I became so convinced of my ignorance about God and the soul that I thought I was a public hazard."

He attended graduate school and, in 1965, joined the faculty at the University of Southern California. Still at USC today, he teaches undergraduates and post-graduates in a secular university that has little regard for Christianity. It's a good place to be, he says. "In a curious way, I'm now the radical," he adds, laughing.

The son of a politician and a school teacher, Willard combines his friendly humor with an ardent call to give Christ a new hearing in our increasingly hectic world. That call is receiving great attention. In fact, Christianity Today chose his third book, The Divine Conspiracy, as its 1998 Book of the Year.

"Dr. Willard is one of the most insightful contemporary commentators on the church in America," says Tim Dearborn, dean of the chapel at SPU. "He combines a deep understanding of the spiritual life, rich insights into scripture and a grasp of our culture that often leaves me saying, 'That's right, though I've never thought of it that way before.' " Les Steele, professor of Christian formation and chair of the Department of Theology, agrees. "He's tapped into a hunger that's there for deeper, more thoughtful approaches of living out the Christian faith," he says. "I can only hope more people would pay attention to that."

Editor's Note: The following is the complete transcript of the Response interview with Dallas Willard.

A Conversation with Dallas Willard

Q: What has been the focus of your life's work?

A: The strongest impression on my mind has always been the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. That's true from [when I was] a very small child. I can remember clearly how impressed I was in Sunday school. I've never moved away from the basic project of "knowing Him and making Him known." This is not a particularly religious project; it's a human need. It is out of love of my neighbor, as well as love of God that I feel the imperative to do this.

And I believe the way to do it is not by being especially religious in the sense that people would normally understand that, but by just being an honest, open, thoughtful human being living among other human beings, depending on the grace of God.

Q: Given that philosophy, do you see the secular university, the University of Southern California, as a good place to be?

A: Well, I think it is. I'm not here by my good sense because, truthfully, I was pastoring a church and teaching school when I became so convinced of my ignorance about God and the soul that I thought I was a public hazard. That's when I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. I didn't intend to become a philosophy professor or any kind of professor. I thought I would study a few years and then return to the pastorate. But I seemed to be led onward and I did finish the degree. I hadn't even intended to do a degree -- just study for my own benefit.

After I finished my Ph.D., they invited me to stay on the following year as a member of the faculty. During that year, the Lord said to me that if I stay in the church, I will be limited to the church and the university would be closed to me. If I went into the university, on the other hand, the churches would be open to me.

Q: Your university, USC, was founded by the Methodist Episcopal Conference in the 19th century. But it's a secular university now. Is it a challenge for you as a Christian to teach in that environment?

A: No, not really. People often say to me, "Oh, isn't it wonderful that you're there as a testimony to the Lord." Now that's not my first job. My first job is to be a good professor, a good teacher, a good writer. If you do that well, people are open and receptive to you. It is true that there's a significant bias against conservative Christians in the academy. But if you're living it out in person, it's different than if you're looking at it from the outside.

Younger people today who are conservative Christians are apt to have an extremely hard time in some sections of the academy. They can suffer real persecution. But in my case, I'm sort of the old bull moose of the department and the university. I've been the chairman; I've been everything you're supposed to be. A lot of the people in the department were hired while I was there. From my point of view, they're my neighbors. I love them and a few of them are Christians, others aren't. To make it short, it's not a bad place to be. It's a good place to be. And, after all, I can walk to the center of the campus and point to the top of the building and there's John Wesley standing with his hand outstretched across the central campus in benediction.

Q: When your students get to know you, are they challenged to think about Christ and Christianity?

A: They certainly are. Many of them come to me and tell me that their lives have been transformed. But it isn't because I preach in my classes or anything of that sort. I am who I am in my classes. The students do find out [that I'm a Christian] and it's really quite intriguing to them. Some of them can't help coming around saying, "Now, is this really true about you?" It's delightful to see that, and they really do find it refreshing, I think, even if they don't agree with me.

I also represent philosophy positions that are not most common. For example, I wouldn't even be in philosophy (as a writer, especially) except for the issue of realism -- realism about the world, about values, about God. Almost no one in philosophy is a realist, so they also find that very intriguing. I think by the grace of God, I am in an ideal place. I can't imagine how I could be in a place that was better.

Q: Seattle Pacific University is serious about pairing rigorous academics with living out our faith in the real world, or "engaging the culture." What advice do you have for Christian faculty members who are serious about doing that?

A: The most important advice is to put Jesus in the right place. Academics especially have to understand that he, after all, is the smartest man who ever lived on earth. Einstein, or whoever else you want to mention, couldn't hold a light to him. They need to take that very seriously. That means he's the smartest person in their field, no matter what that field is.

They're faced with a situation where knowledge of God -- and certainly of Christ -- is not thought of as essential for good standing in any profession. That's why we're in the mess we're in today. Nearly everyone -- myself included -- went for a doctoral degree in an institution that regarded knowledge of God and of Christ as totally irrelevant, or even impossible. So the great challenge in a place like Seattle Pacific is to take that knowledge seriously and find out what it means practically.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in economics? In mathematics? In business administration? Nursing? Whatever the field is. The task of Christian intellectuals today is to regain the position of Christ in the intellectual and cultural world that is due to him because of who he is. We've got our hands full, haven't we?

