Putting Willard on the Raft | A Reflection on Gary Black’s book The Theology of Dallas Willard

ProtoevangelicalBlack, Gary. The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013.

gblackThe Author – Dr. Gary Black, Jr.

This essay is both a reflection on Gary Black’s book The Theology of Dallas Willard, and a huge note of gratitude to Gary for shedding light on a much needed subject. This book has not only helped me make sense out of my own spiritual journey, but it has greatly enhanced my dissertation work in the area of missional spirituality in the suburbs.

(The following is a personal narrative of how I interacted with Black’s book. Click here to view my annotated highlights from the book.)

Dallas Willard played a huge part in my spiritual formation and was catalytic to my departure from the evangelical, seeker targeted, mega-church world. Willard led me into the rabbit hole of house church and emergent theology; which led to my crash and burn; which led to my cross-country relocation, reemergence in the ELCA, and my current experience of writing a PhD dissertation in Congregational Mission and Leadership at Luther Seminary.

These are the pages from my journal on the day that Willard’s final chapter in Renovation of the Heart propelled me to leave the mega-church. I had a visceral experience of God saying, “Go!”

Yes, I blame it on Willard. Actually, I owe it to Willard, because this journey is the best thing that could have happened to me. I believe it has been led and empowered by the Spirit all along the way. However, my experience at Luther has left me perplexed over what to do with Willard. Now that I am on this side of the Evangelical borderland and immersed in postmodern, missional ecclesiology, does Willard still resonate?

I encountered Willard’s books while I was on staff at a mega-church in Las Vegas and working on an M.Div. from Bethel Seminary. I first read the Spirit of the Disciplines, then The Divine Conspiracy, and finally Renovation of the Heart. These books connected with me because Willard was writing from within the Evangelical camp and speaking to the questioning Evangelical mind. I was ripe for his words. He dislodged me from the party-line, consumerist, evangelicalism that fueled the baby-boomer seeker church and provided the framework for how we would eventually structure our house church.

When the house church crashed and burned, my desire to be a Pastor burned along with it. The collateral damage was that my desire to read Willard shriveled as well. I reawakened in the ELCA and was ignited by four professors at Luther Seminary, each contributing a unique perspective to my own. Dr. Craig Van Gelder introduced me to missional ecclesiology, himself coming from a Christian Reformed Tradition. Dr. Gary Simpson—a Lutheran Pastor—introduced me to Critical Social Theory (and a positive view of Tillich) and the revitalization of the Trinitarian conversation in the 20th Century. Dr. Mary Hess—a Roman Catholic Religious Educator—introduced me to Robert Kegan, Stephen Brookfield, Parker Palmer, a feminist perspective, and a socially constructed pedagogy. Finally, Dr. Patrick Keifert—another Lutheran Pastor—introduced me to phenomenology and the particularist approach to theology that emphasizes listening by dwelling in the Word and in the World.

My dualistic, modernist, self-centered approach to spiritual formation was thoroughly overhauled and I found myself both invigorated and perplexed as to how to make sense out of the eschatologically oriented, promise of a preferred future that is being continually created by the relationality of the Triune God, through a socially-constructed sense-making process of interdependence with the neighbor that was now dominating my imagination. My mother tongue is evangelical theology, and my default understanding of spiritual formation is evident in the Overflow Principle that framed my House Church years. The overflow principle, based on my understanding of Willard, simply states that I, as an individual, first seek to receive God’s love with my mind, spirit, and body, so that my heart can be transformed by it, filled with it, and then overflow it to others. These two pictures seem diametrically opposed to one another. Am I abandoning my Overflow self for an alternate relationality self?

I have spent much of my academic energy trying to reconcile these paradigms within the context of my research. One theologian that has helped me immensely is Stanley Grenz. He, also writing from the Evangelical starting point, was able to bridge the gap for me and help me appropriate the Social Trinity and the missio Dei.

A few months ago I decided it was time to go back and reread Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. I was a little afraid to do it, anticipating that I would have to reject it because it was too much like where I had come from to be able to incorporate it into my current research. I did revisit the book, and to my surprise and dismay, it left me equally perplexed. There were aspects of Willard’s theology that seemed blatantly decisional (dependent upon the human will), and most importantly, dualistic. I have been so captured by relational ontology and the necessity to re-imagine substance ontology, that the seeming foundation of substance dualism upon which Willard’s theology is built erected intellectual barriers for me. However, there was still something very appealing to his work that kept me longing to reconcile it with my research. I have had this gnawing sensation that Willard is still saying some essentially core things that are necessary to the conversation about spiritual formation and missional ecclesiology.

