During an interview with late-Christian philosopher Dallas Willard in 2003, I asked what I believed was a pointed question. In reality it wasn’t, however considering his vocation, it seemed a natural one and momentarily forgot that, not only was I talking (on the phone) with one of the sharpest minds in the world, but also one of the greatest Christian thinkers in recent modern history.
Willard’s most celebrated work, The Divine Conspiracy, stands along side C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity as a classic, and the profoundness of that work not only remains with us, future generations will refer back to the Willard’s work for guidance, encouragement and counsel. The Divine Conspiracy was arguably the most important book written prior to the twenty-first century. (His other works Hearing God, The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Renovation of the Heart are also essential reading.)
Dallas Willard spoke with articulation and humility, and with a firm a gentleness. He talked at length about his knowledge of God, the spiritual life, and what was at the heart of the Gospel, “Many people believe the Gospel is this: ‘Jesus Christ came to earth and died on the cross for your sins, and if you believe in him, you can go to heaven when you die,’ ” he said at one point, “Well, of course, it’s not – it’s not even close! The Gospel is: Jesus is currently developing the Kingdom of God here on earth, and you’re invited to be a part of that.”
We talked for over an hour about spirituality and the then-present state of Western Christianity; his perspective was looking through an American lens; mine an Australian one. My question had a bit to do with doubt that had been rapidly growing and Dallas Willard being a teaching professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy.
Being a global expert in the subject of secular philosophy and publishing books on how to live life in the Kingdom of God and in the world as a disciple, or as he often said, “student or apprentice of Jesus”, sounds as oxymoronic as it gets. Yet Willard could weigh up the philosophy of Jesus and the apostle Paul, against the philosophy of Homer, Hume, Socrates, Plato, Kant, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. It was easy for him
to say Jesus Christ was the smartest man who had ever lived, and according, he wrote an articles titled Jesus the Logician, or chapters with headings like, St.Paul’s Psychology of Redemption – The Example (The Spirit of the Disciplines).
In the lead up to our interview, I had spent the last year or two working through my doubt – such as the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible – particularly the Gospels. My mentor had suggested I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ – while it put a severe dent into it, it still wasn’t enough to totally ease the mind storm. And then he got me on to The Divine Conspiracy.
THE AUSTRALIAN CHRISTIAN LENS
The culture of Australian Christianity differs from the United States in that the nation does not identify as a strictly “Christian nation” – even if according to the Australian Census sixty percent or so profess to be “Christian”; the influence of church has long been in the distant past.
What can be said is, that like the States, Australian churches enjoy the freedom of being able to practice and express their faith without fear of being violently persecuted. It has been silenced though, having Christians talk in the public square these days is not as easy as it once was – just as long as Christians practice a nice quite faith and spirituality, it’s all good and well.
In 2007, a national profile released by global church growth researchers, Natural Church Development, had the Australian churches having Loving Relationships as their maximum factor. It’s the area of church life (quality characteristic) which seemed to be the strongest. In contrast, retrospectively, both Passionate Spirituality and Inspiring Worship Services were second minimum and minimum factors. It was an intriguing result, considering Hillsong Church was a global leader in worship music and worship experience, and Pentecostal churches were experiencing rapid growth.
What the result reflected was a nation that valued mateship and enjoying fellowship – the Anzac digger spirit is folklore, as is the old line, “She’ll be right mate.” What Australians are not so good at is sharing how they’re really feeling about life and expressing it.
Australians are a casual bunch of cynics. By 2008, atheism was said to be on the rise at a time when the nation had been experiencing its highest level of prosperity – it brought about a period of rapid economic growth and gave the country a massive surplus which eroded away during the Global Financial Crisis. At one point the Australian dollar not only achieved parity with the US Greenback, it went past it. Chatting with Australian Natural Church Development director, Adam Johnstone, at the time he mused , “The government keeps saying Australians have never had it better; they have no need for God.”
Ironically, Australia now feels the pinch of obscenely high costs of living. Sydney is the second most expensive city – and second with the most unaffordable housing – in the world. God isn’t quite off the radar, yet.
IN DARKEST … ME?
The issue for me in the end was whether I could trust God or not. At the time of our interview, I was twenty-four, my oldest daughter had not long turned one, and I was working in the Corps (church) Program Department in the Salvation Army’s Territorial Headquarters in Sydney. With a background coming from the arts and the indie and punk rock scene, being cynical came naturally. I’d like to think my “cynicism” (which is really discernment) is now on par with the Old Testament prophet’s like Amos and Habakkuk. They cried out about the injustice and mistreatment of the poor they were seeing in their time; they were the punk rockers of the Bible.
Even though I had grown up in the Salvation Army tradition, my mind was battling heavy disillusionment and wariness of what I perceived, generally speaking, to be institutionalised Christianity, and the bureaucratic nature of it. I just couldn’t stomach it, as it seemed so lifeless compared to the Christianity I had been reading about in the New Testament.
The Western Church seemed infected with the virus of capitalism and secular business practice; it was lost in slogans and catchphrase’s; it was bogged down in programs at the expense of progress.
