Posts Tagged ‘Dallas Willard’
I realize this is an older book, and that it has been reviewed by hundreds of others. I had to write a review of it for a seminary class I’m taking and I thought perhaps some of my readers might appreciate another point of view. I have to be honest, I didn’t get much out of the book. The best chapter, The Discipline of Submission, should have been the first chapter and it was this chapter that gave me the most insight. There were too many unresolved questions for me in this book and the theology was also suspect as you’ll see in my review. Thanks to everyone who visited me while I was gone this week. I had a great 2 and half days in Cincy and in class. I can’t wait to go back in November. Wednesday, the day I left for Cincy, was my best blog day ever as far as page views are concerned. I can’t believe how this blog has grown over the last couple of months. Thanks again, I do appreciate your hits and replies.
October 18, 2007
Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998.
The book Celebration of Discipline raises a very important question perhaps without even intending to or without even being completely ‘aware’ that it is doing so. The question is this: Why do we do these things? We could phrase this question a hundred ways, perhaps, specifying what the ‘these things’ is: Why do we pray? Why do we fast? Why do we meditate? The author’s intent is summed up in his answer to these questions: “The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.” (n1) While I agree that such a notion is true at some level, I disagree that this can be substantiated from a broad sweep of Scripture. (And I could probably make a pretty good case that ‘we’ are not the ‘answer’ the hollow world needs, but that is another essay.) That is, I don’t happen to agree that we pray or fast or study merely, or at all, to get in touch with the ‘spiritual realm’ especially if that spiritual realm is some cavern deep within the human psyche. John the Revelator found himself in touch with the spiritual realm once: “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…” (Revelation 1:10). It was precisely because he was in the Spirit that he found himself in touch with that realm.
So why do we pray? Why do we fast? Frankly, I’m not really sure after reading this book. Foster says on page 2, “Recent converts—for that matter people who have not yet turned their lives over to Jesus Christ—should practice them.” This led me to question what the point of these exercises actually is, then? If there is nothing decidedly or necessarily Christian about them to begin with, then exactly what ‘inner cavern’ of what ‘spiritual realm’ might such a person be seeking? I agree with Foster that ours is a world with a prevailing “materialistic base” (2), but I have sincere doubts about what he means by a person having the “ability to reach beyond the physical realm” (2). In my opinion, such reaching can be dangerous—even with a profoundly Christian worldview. (Space concerns obviously prevent a full-blown exploration of the dangers.)
Foster differed from Willard in a very key respect. Willard focused a lot on what he called ‘effort.’ He said on more than one occasion that “grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.” Thus he used most of his space detailing how few Christians make a sincere effort to externalize obedience to Christ in all things. Foster, on the other hand, takes a somewhat different approach while not altogether denying the effort of the person practicing these disciplines. He wrote, “When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.” (n 2) He goes on, again in somewhat stark contrast to Willard, to write that “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving His grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.” (n 3) Willard says grace enables us to make the effort; Foster says we make the effort to receive grace. KC Moser wrote, “Man does not believe merely in order to obey, but he obeys as an embodiment of his faith.” (n 4) Such it is with prayer, fasting, etc. To some extent, Foster’s idea is nearly not even Christian.
I had three main issues with this book aside from the aforementioned points. The first is, like Willard, Foster engages in no long, detailed exegetical study of Scripture. He, like Willard, approaches Scripture using the Rick Warren method of study: Quote only portions of verses, quote long verses out of context, quote dubious paraphrases of Scripture that ‘say what the author needs it to say.’ I think Scripture needs to be handled differently and, frankly, with more reverence. Foster’s approach to Scripture can essentially make Scripture say anything he wants it to say, and make it mean anything he wants it to mean. When it is all said and done, it ‘fits,’ ‘sounds good,’ and ‘makes the point.’ Scripture does not exist to justify us, but God. When we approach Scripture as a manual for making better people, I think we miss the point. On many occasions, Foster clearly misses the point.
Secondly, there was the place Foster began. If Foster had begun his book with the chapter, “The Discipline of Submission” (easily the best chapter in the book) instead of “The Discipline of Meditation,” he would have found a more welcome audience in me. Foster spends considerable space in “The Disciplines of Meditation” defending his version of meditation against the charge that it is merely Eastern TM with the adjective ‘Christian’ in front of it. Yet when I was finished reading the chapter, I was thoroughly unconvinced. One small example. He writes, “We simply must become convinced of the importance of thinking and experiencing in images.” (n 5) But in Scripture, the Biblical characters and authors do exactly the opposite: They meditate solely on God’s Word (see Psalm 1, 119). I also had great difficulty with his ideas of looking back on the body while the self “rose up through the clouds” (27). Foster’s version of meditation, I think, is fraught with great danger. And in beginning at this point, he immediately lost me.