Q: What do students need to know when it comes to living out their faith?

A: Students are trying to find a basis for life in their studies. Hopefully they have already received something good from their family or their church. But this simply cannot be counted on, even if they are professing Christians. Thank God there are exceptions, but by and large, they haven't received it in such a way that it seems to them a solid basis for their life. They've received it as dogma. They've received it as commandments and law and things that they will be punished for if they don't do something about them.

These are the kind of people for whom I've written The Divine Conspiracy. It's to say to them: Now take Jesus seriously. Don't just make him an icon of some sort. Take Him seriously as a companion in life and become his disciple. Learn from him how to live your life, as he would live your life if he were you.

Q: What you're saying is reminiscent of the book In His Steps, in which a town is transformed when people begin asking "What would Jesus do in this instance?" But some argue that's not a realistic option. What do you say?

A: My only criticism of In His Steps is that it doesn't go far enough. We should grow in our understanding and relationship to Christ to where, in most cases, we wouldn't need to ask what He would do. We would know -- and we would be doing it. The problem with the In His Steps method is that if you have to stop to ask what he would do, ordinarily you will have already done what he wouldn't do. Life moves very fast and that's why the point of the book is good but the method is not as good.

We need to go deeper in the method. But if that's the best we can do in a method, that's much better than most of the alternatives. Let's be clear about that. It's much better to do something that sounds a little funny if it will help us, than to not do it. The point is right [and] I have a little addition to the method. My book, The Spirit of the Disciplines tries to spell that out.

Q: Have you seen differences between this generation of students and the last in how they respond to Jesus and to issues of faith?

A: In the last few years there has been emerging in my undergraduate and my graduate students a very different cast of mind, much more serious and thoughtful. I've been teaching since 1960 in the university system and I came to USC in '65. But for the first time since I entered university teaching, there is a significant body of thoughtful young people, many of whom are professing Christians. But they recognize they have to go much deeper. I think this is an encouraging time in that regard. I'm hopeful that it will be possible for these people to find and appreciate Christ for who he really is.

Q: The media reports spirituality is very "in" today. You seem to have seen it with your students. But is there a danger of it becoming a kind of surface spirituality?

A: There's a very great danger in it, and it has many aspects. There's the commercialization of it that is just pathetic. Spirituality in itself doesn't mean anything. It depends on which spirit and which spirituality. But, on the other hand, you want to give credit to the fact that there is a sense of need that is driving people to this. That is appropriate and right given human nature, which hungers for a relationship with God.

Q: How would you define a spirituality that's not commercialized?

A: Definitions are where we want to begin and most people can't even tell you what "spirit" is. "Spirituality" has come to mean just vague practices, so you have all kinds of spirituality. The spirit is not a force. It is a power and not a force because it's personal. Being personal, it has demands to make on its own. If you're a Satanist, you know what that means. You know that Satan is a spirit and that he has demands to make on his own.

Christian spirituality is a spirituality which places obedience to Christ at the top of the list. Finding out how to obey Christ is the method of Christian spirituality. Any spirituality that does not place obedience to Christ at the top is not Christian spirituality. Many of our religious groups are misled because they think the aim of spirituality is peace. Christianity is not a peace religion. It has peace as one side effect. But peace is not the aim. Righteousness, meaning the same thing as love, is. But you have to inter-define those so love won't get misconstrued. That's why Jesus says, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness." That's the aim. Not peace.

Yet many people in churches hear about peace. They say, "Oh, this is a wonderful thing. Let's have peace. Ah, the Buddhist will show us how to have peace." And they're off running in the wrong direction. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous in a sense. Alcoholics Anonymous is very effective for people who know they're going to die if they don't stop drinking. It's great for that problem. Like it, most of the spiritualities are directed towards some specific problem and not transforming the human soul into righteousness, as defined by Christ.

Q: Will people involved in this kind of surface spirituality eventually run into problems because of it and realize it's not the answer?

A: They may and they may not. For example, consider a person who has gone through Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober for 10 years. That still won't give meaning to their life or make them a loving person. The issue that may face such a person is precisely "What are the limits of this spirituality that I have adopted?"

We have a lot of illustrations of this in history. For example, a group called the "Shakers" originated a very powerful spiritual movement that was very Christ-like. But now when you think "Shakers," most people think furniture. They make wonderful chairs. Well, that actually is a result of the failure of the spirituality they had to keep its focus on Christ. Every spirituality will have built into it a limit -- and the capacity of the human mind to deny and distort and deceive itself is almost unlimited. But the real question that faces us all is: Do I have the goodness of life that I'm intended for, and do I really have knowledge of God?

Q: You spoke to regional pastors while on campus. What do you try to convey to pastors and other men and women in church leadership?

