The Table Video

Steve L. Porter

Dallas Willard Remembered

CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
May 9, 2014

Steve Porter, who studied under Dallas Willard at USC, remembers Dallas on the one-year anniversary of his passing, during the Center for Christian Thought’s 3rd Annual Conference.


Well, and I wanna recognize that Jane Willard is here and thank you, Jane, for coming down. [applause] I asked Jane, I said, “Have there been too many “of these tributes,” and she said there’s been a lot but it’s good because it helps people remember the work that Dallas did and it keeps him fresh.

So, I’m gonna take the opportunity to share for a few minutes about Dallas and to explain the various reasons why we thought it would be appropriate tonight to take a few minutes and remember Dallas. So, over three years ago, myself and Tom and Gregg Ten Elshof, the Director of the Center, met in a room here on campus struggling to decide what the yearly themes should be for the yet to be opened Center for Christian Thought. We had three criteria that potential themes had to meet.

First, the theme had to be relevant to the church and the needs of God’s people. Second, it had to fit with the funding priorities of the John Templeton Foundation because we were in the process of asking them to fund the Center. And three, we attempted to find themes that were such that we knew someone who was a leading scholar in that area whom we might be able to get to come to Biola and lead the research on the theme.

With these criteria in mind, one of the first themes we landed on was Psychology and Spiritual Formation. It’s relevant to the church, it fits with the Templeton Foundation, and we knew Dallas Willard. We immediately contacted Dallas and even though we were asking him to participate in something that was over three years away, we were already too late.

If you ever called the Willard home in the last decade or so the answering machine would come on and you’d hear Jane’s lovely voice. About 15 years ago it would say, “Hello, you’ve reached the Willards. “Dallas is booked for the next two years “and will not be able to accept any more “speaking engagements in that time period “but feel free to leave a message.”.

A few years later, Jane’s voice would tell us that Dallas was booked for the next four years out. And then perhaps, for the last 10 years or so, you would call and Jane’s voice would say, “Dallas is not “accepting any speaking engagements “for the foreseeable future.”.

But even though he was already booked up, Dallas was gracious to commit to spending time with us at CCT over what would be this academic year, the 2013-2014 academic year on the theme of Psychology and Spiritual Formation.

But Dallas and Jane did not know at that time that there were some rogue cells in Dallas’ body. And about a year before this current theme year was set to start, our concern, here at the center, was no longer whether Dallas would be able to join us for this year’s theme; our hope was simply that Dallas and Jane and their family would have many more years together. And Jane, we still grieve with you and your family that that was not to be.

It seemed fitting given that Dallas was the primary inspiration for this theme year and given that today is a year and a day since his passing, which I think if I can advance the slide here we have… It seemed fitting that we pause and practice the discipline of remembering. It’s also fitting to do this because in many ways, Dallas has been with us here at the center all year long. I dare say that Dallas has been referred to, quoted, or referenced at some point by just about every scholar who has set foot in the center this year.

Indeed when you say the words psychology and spiritual formation, it’s hard not to think of Dallas Willard. Dallas’ view of spiritual formation is a deeply psychological account of how it is the Spirit of God reforms the inner most recesses of human persons. Literally, our Sukei is our souls and that includes, for Dallas, our thoughts, emotions, desires, intentions, interpersonal relations, all mediated through an embodied existence in the world. Gary Moon calls Dallas Willard his favorite psychologist.

Dallas was deeply psychological in his thinking. And so, I would like to take a moment to share a few words, I’m just getting started, of remembrance about Dallas. In particular, I’d like to share some of why I think Dallas would think this topic that we are focusing on is so very important.

And then after I finish, Tom will come back up and lead us in a time of remembrance and prayer. It’s an interesting thing about Dallas, if you’re a good student of his work you should neither give him too much credit nor too little credit for the kind of person he was and the sorts of things he accomplished.

What I mean is this, Dallas’ teaching and writing is crystal clear that the ultimate goal of human existence is to receive life from above, the reign of God, and allow that divine life to so permeate and influence our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, desires, and powers that who we are and what we are able to do is beyond what could be accomplished by our own natural abilities.