The final issue is that I just could not really figure out why these disciplines are to be practiced. Then, ironically in the ‘The Discipline of Submission’ chapter I think was the best, he wrote this, “The disciplines in themselves are of no value whatever. They have value only as a means of setting us before God so that He can give us the liberation we seek. The liberation is the end; the disciplines are merely the means. They are not the answer; they only lead us to the Answer.” (n 6) However, even though he spends a significant amount of space talking about Jesus’ “cross-life”, he spends too little time talking about Jesus’ “cross-death.” I do not believe the Scripture justifies the idea that praying, fasting, and meditation set us before God so we can be liberated. Where is the cross? Didn’t Jesus say “the truth shall set you free”? And, furthermore, if anyone can practice these things (as he said on page 2) does this mean a person, even someone not submitted to Jesus Christ, can be ‘liberated’ by God merely by praying, fasting, serving, and submitting? Again, I have to ask: “Where is the cross at work in all this liberating.” But doesn’t he give it away by titling his first chapter, “The Spiritual Disciplines: Door to Liberation”? I thought we were liberated by the Cross work of Jesus.
Scripture exhorts us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), holy (1 Peter 1:16), and pure (1 Timothy 5:22). We are to renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2) even while we are constantly being renewed (Colossians 3:9-10; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). We are to pray (Matthew 6; Ephesians 6). Jesus expected us to fast (Matthew 6, Matthew 9:14-15). But why do we do these things? Eugene Peterson wrote in The Jesus Way that “[t]he prevailing ways and means curricula in which we are all immersed in North America are designed to help us get ahead in whatever field of work we find ourselves: sales and marketing, politics, business, church, school and university, construction, manufacturing, farming, laboratory, hospital, home, playground, sports.” (n 7) If we are doing these things to ‘get ahead’ then they are not being practiced for very good reasons at all and Peterson is convinced that these purely pragmatic ways will fail miserably and ultimately “weaken and enervate the community of the baptized.” (n 8 ) Like Willard’s book, Foster often led me to believe that his mere means (5) are little more than a vaguely spiritual, not specifically Christian, way to get ahead. “We can determine if we are praying aright if the requests come to pass.” (n 9)
I think we hope for answers to prayer, but I don’t think the answers are the reason to pray. We pray in expectation of Jesus’ return. What if he never answers the prayer at all? Does this mean that our prayer posture is incorrect? When we pray it is not simply a matter of ‘getting it right.’ Prayer is a matter of fighting, standing, expectation, hope, and faith. In other words, we pray from a position in Christ not for a position. Foster’s work is helpful in that it points out for the reader that importance practicing such disciplines, but I came away thinking, often, that the disciplines were an end in themselves. If Jesus sets us free, and we are free indeed, these disciplines will not need to be done in order to place ourselves before God. Instead they will be done from a context of Joy and Thanksgiving and Faith for what we have already received from Him.
1 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 1
2 Foster, 5
3 Foster, 6
4 KC Moser, The Gist of Romans, (Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1957), 43
5 Foster, 22
6 Foster, 96
7 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 3
8 Peterson, 3
9 Foster, 34
Here’s the review I promised for The Great Omission by Dallas Willard. It is non-technical and rather short. The book is not altogether bad, but it does have some issues that need to be addressed and perhaps there are other, longer, more technical reviews that will satisfy the need.
Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis sums up his point in the next to the last chapter, a chapter he titled “Nice People or New Men.” He wrote:
For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of men.” (1)
The problem I had with The Great Omission is that I was often under the impression that this ‘effort’ we make in grace was merely about improvement and not about newness; or about becoming nice people and not new men. Willard does write, “Transformation into goodness is what the ‘Good News’ is all about…isn’t it?” (2) I think this is too shallow.
The author’s purpose can be summed up, I believe, by combining a few sentences from a couple of different places in the book. The first is found in the introduction, “We have a manual, just like the car owner. He told us, as disciples, to make disciples. Not converts to Christianity, nor to some particular ‘faith and practice.’” (3) The second quote is found twice, but I’ll cite only page 61, “To drive the point home I often put this challenge: I do not know of a denomination or a local church in existence that has as it’s goal to teach its people to do everything Jesus said. I’m not talking about a whim or a wish, but a plan.” (4) I gather, then, that his point is to present to us what ‘we’ have been missing, or omitting (hence, The Great Omission) in the practice of the church. The Church, he suggests, cannot be satisfied to think in small terms any longer about what it means to make disciples: Sunday School, Congregational worship, and pulpit preaching are not enough to ‘drive home this point.’ The church generally and individual Christians specifically must make ‘obedience to all [Jesus] commanded,’ under the cover of grace, a deliberate, proactive choice (see chapter 11). Aside from this deliberate choice, we will simply fall well short of Jesus’ intentions for disciples. Willard’s contention is that we have, and we are.
