A Victorious Life Overflowing with Grace and Truth: Remembering Dr. Dallas Willard (1935-2013)

Dr. Greg R. Jesson, PhD

O could I flow like thee,

And make thy stream my great example,

As it is my theme!

Though deep, yet clear, though gentle not dull;

Strong without storm,

Without overflowing full

Sir John Denham, “Cooper’s Hill”

Those things, which you have both learned, and received, and heard,

And seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

St. Paul, Philippians 4. 9



n any lifetime, there are at best only one or two people who completely transform the way we think about our short time on this earth.  Such people are exceedingly hard to classify because they see all the ultimate issues of life in ways that their generation has either missed or disregarded.  Unquestionably, Dallas Willard was one of those larger-than-life figures for the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  He grappled as seriously as anyone ever has with the fundamental questions concerning the nature of consciousness, the ontological structures of knowledge, the philosophy of mathematics and logic, the existence of God, the history of philosophy, phenomenology, systematic metaphysics, the philosophy of Husserl, the truth of Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, the process of character transformation, the nature of a good life, and how specifically to become a good person.  One only needs to look at Dallas’ unbelievable output of articles, books, video series, sermons, and lectures to see this. 

I have never met anyone who was so singularly alive to the lifelong pursuit of truth concerning the crucial questions of human existence, while remaining thoroughly humble and approachable.  In appearance, he seemed utterly ordinary—even slightly grandfatherly— (he once said to me, “Greg, I’m just a peasant”), until he began to speak.  Within a few sentences, you would realize that you had never heard anyone say so much in so few words.  However, it wasn’t only the content of his words that was compelling; it was also the way he said them.  There was such a firm, warm, concern conveyed in his voice that one seemed to get a glimpse into his sterling character through his words.  Although he was never the least bit pretentious, his lectures and sermons were almost always an accessible and inviting tour de force of insights, humor, quotations, stories, and Scriptures presented in a wholly new light.  Listening, one kept thinking, “I never thought of that before.”  I recall that he started one sermon by saying, “The key to all of human history is man’s rejection of God and His ways.”  Again, “God loves to forgive if He can only find a way” (Matt. 23.37).  The surprising part was that he made it look so effortless.
He often said that his fundamental guiding principle was “the drive for cognitive clarity.”  He thought that adopting this attitude was the only way to hack through the hopeless tangle of confusions, absurdities, trivialities, and falsehoods that make up so much of the contemporary world.  (Accordingly, he said, “People don’t like the truth because they want a little room to wiggle around in.”)  Like C. S. Lewis (and just as rare), he could deftly uncover the ultimate issues upon which an entire complicated controversy turned.  Simply put, he was the smartest person I ever met.  Dallas could argue powerfully for a point, weighing in with logic, history, fine distinctions (especially modal ones!), Scripture, and the nature of one’s own experience, but he never tried to force acceptance.  He would constantly say things like, “This is how it seems to me, but you must examine the evidence yourself as you try to honestly and diligently search for the truth” (Lk 10. 26).  This approach, equally rigorous and relaxed, allowed people to look at the relevant evidence and data for themselves without retreating into a debate and win-at-all-costs mode.  He wasn’t interested in academic victories.  He was interested in the truth.  What else could explain his statement, “If Jesus knew of a better way to live than following him, I’m sure that he would be the first one to tell you to take it”?
Even more amazing was Willard’s kindness.  In his irrepressibly winsome and unassuming manner, his acceptance of others, even when disagreeing, gently disarmed even the most severe critic.  I remember how Richard Rorty was visibly moved by Willard’s sensitive critique of his views when they participated in a dialog on “The Question of Authority” at Stanford in 2005.  The closest I can get to succinctly describing Dallas is best captured in two characters from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: Great-heart and Valiant-for-Truth. For a more contemporary comparison, if you can remember George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, the most generous and loved man in Bedford Falls (played by Jimmy Stewart), you are on the right track. 

Over the decades, we discussed almost every topic under the sun, and sometimes he would be moved to tears over the brokenness of humanity.  Many academicians relish making others feel intellectually inferior.  Not Dallas.  I was always amazed at his sensitivity in adjusting his words to the person and circumstances.  He tried immensely hard to discern the truly important question often hidden behind the presented question.  Many were surprised to find that he was often quite transparent about his own inadequacies and disappointments.  Dallas would never have wanted anyone to think his life was without problems, and tribulations.  (He used these as an entry into the need for God’s grace.)  

Dallas, possibly more than anyone I have ever met, was completely comfortable laughing at himself.  I think that he saw funny situations as part of the human condition, and he had a wonderful sense of what should be taken utterly seriously and what should not.