Gary Black’s book brought it all together for me. I was almost giddy as I read this book. Black’s scholarship and detailed effort to synthesize Willard’s theology into a cohesive whole, combined with his ability to bring Willard into conversation with post-hermeneutical, post-structural, post-modern philosophy brought forth the missing piece that I intuitively knew had to be there in Willard’s work. The missing piece: phenomenology.

Let me explain. Black points out in many places throughout the book that Willard’s theology is grounded in Husserlian phenomenological realism. Husserl, in the wake of post-Kantian dualism and subjective constructivism, proposed that, just because the individual cannot fully grasp the objective reality—as goes rationalism—it does not mean that reality does not exist—as goes Derridian deconstructivism. The personal experience of reality is limited, or “bracketed,” but not a complete fabrication of the mind. Phenomenological methodology is the study of the experienced “bracketed” reality, in its particular, case-by-case phenomena that leads to the provisional, communicative knowledge of the real. I learned this through Dr. Keifert’s class and the reading of David Kelsey, Edward Farley, and others.

Knowing that Willard operates from a phenomenological perspective helps me in two ways. First, it allows me to understand why I continue to resonate with Willard. He finds the third way between the dichotomy of conservative Evangelicalism and deconstructive postmodernism. While I still think Willard’s language smacks of substance dualism, I believe he is actually promoting a form of relational ontology.1 He—at least the way Black explains it—leans into the mysterious both/and of the inner/outer, individual/relational dynamic of the human being, the universe, and God. Willard resonates with a recurring theme in my research: The third way is Love, the agape which is the essence of God.2

Willard’s phenomenological starting point also helps me in a second way. It allows me to connect Willard to the conversation I have been having at Luther Seminary. In essence, Keifert has come to his perspective from his Lutheran background in a similar way that Willard has come to his perspective from a Baptist, Evangelical background. A phenomenological approach allows one to listen to the other, recognizing that everyone’s bracketed reality is valid and limited, thus able to contribute to the collective knowing of the real. I see this as also connected to Gadamer’s fusion of horizons and Habermas’ communicative rationality.

I drew an illustration during my independent study with Mary Hess that helps me discuss the postmodern shift. The illustration shows a ship labeled “deconstructive postmodernism” sinking after striking against the iceberg of nihilism. Another vessel floats near the sinking ship. This one is a raft labeled “constructive postmodernism.” The planks of the raft are lifeworlds (world views; perspectives) that are tied together. A male and female character each hold the handle of the rudder labeled “communicative rationality.” A figure of the incarnate God sits on the deck, pointing forward, and a sail labeled “the Human Spirit” is hoisted in the wind of the Spirit of God. This raft represents, what I consider to be, the necessary perspective for the church to navigate the waters of the postmodern reality. Now that I see Willard’s use of phenomenology, I feel that I can place Willard on the raft with the rest of my guides, to help me formulate my research and understand a missional spirituality for the suburbs.

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Words cannot begin to express my gratitude to Gary Black for his fine work in this book. He did the work that I knew I was going to have to do, but didn’t have the time to do, for my dissertation. I believe this book will be a great help to many people, especially those, like me, who have so deeply valued the work of Dallas Willard.

Footnotes
  1. This is a topic I will need to explore on its own. Simply put, Willard acknowledges both the particularity of individual parts while also recognizing the fact that they are relationally constituted at every level. The ultimate ground of being is the being of God. This paradox is better expressed in the relationality of God, in my opinion, thus further connecting Willard to my research, rather than distancing him from it. []
  2. Another tangent I must explore is to connect this idea to Jenson’s notion that the third person of the Trinity is the “tie-breaker” between the duality of Father and Son. Following Augustine, the Spirit is the Love between the Lover and the Beloved. The Spirit is the medium in which the particularities exist. Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982). []

3 thoughts on “Putting Willard on the Raft | A Reflection on Gary Black’s book The Theology of Dallas Willard”

  1. Steve,
    You continue to amaze me and make me long to be back in seminary! Thank you so much for your commitment to sharing your journey and sharing your excitement in your process. As I told you before…I wish you had been one of my professors! Blessings on your journey.
    Karri

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