Thus it seemed to me that he was speaking more to a specialized audience and not just the general reader. The book contains ‘previously published articles and addresses’ which at times was more of a distraction than a help. I well understand his desire to reach and speak to those who are the so-called shapers of a Christian spiritual formation, but if spiritual formation (discipleship) is the responsibility of us all, then the book should have been edited better. There were, in my opinion, too many occasions in the book when, due to poor editing, the reader could tell that Willard was ‘speaking’ to someone who was not, in fact, the reader. An example is found on page 170, “I trust and hope and pray that the occasion of this colloquium, under the leadership of people at Harvard, will open the way to a renewal of that kind of depth of life and thought on earth.” I appreciate the overall point, but in leaving this sentence at the end of this ‘previously published’ paper I felt like Willard was no longer speaking to me (and he did this other times too.) I wonder if this detracts from the overall purpose to help ‘everyone’ become obedient to all the things Jesus said?
Another problem I had with the book is that Willard, for all of his quotation of Scripture and all of his otherwise fine points about Scripture, takes a very ‘Rick Warren’ approach to Scripture. I was immediately put on guard while reading the introduction and on page xiii Willard paraphrased the ‘Great Commission’ found in Matthew 28:18-20. His paraphrase lacked authenticity. Furthermore, aside from a couple of passages in chapter 15, “Jesus the Logician”, Willard makes no attempt at all at lengthy exegesis of Scripture to support his ideas. His points fall more along the lines of philosophical observations based upon the fact that “Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived” (180) or that Jesus is the “maestro of all good things” (191). But if we take Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture from Luke 24: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about mein the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44, NIV), then we see that Scripture is more than a ‘manual’ to help us get along better, be better, or do better. Scripture is about Jesus and merely yanking verses here and there out of a larger context, without doing detailed exegesis, and paraphrasing passages in strange, non-traditional ways (much like Rick Warren does), tends to reduce Scripture from Word of God concerning Jesus as God’s Revelation (See John 1:1-4; Hebrews 1:1-4) to a manual for improvement. We become not necessarily new men even if we become nice people.
Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion of other problems with the book. In short they are, in no particular order: 1) The use of ‘previously published material’ meant there was too much repetition in the book. 2) The use of ‘previously published material’ caused the book to lack any sophisticated logical flow. There was no ‘building upon’ each chapter in the next. 3) Although Willard did well to analyze the ‘problems’ the modern church faces when it comes to discipleship, I believe that he spent far too little time addressing how to solve the problem through spiritual disciplines. Here and there he spoke of them and expounded upon them, but not nearly as well as Foster did in his book. 4) I concede that this fourth objection may be a (too) personal complaint, but I wondered at times why he seemed to shy away from traditional language. What he was generally speaking of was sanctification and holiness (and he was not speaking of them in perfectly theological ways.) Yet I don’t recall seeing the former at all and the latter only a couple of times. 5) While I appreciate his oft-repeated phrase “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort,” (5) he did place much of the burden for spiritual achievement on the human effort. After reading, I wonder if there is anything left for the Spirit to do after we have made our efforts?
On page 157, Willard writes: “To develop accurate knowledge of the human soul is the primary need of our times, and who should be in better position to provide it than the Christian psychologist? If we accept the reality of the soul, we can begin to explore its nature and to seek the means, of whatever kind, that are effective in its restoration.”(6) Dallas Willard had many well rounded, sound thoughts interspersed throughout this book. I think at this crucial point in the book, however, he fell flat. I don’t think I could disagree more with what Willard said in this paragraph. The truth is, the Gospel of Jesus has been so thoroughly psychologized in our culture that one can scarcely tell where Dr Phil ends and Jesus begins. If all we need is a sounder point of view on the psychology of humanity, or even the soul, then how can we ever begin to tell the difference between ‘nice people’ and ‘new men’?