Willard’s humor is legendary, not only because he could be so nonchalantly witty, but because his spontaneous quips always pointed to something profound.  It’s not that he told yarns or stories in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.  Rather, his humor was insightfully woven into all his teaching whenever it helped reveal the truth.  For example, the philosopher David Hume famously argued that knowledge of the self or the mind is impossible.  Hume said, “When I look into myself I cannot find myself.”  When lecturing on this, Dallas said, “This is like a man who tries to discover whether he’s at home by going outside and looking through the windows to see if he’s there.”  (For philosophy, this is funny!)  As everyone who teaches college painfully knows, some students love to defend absurd views.  Dallas was profoundly skilled at helping students break through their resistance to reality.  Another time, after a student had taken up a good portion of the class arguing for an absurd position, Dallas gently said, “You don’t believe what you are saying.”  But, the student persisted.  Finally, Dallas said in a non-confrontational way, “Okay then, will you run your view by your grandmother and see what she thinks?”  The student was momentarily stunned, and then burst out laughing.  Then the whole class and Dallas were laughing too, because, given the look on the student’s face, we all knew that he didn’t need to run anything by his grandmother.  He had just discovered some truth.  I’ve never forgotten Dallas’ buoyant laughter, nor his weighty question.  

Under his extraordinary teaching at University of Southern California for the last 47 years (1965-2012), thousands of students attended his lectures.  Most had absolutely no idea what they were in for.  Similarly, scores earned a PhD in philosophy under his wise and even fatherly guidance.  (In his home office, literally overflowing with books, is a card tacked up to a bookshelf with all the names of his PhD students who are carrying on his work.  It is simply entitled, “Our Boys”).  They now carry on his vision of ontologically-driven philosophy and life-transforming Christianity wherever they are teaching.  It is not off the mark to say that Willard was the dominant thinker in our time who reintroduced a detailed evidentialism to Christian thought—both on the apologetic and theological sides.  (His exhortation to us was, “Logic will provide the principles on which you will fight your philosophical battles.”)  The singular aim of his life, to convey in the most reasonable and detailed way the loving presence of God in this world, was accomplished: we heard, we watched, we learned, and we remember.

Nobody can be a great teacher without being supported by a myriad of people.  Of course, there were all the great thinkers of the past whose thoughts filled the thousands and thousands of books Dallas carefully studied during his entire life, and there were his great professors.  Things really came together for Dallas at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in graduate school.  It was Professor William Hay who said to Dallas, “Well you are asking all the right questions, so you are now ready to read Husserl’s Logical Investigations.”  This would set the direction for all of Dallas’ subsequent work in philosophy and religion.  (William Hay had been greatly influenced by Gustav Bergmann when Hay taught at the University of Iowa in 1946-1947.  Bergmann had the highest regard for Husserl and introduced Hay to his writings.  Hay and Bergmann corresponded often until Bergmann’s death in 1987.) 

However, far eclipsing these powerful influences was the inspiration that came into Dallas’ life from a young woman who had been born in Macon, Georgia.  One day in 1954 while walking across the campus of Tennessee Temple College in Chattanooga, Miss Jane Lakes, heard the voice of a young man singing in a classroom.  Not only was she profoundly intrigued by that voice, but also soon after by the nineteen-year old man behind it.  That love and friendship grew and inspired him for the next six decades.  Dallas often said that apart from the knowledge of God, Jane had been the greatest blessing in his life. “She not only made my life possible, but she held me steady and preserved me from going off track.”  In the fullest sense of the word, they were partners—not only in life but also in ministry.

For those of us who knew and loved him, studied under him, or labored with him, ten lifetimes with him would not have been enough.  The experience of missing a loved one is a small clue that we were made for eternity.  Each time with him was an intellectual, emotional and spiritual adventure as his mind and heart were always open to, and overflowing with, new insights and applications of the great truth that God has poured out His unfathomable love in the historic Jesus.

The last time I spoke with him on the phone he was as joyously content as ever, fighting to regain his strength so he could get back to his beloved writing.  He expressed his interest in helping others by writing about all the new things he had been learning in his struggles with cancer.  We spoke about getting together this summer, sitting in his backyard garden relaxing and drifting from topic to topic, “talking the old, old talk that has no end.”  Now, that garden will have to be on the other side of what he liked to call “the pre-life,” when he will no longer be “a peasant” in any sense, but a cherished child of the King Himself.  And, He “shall wipe away all tears.”

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is   with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

St. John, Revelation 21. 3-4         

Greg Jesson, PhD
Department of Philosophy
Luther College