Dallas Willard’s impact in philosophy is far and wide. Many had the privilege to do their doctoral work under his care.
R. Scott Smith, Associate Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics at Biola University, was at the University of Southern California from 1995-2000. His dissertation was on “Whose Virtues? Which Language? A Critique of MacIntyre’s and Hauerwas’s ‘Wittgensteinian’ Virtue Ethics,” which later developed into his first book with Ashgate in 2003, Virtue ethics and moral knowledge: philosophy of language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas.
Consider how Scott shares the way in which Dallas was a “sign-pointer” to the way in which Christ seeks to mentor us:
I am so grateful for how the Lord opened up the opportunity to study at USC and be mentored by Dallas Willard. I think that was a major reason why the Lord opened that door. I could not do the work I am now doing without his influence, and that of another student of his, JP Moreland.
As a student (and even still), I was amazed at how much meaning and insight Dallas could pack into a single sentence. I still am chewing on some of those nuggets he shared with me in his office hours, or in class. His insights have opened up vistas that I just could not have begun to see while a graduate student, but the Lord has since expanded into areas of research and fruitful labor for His kingdom.
I sought out Dallas originally to help me understand better postmodern thought, but I have walked away with a much broader set of horizons and opportunities – e.g., the many, many facets of constructivism; naturalism’s inability to give us knowledge; how the breakdown in epistemology today is due fundamentally to a breakdown in ontology; and how we can indeed know reality, even directly. But, I cannot help but think that these were things he already had understood and foreseen long ago.
Now that he is absent from the body, yet present with the Lord, I miss him. He is someone I could go to for advice and be encouraged. But, he leaves us with a rich deposit of articles and books that we all ought to explore and deeply ponder. Some of his philosophical works, like “Knowledge and Naturalism,” “How Concepts Relate the Mind to Its Objects,” “A Crucial Error in Epistemology,” and Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, are treasures worth mastering. They contain very helpful insights that apply to so many of our questions and issues today.
But now, it seems there is a big gap without him being here, to go to. Even so, I started to learn about an answer when I first started working at Biola. I was exposed to his talk, “Jesus: The Smartest Man Who Ever Lived?” and little did I know, the ideas therein, though simple in one sense, would profoundly influence me. He portrayed Jesus as the One who has knowledge (indeed, all wisdom and knowledge – Col. 2:3), who wants to mentor and apprentice me, and who gladly wants to share His wisdom and knowledge with His servants. If we humble ourselves, seek and listen to Him, and be deeply united with His heart and mind, Dallas had discovered that Jesus will be happy to mentor us, in philosophy or whatever area of life we are in. Jesus is the smartest man who has ever lived, or ever will.
I know now of His mentoring me in firsthand ways, while I bathe in prayer subjects I am researching; while I am writing and have typed sentences the meaning of which turned out to be far beyond what I had in mind when I typed them; and from listening to Him. So, while a giant and a good man has passed from among us for now, and we miss him, his Mentor is available to all of us who are His children. “Learn of Me” – this is what a Christ-shaped philosophy must be about: being actively apprenticed by Him, and not me trying to do philosophy as a Christian by my best lights, without an intimate, utter dependence upon Him. That is too dangerous, for as Dallas, who exemplified humility, knew well, apart from Him even the Christian’s heart can be more deceitful than all else, and our thoughts are not His thoughts.
Thank you, Dallas, for all these things. And thank You, Lord, for Dallas and Your Spirit at work through him, and in us.
R Scott Smith, PhD