Essay / Philosophy

Dallas Willard Carries a Big Stick

We have all heard the famous quote by President Teddy Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt was talking about his foreign policy when he made that famous quote. If you have ever heard Dallas Willard speak you have experienced the academic version of that saying. He speaks in modest tones, but his ideas have the intellectual force of a Louisville Slugger.

Some years ago I was privileged to be able to attend a seminar he was teaching for Christian university professors. The room was full of mostly young Ph.Ds who were listening to Dr. Willard discuss the implications of different ideologies on Christianity. The faculty members represented a diverse group of academic disciplines, and, therefore, differing levels of engagement with the topic we were discussing.

It is interesting to note that even those who teach at a university level still have issues about their academic acumen. I watched as different faculty members with different levels of understanding of the discussion ask Dr. Willard questions. Sometimes these questions were asked for the benefit of others in the room. We all know the type–someone who is intellectually preening in front of everybody—they want everyone to know how smart they are. Others would tentatively ask honest questions that would indicate their sincerity about the topic, but would show their lack of understanding about the topic.

In both instances he answered each person with deftness, wisdom and kindness. He did not belittle or undercut the individual. He would often craft the person’s question into a more coherent inquiry as if it was their idea, and then answer it with such clarity that it truly helped the person who asked it gain new understanding.

I learned a great deal about the different subjects we covered during that seminar that he lead, but what most impacted me was his level of preparation and the graciousness in which he presented his ideas. I watched him lead this seminar and I thought, “That is what it means to be a university professor.” It is a lesson that impacts how I teach in the classroom to this day.

Here is a quote from Dr. Willard explaining how he goes about his work:

My strategy was this: do really good work. Do work that you would think God had to help you with to get you there, and then do some more. Just stay at it. That’s the only strategy I’ve had is to work in that way. My view is that, if you are in a good field, you must work on the things that are really central and essential to that field. And you ought to believe that God will enable you to do work in that field that will be a benefit and challenge to everyone… We want to get to the point where people scattered around the academic world are worried about what we are doing. They sit up at night and think about us. They get on the internet, and they chase our work down. I really challenge you to believe that about yourself, whatever your area of work is. Not because you are so good, but because God is so great.

The intellectual life can be fraught with peril if we do it for our own glory, but if we do it for God’s glory we can have a real impact on the academic community.

Recently, I have enjoyed a series of lectures that Dr. Willard has given titled, “Knowledge of Christ in Today’s World.” These lectures are indicative of Dr. Willard’s rigorous intellectual standards, but are also accessible to people who are not philosophically trained.

In these lectures he talks about our need for true knowledge of God. He points out that knowing God is possible, but that we must see the Bible as the “best source of knowledge on the most important topics.” Dr. Willard leads us through a discussion on the failure of education and the collapse of morality in the 20th century. Finally, he discusses what it means to live a spiritual life as a Christian, and what our responsibility are as followers of Christ.

Knowledge of God is an interactive relationship. In John 17:3 Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” We need to be able to understand what it means to come to know God. We need to live our lives in light of that knowledge.

Last week Scriptorium posted Dr. Willard’s first series, “Knowledge of Christ in Today’s World.” It is titled, “How People Perish for Lack of Knowledge.” I can’t recommend these lectures strongly enough. In this first lecture Dr. Willard discusses what is knowledge and truth, and how reality is encompassed in God and his kingdom. Please click here to listen to the podcast.

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