Dallas Willard was a magnanimous man in his vocational capacity as a professor and scholar and also in his capacity as a friend, mentor, and colleague. Greg Ganssle, a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Rivendell Institute, discerns a vision of human greatness in Willard’s work and its convergence with Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Greg writes the following:
I defended my dissertation in January of 1995. Once the dust had settled, I decided to read or re-read all of the books I had put off for so many years. On my list, of course, was another trip through Middle Earth. At the same time, I read through Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines in my devotional time. I was struck with the convergence between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Spirit of the Disciplines. Both held forth a vision of human greatness. What does it mean to be a great person? Willard led the reader through the wise practices that enabled one to put down deep roots in character. Tolkien painted a picture of character in action.
A great person is one who can live and act with patience and confidence because he both knows who he is, and he is centered on something larger than himself. For the Christian, the center is Christ. His call to us is our anchor. Our keel is deep because we draw upon the depth of his love and work in our souls. Through the habitual drawing upon his strength, we flourish. We may look strong from the outside, but it is the strength of his might.
The vision of human greatness held forth by Willard and Tolkien shines brightly when compared with the anemic pictures of greatness in our culture. A bit in Peter Jackson’s production of the Lord of the Rings makes this clear. In the first film, the character Aragorn was made to wallow in uncertainty about whether he could or would take up the task at hand. In Tolkien’s books, Aragorn never doubted and never hesitated. Why the change? I think it is because Jackson knew that the only categories contemporary viewers have for a deep person are those of overcoming self-doubt. In order to make Aragorn deep, he had to make him struggle with self-doubt. For Tolkien, it is much deeper to be a man who is confident and unwavering about one’s identity and destiny and to be patient in realizing one’s highest aspirations. Such virtues are invisible to a culture that is living in the triumph of pop-psychological entertainment.
Dallas called us to be people who do not doubt or hesitate because we are built upon the firm foundation of the work of God. He challenged us to embody those virtues that are real and visible to God, even if they cannot be seen by those around us. He blazed a trail for all of us. He pointed us towards a distant horizon, one that many of us had only glimpsed in imaginary worlds such as Tolkien’s. That horizon is not new. But every generation needs someone who can see it more clearly and point towards it more decisively.
We are all better people because of Dallas Willard’s faithfulness.