Dallas Willard, Christian philosopher and best-selling author, died today from cancer. He was 77.
Willard is best known for his work on Christian spiritual formation, which he said “is the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person,” according to a 2005 interview with Christianity Today. Willard also taught philosophy at the University of Southern California since 1965, and headed the school’s philosophy department from 1982 to 1985.
Born in Buffalo, Mo., in 1935, Willard attended William Jewell College, finishing his B.A. in philosophy at the Tennessee Temple College, where he also met his wife, Jane. While he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister, he told CT he left ministry for academia in the early 1960s because he felt God say, “If you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you, but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you.”
He went to graduate school at Baylor University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he got a Ph.D. in philosophy with a minor in the History of Science. He focused his study on epistemology, the philosophy of mind and logic, and studied the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, whose work he translated to English.
After teaching in Madison for a few years, he moved his family to Southern California. In his philosophy classes at USC, he challenged his students on the existence of truth. He also questioned who gets to decide what is considered knowledge by bringing up the intelligent design debate. "There is knowledge of God and the spiritual nature of man, as well as other types of reality (e.g., moral obligations) that are not reducible to the world dealt with by the so-called 'natural sciences,'” he told CT. “The idea that knowledge—and, of course, reality—is limited to that world is the single most destructive idea on the stage of life today."
His Christian thinking led to books like The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Divine Conspiracy, and Renovation of the Heart. Much of his writing focused on spiritual formation, which he stressed was not merely behavioral modification, but a focus on whether someone was becoming more like Christ through the the work of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. His was less focused on who was in or out, which led some commentators to question whether he leaned toward universalism.
Willard was a big part of the Renovaré movement, which set up small groups to pursue spiritual formation together, and co-edited the The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Study Bible. The groups are interdemoniational and often include members who aren’t a part of a church, as he believed that to reach the world for Christ, “we have to bring the church—which is the people of God—to permeate society. You can’t tie it to a building.”
Earlier this week, Willard revealed he was battling Stage 4 cancer. During the past few days, he was surrounded by friends and family, including his wife and two children. Yesterday, Willard’s son-in-law Bill Heatley posted on Facebook an excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy:
“Those who live in reliance upon the word and person of Jesus, and know by experience the reality of his kingdom, are always better off ’dead,’ from the personal point of view … we live in the knowledge that, as Paul elsewhere says, ’Jesus the Anointed has abolished death and has, through the gospel, made life and immortality obvious.’ (2 Tim 1:10”