This is life constantly enlivened by the Kingdom of God. So, when we reflect on Dallas’ life in ministry, we should say, “Wow, look what God can do “in and through a person who is utterly abandoned to Him.”.

This is to look through, even past Dallas, and credit the empowering presence of Jesus as the ground and living source of who Dallas was and what he did. On the other hand, Dallas was such a unique conduit of life from above. He had come to be so permeated and influenced in his thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, desires, and powers, that he stood out like a city set on a hill. No doubt this was all by grace, Dallas did not deserve to be allowed into such a life but he did, of course, have something to do with it.

In this sense, Dallas’ teaching and writing is equally clear. Human persons have a role to play in receiving life from above and allowing that life to permeate and influence their own. Dallas received and allowed the Spirit of Christ to work in his life more effectively than anyone I have ever known. Receiving and allowing the Spirit to work in practical and bodily ways is what Dallas referred to as spiritual disciplines.

It’s no surprise that Dallas took the discipline seriously in his own life. The seriousness is not seen so much in the intensity of his practices, but rather in how embedded the disciplines were in Dallas’ daily affairs. For instance, as many will attest, and Jane I assume you will attest, you better attest because I’m making a claim here, Dallas made it a habit to hum hymns throughout his day.

He was a hymn hummer, that was a discipline he practiced. And he put his hands behind his back when people would question him in a philosophical gathering, a position of vulnerability, as a reminder to listen and be gentle in response. I remember at one gathering, someone asked Dallas what the most significant discipline was in his own life. I leaned forward in my seat to make sure I heard Dallas’ response. Would it me contemplative prayer, lectio divina fasting, extended periods of solitude? Dallas responded, “Bible memorization.”. For Dallas we might realize, memorizing scripture was no legalistic, merely cognitive enterprise.

As New Testament scholar, Mike Wilkins who was here at Talbot, once said to me, quote, “I have never met anyone who has a more intuitively, “immediate grasp of the actual meaning “of scripture than Dallas Willard.”. As Dallas memorized the text, he interpreted it and implied it allowing the Spirit of God to breathe the life giving, nourishing meaning of the Word of God into his heart.

For Dallas, Bible memorization was a dynamic process of harmonizing his will with the will of his Father. But my appreciation for Dallas was slow and coming, indeed, I owe somebody a new copy of the Spirit of the Disciplines. It escapes me now whose sky blue, cloth bound, copy, hardback copy I borrowed in the summer of 1990 or thereabouts. But as I read it, I was writing comments in the margins of the book in ink. And my comments were not particularly insightful and were in fact not appreciative of what I read. I was reading the Spirit of Disciplines as a recovering legalist and I’m afraid that all of Dallas’ talk of the disciplines went straight into my all too recently vacated categories of legalistic Christianity.

I was about 20 years old at the time and much of what I wrote in the margins contained the colorful pros of an angry, disillusioned, young man who only saw in Dallas’ own pros more hoops to jump through to try to get God to like me.

Reading the Spirit of the Disciplines was, at that time, further evidence to me that either Christianity did not possess any unique mechanisms of spiritual change, or more bleakly, that Christianity simply was not true. The irony of my initial response to the Spirit of the Disciplines is that it would be that very book, as well as the evidence of Dallas himself, that helped bring me back around to a firm confidence in Jesus and His way of transformation.

This is where Dallas himself entered, stage right, into my own life. It would be one thing to read his books, to hear his teachings, to be eventually won over conceptually and theologically to the idea that Christianity truly does possess an understanding of change where by human persons can become more like Christ.

But Dallas did more than win me over conceptually and theologically. He was for me, and I dare say to any other person who encountered him, compelling evidence of the truth of Jesus’ way. How disappointing it would have been if Dallas possessed a deep, penetrating analysis of Christian formation yet he himself turned out to be, once you met him, a rather lackluster individual.