A: Pastors today have one of the hardest jobs in the world, and most of them are quite discouraged with it. The main thing that I have to say to them is that the resources for doing what they need to do are genuinely available to them in the Kingdom of God, which is present with them. They have to hear and accept the gospel of the Kingdom of God and minister out of that -- not out of their own cleverness and their education and their own strength.

Poll after poll shows that pastors are just being crushed and their families are being broken because of the demands that are placed upon them and because of the low social regard in which they're held. Now is a time when a pastor is not thought of as an important person. Even well into the '60s and '70s, the pastor was often the most important person in town, even in large towns. But that's no longer true.

Q: Is it a problem that a lot of churches feel they need to somehow entertain their congregations?

A: Yes. Have you ever seen the movie "Sister Act"? "Sister Act" is actually a parable of the churches in our time. A cabaret singer makes the church a success by making it an entertainment center, which then, of course, also reaches out and does good social works in the community.

Today you see people turn to entertainment, especially pastors and church leaders, because they know they must "succeed." When the pastor comes in, he is immediately faced with the demand to produce the ABCs of church: Attendance, Buildings and Cash. If he doesn't produce them, the church will go into default, because it will have already gone into such debt to build the buildings that it can't sustain itself. There's constant anxiety over this.

Instead of living from the Kingdom of God in such a way that people are drawn into the ministry of Christ and are converted and grow and become powerful in their communities, people turn to entertainment -- which does nothing but hopefully keeps people coming back and putting money in the plate. This is a tragedy of our time. The churches who are turning to this to have success have eliminated their dependence on, and knowledge of, the Kingdom of God in the hearts of men.

Q: Does that mean pastors -- any Christian, really -- should step back and decide to be a servant in order to be a leader?

A: That's exactly right. But if you don't believe in the Kingdom of God being available here and now and under the administration of Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Church, you can't step back. If you [do] step back, your people regard you as weak -- and you'll be out of a job.

That's the CEO model of the pastor and it is the one that increasingly has taken over. What we want in our pastor is a man with a Day-Timer and a briefcase -- a very, very busy man who succeeds in managing in such a way that we keep our payments up, our building is in good shape and the people are coming.

Q: It sounds like modern American society has crept into the church.

A: It has, I think. We are a society that's dominated by models of success and leadership. That's why there's so much talk about leadership as a sort of magic. We look for a leader who's supposed to solve all of our problems. If all our problems are not solved, that means our person isn't leading.

A great turning point in my own life as a young minister was when I saw how the crowds flocked to Jesus and, for that matter, to the Apostles. Here I am trying to get people coming to hear me speak, and Jesus is trying to get away from them. What we need to do is to understand that his method of church growth is far better -- even in terms of attendance, building and cash -- than the one we're following. You just have to take a different route to get there. It is the route of dependence on the Kingdom of God.

Q: Are you planning to follow The Divine Conspiracy with another book?

A: Yes. The title will be The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, which is what has happened now in our culture. I talk a little bit about that right at the opening of The Divine Conspiracy. I'm going to tell the story of how that happened.

Q: There seems to be a lot of fodder for, and need for, a book like that in America today.

A: Desperate need. And many, many people who are trying to do something about it simply haven't gone down far enough to find the foundations of our lack of moral knowledge. I'm thinking of people like Bill Bennett and others, who are good people. It's just that you can't deal with the problem at that level. You have to go deeper. That's what the book is going to try to make clear. The intent, of course, is so that we can then do something about the problem.

Q: What led you to want to do this as your next book?

A: A combination of things. One is that I've always taught advanced courses in the history of ethics and the 20th century marks the completion of the history of ethics. The other thing is simply the need -- on the part of people like legislators, educators, ministers, leaders of all types -- to understand what happened to the only possible basis that they can work on, which is moral knowledge. If we don't know what is right and wrong, and what is good and bad, we're nailed as leaders. You cannot lead without it. That's why we're in the condition of drift we're in now. Now, I like to say, leadership is a matter of finding a parade and getting in front of it. That's about all it amounts to.

Q: This sounds like a good book for pastors and people in leadership positions.

A: I'm hoping it will be. I'm actually thinking that I may have to write two books -- one for the academic side and one for people in general, more at the level of The Divine Conspiracy where people who are willing to work a little bit can read it. Then on the academic side, the arguments may have to go deeper than I could expect any fair-minded person to follow unless they had an academic interest.

Q: What message do you have for Christians at the beginning of a new century?

A: I don't think it's possible to sufficiently emphasize the importance of Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God and what that means both for time and for eternity. We've come to the end of a so-called millennium and the beginning of another, which I'm sure makes no difference to the cats and the dogs. A lot of people worry about the end of the world. They should know that eternity has hardly begun. It isn't like the universe is going to go out of existence. We have an eternal destiny and it's in this universe under God. It's very important to understand that at this particular time.

But that's just what the message of the Kingdom of God means. After all, it is God who is the King and he's not going away. As we step into that Kingdom, we are a part of something that will last forever. That's why the Book of Revelation ends, in the last chapter, the fifth verse, "and they shall reign forever and ever. Through the ages of the ages."

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