When I sat down to do this interview, I initially wanted to talk to Dallas about his then-new book, The Renovation of the Heart. I found myself talking with some despondency, and at one stage, he picked up on my despair and offered some gentle encouragement, ‘Warren, I sense your heart and know all about what you’re working through; but if you just stay [on the path you are on] it will come to pass.’
Remarkably, he asked me, ‘Warren, now you’re Salvation Army, right?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Well, if you go back to the beginning of that tradition and think about that … he wrote a book, William Booth wrote a book [where expressed his own bemusement] … I don’t know if you have ever seen that?’ That was kind of a funny moment, I was in the Salvation Army Headquarters recording studio, and the engineer who was also one of my closest friends while I was working there, was recording our conversation – he looked at me shrugged and I shrugged back – sadly, we hadn’t. We had no idea it existed!
Dallas continued, “Well … William Booth wrote a book called In Darkest England where he said, ‘I hear a lot of people talking about darkest Africa, well let me show you dark – look at England!’ “
While brooding over the awful presentation of life as it exists in the vast African forest, it seemed to me only too vivid a picture of many parts of our own land. As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England?
Excerpt From: William Booth. In Darkest England and the Way Out.
That was a bit of a kicker, in my mind the church was not having the impact in western culture I believed it could – regardless of its detractors, and neither was my own personal Christianity (hence my confessions from a real life Jonah). That really is the problem when it comes to darkness in our communities. Something I had to come to terms with was my own personal darkness – how we are in our inner beings impacts our families, our neighbours and our communities around us, hence why Jesus says, “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matt 6:23)
“A STARVATION DIET OF COMMUNITY”
While Richard Dawkins may claim 9/11 sparked him to fire the smoking guns of New Atheism, along with the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Singer, and anyone else who wanted a piece of the action; the truth is they had been sizing God up long before that. That tragic day in New York only gave them the perverse excuse they were after.
Regardless, I believed (and still do believe) the church activity recorded in the book of Acts, could and can also be a reality in postmodern, post-Christian, western culture, not just a one-off reality in the first-century. The ancient Christian communities flourished under adversity.
I asked Dallas Willard if it would be rare to find an Acts-like church in western culture he said, “It’s mostly non-existent.” He reasoned that Christianity had become a formality in the States and that it was on the verge of becoming utterly meaningless, regardless of what Americans profess to believe, “Because they do not know where [the tradition] came from, ‘[the early Christians] were just gone on [this new revolution and life sparked by the resurrection of Christ], ” he said. “The problem is our churches are so full of busyness, achieving this objective and that, they ignore the inner dimensions [our souls] where [transform] takes place.”
Having a conversation about a year later at my church, I asked why the church could not operate in our local community like it did back in the times of Acts, and a friend grabbed a cushion, walked over and whacked me over the head with it and said, “Because it’s impossible!”
Is it really? If it is, maybe it’s because we don’t really know how to tap into what it was that was happening there. It seems the western church has backed itself into a corner, making itself a sitting duck for Dawkins and Co. An active church community, where the power of the risen Christ is not only evident, where that resurrection power is producing abundant transformed, progressive communities and lives – who will be able to argue with that?
At present the church seems to be “living on a starvation diet of community,” as Rosaria Butterfield describes it, and this has had led to dire consequences. The good news for Australia though is it’s fellowship strength can only mean plenty of open windows for the church flourish. As a church leader once commented to me, “New Atheism doesn’t bother me – it’s actually making our job easier. They keep putting God in the news and in the public square – it forces people to talk about and make a decision.”
“I WANT MY TO COUNT FOR SOMETHING …”
My conversation with Willard eventually lead me to ask, “If one of your university students came up and said to you, ‘Sir, why do you follow Jesus, what is it about him that has you wanting to do that …’ what would you say?’ “
His answer was quick and point blank. The manner in which he gave his answer, I knew he didn’t blink or think twice, and it had me re-thinking my own answer if ever I was asked the same question. To be honest, I’m not sure I had an answer I could just give then.
Dallas began by saying, “Twofold, and by the way, people often ask me [that very question] in those exact words; my first answer is, ‘Because I want my life to count for something,’ and, ‘Who else do you have in mind?’ “
“And when I ask that,” he explained,”There’s almost no answer.” He went on to say with each option that his enquirer’s offered, as soon as he explained the worldview of each option and compared it with Jesus’, their options grew thin, going from as high as Buddha or Mahatmas Ghandi, right down to John Lennon.
It was the first part of Dallas’ answer that staggered me, “I want my life to count for something;” this is really the desire of the human heart. What does my life count for? When some in the name of science push the notion that we’re just an insignificant tiny speck in the universe, that we’re just here to get our lives over and done with as best as we can – it just makes life senseless. And sure there are people who are happy to do that, but I’m also sure when you ask anyone what they put their hope in, they don’t really know.
My reasons for following Jesus centres around the word hope, why? Well, I can not think of any other alternative, and just when I believe the Bible does not seem to have much to say about the issues I am passionate about, like the environment, racial harmony and justice for the poor – it trips me up. Jesus had stuff say about it, not only that, when you begin to understand that the fate of the earth, all nature (creation), rests upon our salvation and redemption, as well as the great promise of a new heaven and earth – the question suddenly becomes, Why not Jesus?