Instead, I believe that God has ordained the preaching of the Gospel, the proclamation of his Good News, to be the catalyst behind the changes that are necessary to restore the soul. If Paul says that we cannot ‘call on the Name of the Lord’ without a preacher (Romans 10:5-17), he also says, “we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices…not conforming to pattern of the world, but being transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:1-2). Then he says we will be able to test and approve God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. In a left-handed sort of way, Willard has persuaded me all the more of the importance and necessity of preaching the ‘whole council’ of God. What the Church needs now is far less Christian psychology in the pulpit and far more prophetic preaching of the Word of God. Perhaps the reason that teaching, study, preaching and congregational worship have not done as well in making disciples is precisely because the Word of God has been co-opted by psychologists who are interested in making nice people, but not new men.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), 182
Willard, 34 and elsewhere
In discussing the Resurrection, Dallas Willard makes a very good point in his essay: Blind Science vs. Blind Faith: Some Thoughts on Breaking the Deadlock. He writes:
This student was walking across campus with a professor whose field is religious studies. In their conversation, the student happened to mention the resurrection of Christ. The professor’s response: The resurrection is inconsistent with the laws of physics. Now, in fact, the laws of physics lie at a considerable conceptual distance from phenomena such as human death and decay and their possible reversal. This particular professor in any case, would have little if any idea where to begin showing that resurrection conflicts with physics—or why it matters, if it does conflict. Indeed, who would? Very few, I would imagine. “Science” was vaguely invoked to end the discussion, just as in other contexts, “religion” is used for the same purpose.
He then goes on to explain:
The professor who invoked physics is surrounded constantly with things and events for which no physical explanation yet exists, nor even the beginnings of one. Just look at the physics texts and see. A most obvious case is the existence of the physical universe itself, as well as of life and human consciousness. When confronted with the de facto inability of physics in this respect, the academically sanctified dodge is to invoke chance, along with huge spans of time, for everything to “work,” and further, to invoke the promise of what science (really, physics) supposedly will be able to explain in the future as it continues to make progress. But chance is not something that can produce or explain anything. Rather, it is invoked precisely at the point where there is no known explanation or cause. And if something is, indeed, impossible, it will not help to have more time to get it done. We need a demonstration of the possibility, for example, of life’s emerging from the inorganic, and then we can talk about time. But the assumptions of this “scientific” evasion are so complicated and culturally protected that most people confronting it do not realize they have been handed intellectual sawdust instead of bread.
But Willard notes that ‘religion’ often does the same thing by often merely invoking the ‘God of Great Power’ argument. That is, both sides invoke their own non-explanations as a ‘means of holding its ground.’ I agree with this assessment and take it a step further and say that Christians need to be able to explain the ‘reason for the hope they have’ to anyone who asks. I agree that it is not enough to say to the atheist or non-believer that we believe something because ‘God is powerful’ enough to do it. Frankly, that is beside the point.
Willard makes one other point too that I found especially insightful:
It is painful to observe that our culture provides no friendly meeting place for the authorities of science and religion to engage in good‑faith efforts to understand the truth about our life and our world. How many people seek or find the preparation required to deal profitably with issues such as resurrection and the laws of physics? To be genuinely open to truth and able to seek it effectively is surely one of the greatest human attainments. I am convinced that it can come only as a gift of grace. It implies faith in a cosmic context where one no longer feels the need to hide, to invoke explanations that really explain nothing at all but simply enable one to hold a position with an appearance of reasonableness.
Again I agree. For all the arguments I have with certain Darwinists who have visited here, I have to say that they most likely are searching for truth. I have probably not done as well in explaining the truth from the Biblical perspective as I should have, and that is where I must grow. Christians own the greatest Truth in the entire Universe. We need to be able to carefully reason together with those who are opposed or simply do not believe. Perhaps if Christians, and I include myself here, will learn better how to articulate the truth of the Resurrection in history of Jesus Christ (among many other things) such a dialogue will open up between Christians and non-believers. Perhaps such a meeting ground does exist where such dialogue and the quest for truth can take place in good-faith efforts. Perhaps there is hope.
There doesn’t need to be ‘two sides’ which, in Willard’s words, ‘never come into contact.’ He says ‘important work of reconciliation needs to be done.’ His answer?
Progress is possible if a vast number of Christians, devoted and qualified, will permeate all dimensions of society and bring the Spirit and power of Christ to bear upon the points where the authority structures of the intellectual professionals are in blind conflict with genuine faith in Jesus Christ.”
And what I would say is this. The ‘intellectual professionals’ would do well to stop discrediting the Christian point of view merely because it is a Christian point of view. It is not invalid simply because it is, for lack of a better term, unpalatable to the intellectual or because it invokes faith or because it believes in a metaphysical idea. If the ‘intellectual’ will create space for the Christian to even have a voice, to be heard, without fear of ridicule and condescension, much progress will be made towards the end of reconciliation. But I don’t seriously think such a conversation can take place as long as the Christian point of view is dismissed before it is ever in the door or as long as the credentials of the Christian are discredited simply because the person possessing them is a Christian. I think Prof Willard has made a fine point. What do you think? Is such a dialogue even possible?
You can access many more essays on Christianity at Dallas Willard on-line. I’m not suggesting that you are going to be satisfied with everything he says (I surely wasn’t), but you will find some carefully reasoned essays and arguments that will help us all as we try to create such a space in this world for the dialogue to either get started or, in some cases, continue.