To be clear, Dallas was a very ordinary person in many respects. He certainly was not slick or polished. Rather the evidential force of Dallas, was the extraordinary quality of his presence that emanated through an otherwise ordinary man. Perhaps you never had the opportunity to meet Dallas in person, or perhaps, your acquaintance with him was limited to a brief encounter or two. There are certainly many others, Jane in particular, most of all, who knew Dallas far more intimately than I or anyone else here. But I did have the occasion to observe him as one of his Doctoral students in Philosophy.

While I could tell you various stories that demonstrated to me the power of Christ flowing through Dallas, one of the more persuasive marks of his ordinary extraordinariness were the students and faculty who were drawn to him, even though they either knew nothing of his Christian commitment or if they knew of it they did not share it.

For instance, while I was at USC there was a steady stream of students who dropped by Dallas’ office. Whenever he was at school, his office door was wide open and whenever his door was open he was rarely alone. And whenever someone was in with Dallas, there was often someone else sitting in the chair outside his office waiting for the next vacancy.

And whenever there was someone waiting in the chair, there were often two or three others, myself included, hovering around the hallway or stairwell leading to Dallas’ office to see if they might get a chance to be with him. I often wished Dallas has installed one of those number machines so that we could have taken a number and waited our turn. It would have been much more organized.

It was odd enough that a professor of philosophy would be so sought after by his students but in Dallas’ case I came to discover that many of those visiting students were not studying philosophy. They were graduates and undergraduates studying literature, psychology, classics, engineering, law, and so on. Once I realized that, I assumed that the majority of those students were Christians who had read Dallas’ books and knew something of his reputation as a Christian leader.

Maybe a parent or pastor had instructed them to meet Dallas while they were at USC. While I’m sure that accounts for some of those who came, I was surprised to discover, as I struck up conversations with those waiting in the wings, that many of these students had no clue that Dallas was a Christian let alone a well know Christian leader.

They came, the often said, because they had stumbled into one of Dallas’ classes and they found his words and his very person compelling. They would come to talk with Dallas about the meaning of life, about emotional struggles, about painful losses they were experiencing and he would listen and respond with wise and grace-filled words. This was an ordinary man who’d become increasingly receptive to the grace of God and it was contagious. In an article entitled The Three Stage Argument for the Existence of God, Dallas lays out a way of assessing the evidence for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. Towards the end of that article, Dallas writes, quote, “Given the very best possible exposition, “theistic evidences never replace a choice “as to what kind of universe we would have ours to be “and a personal adventure of trust “which involves living beyond what we can absolutely know.”.

Such a personal adventure of trust in Jesus is precisely what Dallas did so well. As we give Christ the credit for who Dallas was and what was accomplished through him, we are grateful for Dallas and those like him whose lives stand forth against the backdrop of humanity as powerful evidence that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I’d like to end my comments, before Tom comes up, just reading this quote because I think at the end of the day this is why this topic is so important and Dallas said it so well.

He writes, “There was a fullness of time “at which Christ could come in the flesh “and there is likewise a fullness of time for his people “to stand forth with the concrete style of existence “for which the world has hungered “in it’s thoughtful moments. “As a response to this world’s problems, “the gospel of the Kingdom will never make sense “except as it is incarnated, we say fleshed out, “in ordinary human beings and all ordinary conditions “of human life. “But it will make sense, when janitors and storekeepers, “carpenters and secretaries, “businessmen and university professors, “bankers and government officials “brim with the degree of holiness and power “formerly thought appropriate only to Apostles and martyrs. “It’s truth will illumine the earth when disciplined “discipleship to Jesus is recognized as a condition “of professional competence in all areas of life. “Since from that alone comes strength “to live and work as we ought.”.

And I think that vision of Jesus being proclaimed through his followers’ lives and the texture of their lives was a vision that animated Dallas’ own work in spiritual formation and he lived it; he lived it out. So, I’m very grateful personally to Dallas but I’m grateful that he was a big part of our inspiration to do this theme. And again, Jane, the loss of Dallas is huge. It’s most huge for you and we just want to continue to remember him and thank God for what was done through him. So, thank you for coming, Tom. [applause]

About the Author