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The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part 5): A Jesus-Shaped Philosophy

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Thanks for checking out this series exploring the work of Gary Black in his book, The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith. See these other posts in the series…

Introduction – The (Missional) Theology of Dallas Willard
Part 1 – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard: Context
Part 2 – The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard: An Evangelicalism for Kingdom Disciples
Part 3a – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 3a): God’s Character In Christian Theology
Part 3b – The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part3b): God’s Character in Christian Theology
Part 3c – The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part3c): God’s Character in Christian Theology
Part 4 – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 4): The Willardian Correction


For those who have been tracking with this series, my apologies for the lag in getting to a post covering the fifth chapter in this book. I confess, I approach it with a bit of trepidation as it presses into the more explicitly philosophical side of Dallas’ thinking and work. As someone who is more of a missional theologian (by training and interest) than a philosopher, there are things going on in the text of this chapter that I don’t have as much background in as I would like. Nevertheless, let’s jump in and see what’s there.

Willard’s Philosophical Posture

In contrast to a “constructivist philosophy” (ala Kant) in which there is no ultimate meaning to things, even for God, Willard held to a kind of “realist philosophy,” which “holds that an objective ‘God’s eye view’ does exist and is both accurate in its perspective of all reality and, therefore, wholly independent of human description or claims to its knowledge” (162). His was a “direct realism” which “holds that there is a ‘way things are’ but refrains from pursuing or advocating certainty and absolutism regarding knowledge of reality” (162). This would seem to accord with a sort of “chastened epistemology” that had come in vogue in certain postevangelical circles of late.

This also stands in contrast to the deconstructive philosophy of Derrida which “proposes all things, including texts, are ultimately subordinated to the inherent subjectivism of individual or communal constructivist hermeneutics” (165). In fact, “Willard suggests Derrida’s misinterpretation an misapplication of Husserl [the focus of Willard’s own doctoral work] has done nothing less than ‘unhinge the American mind’ and cause a crisis in the university system of education…

Willard writes, the undermining of the normative power of the disciplines [and their texts] seems at the popular level to open the way to saying that any reading of a text by anybody has certain legitimacy to it – and this can be rationalized in various ways – or by saying that the reading of the text that is socially sustainable at present is the right one, as long as it is socially sustainable (167).

In the final analysis, “Willard argues the effect of deconstruction is to engage in endless pursuits of reduction to the point of eliminating any possible foundation (logos) upon which any authoritative position could rest even if such a premise were desirable” (167).

“Bracketing” as Theological Praxis

Black notes that many seem to confuse the philosophical dimension of Dallas’ theological vision for a kind of postmodern (Derridian) deconstruction. On the contrary, while “Willard is sympathetic to much of the impetus for change and the critique of modern hubris postmodernism carries,” his perspective and method are fundamentally different than the strict deconstructionism of Derrida. This is seen most clearly in his use of “bracketing.”

Bracketing is a method of setting “aside thoughts and ideas about a thing, including all preconceived notions and assumptions, and focusing only on the experience of the object itself” (168).

Willard’s ‘bracketing’ of contemporary lenses and their assumptions can often be interpreted and misunderstood as a Willardian application of Derridian deconstruction. In fact, the opposite is true. Willard’s bracketing is instead the simple, free, and fearless intellectual pursuit to discover and experience the essential nature of Christian thought and life. Such an inquiry requires a willingness to consider every claim and doctrine based upon its own merit and devoid of the implicative baggage attached to it.

This method stands, so it would seem, predicated on the convictions that a) there is an objective reality that, while not directly available to us, is available to God, and b) that God’s agapic nature toward us as those made in God’s image, most fully in and through Jesus, and mediated through the Holy Spirit, makes it possible for us to access this same reality.

Breakpoints with Contemporary Evangelicalism

Willard’s philosophical posture is central to how his theological vision differs, in many cases sharply, from the methods and conclusions of contemporary evangelicalism. At the same time, it is also precisely what “has provided increasing numbers of postevangelical hopefuls a reasonable, encouraging, biblically-grounded alternative” (173). Further,

Willard’s protoevangelicalism seeks something of a moratorium, or an escape from the trappings and limitations of the modern/postmodern, sacred/secular, revelational/communal, fundamentalist/liberal ‘insider’ theological debates, alterations, and standards of evangelical orthodoxy. Instead, Willard seeks to recapture the transcendent quintessential goodness and opportunity Jesus first taught, demonstrated, and manifested in the New Testament (173).

Black also notes how, for Willard, “evangelicals have largely not learned to separate feelings, needs, and experiences about theological issues or ideas from the theological ideas themselves. Therefore, staunch anti-constructivist evangelicals have unwittingly begun to employ the disastrously ironic facilities of constructivism in practice, which they diametrically oppose in theory” (178). In other words, evangelicals have turned theological convictions (which beg for constant engagement and reflection) into social ideologies (the questioning of which is feared above all, since to do so threatens to unravel an entire edifice). This bears incredible similarity to how David Fitch has appropriated the work of Slavo Zizek for exploring The End of Evangelicalism? (see his blog post, “The Caffeine Free Diet Coke: A Metaphor for Evangelicalism in our Day?” for an introduction to this connection).

To wrap up, let this quote sink in…

Willard contends that this theological negligence, by default, creates a constructivist playground where an alternative, anthropomorphic religious enterprise is humanly constructed under the banner of a historically sound and biblically Christian theological framework. Willard argues is it exactly this misappropriated endeavor that Jesus staunchly opposed and attempted to correct in first century Judaism.

In my own words, for Willard, contemporary evangelicalism has largely become, even if unwittingly, a social ideology predicated on the philosophical assumptions and categories of modernity and the Enlightenment. I would add that the very possibility of this phenomenon is predicated on the edifice of Christendom which provides a context for Christianity to exist as a socio-political ideology as opposed to a missio-political movement in the first place, but there’s no space to elaborate on that here.

What are your thoughts on this? Gary and I are both anxious for some engagement on these issues!

I hope to add one more post to this series (and perhaps even a podcast w/ Gary as the author) in reference to the concluding chapter and my own summary thoughts.

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