Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge
As careers go, Dallas Willard’s is rather remarkable, in the sense of being both excellent and interesting. In addition to being a highly regarded technical philosopher at the University of Southern California, Willard has developed a brilliant “second career” in speaking and writing to the broader world of generally educated Christians about critical matters of faith and thought. Willard’s second career grows largely out of his work in philosophy and theology, and in its substance, it combines, first, an astonishing vision for the greater world of ideas and for its cultural context; second, a revolutionary’s passion for spiritual and cultural renewal; third, the ability to write effectively for non-technicians; and fourth, the wise and gentle heart of a pastor. This exceedingly rare combination gives him a voice, reach, and moral authority unparalleled in the world of analytic philosophy, and indeed, in the entire academy.
In Knowing Christ Today, Dallas Willard has given us another treasure from his “parallel career,” one which, in spirit and tone, is much in the vein of his powerful, award-winning The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God.1 Willard’s second career has tended to address two broad areas,  Christian discipleship and the spiritual disciplines, and  the nexus of Christian worldview, philosophy of religion, and religious epistemology. Divine Conspiracy is the renowned capstone of the first, and the present title, Knowing Christ Today, is the first (general-audience) book-length treatment of the second.
In one very real sense, Willard’s main title places his book in the tradition of J. I. Packer’s grand Knowing God2 of a generation ago. Like Packer’s great book, Willard’s speaks accessibly from the heart of orthodoxy to a broad audience about deep things. But whereas the focus of Packer ’s book is the character of God, for Willard the focus is upon the whole fabric of the Christian faith and its implications for epistemologically grounded confidence in the truth of the faith. By adding the word “Today,” Willard is pointing to the specific intellectual challenges which Christian faith faces in the contemporary world of ideas dominated by avariety of secular outlooks.
Indeed, Willard’s subtitle makes clear the main thrust of the book – that many of the key elements of Christian faith have, and deserve to be recognized as having, the epistemic status of knowledge, not just belief. In this way, Willard’s new book constitutes an interesting twist on Packer’s title and on the title of an even earlier classic in the same vein, A. W. Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy.3 In both of these, as well as in other “Knowing ______” books in the Christian trade genre, the “knowing” or “knowledge” which is under examination begins typically as an increased understanding of God or God’s ways that leads to a deeper experience of life with God. This is of course right and good, but Willard is pursuing a different and much trickier thesis. Rather than addressing the content or experience of Christian faith, he is addressing the issue of the knowledge status of the content of the Christian faith. He is asserting that significant key claims of the Christian faith constitute real knowledge, not just something believed, or something that is merely an opinion.
Why does the epistemic status of religious belief matter? In our society today, the fields and disciplines of history, the natural sciences, economics, mathematics, law, business, engineering, and so on are domains in which there is real knowledge to be had, knowledge that anchors these pursuits and activities as things that can be counted on, reliable guides for navigating through life and the world. Now, over a period of many years, and for many different reasons, it has come to pass in the thinking of many (including too many Christian thinkers!) that religious beliefs do not belong in the same epistemic category as these other departments of knowledge. Religious beliefs cannot aspire to the status of knowledge, but only to belief. But this means, then, that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, cannot possibly function in the arena of public, rational discourse as a pursuit that can truly be counted on, as a reliable guide to life and the world. Religious beliefs give an individual or a group a sense of meaning and comfort, but they do not constitute knowledge, reliable information about the real world. In short, through this development in epistemology, religious belief has been removed from public discourse as something that matters.
Knowing Christ Today is an extraordinary investment in the project of repairing the Christian church’s attitude about the epistemic status of Christian faith. In working toward this goal, Willard creatively blends intellectual history, Christian worldview, philosophy of religion, and deep Christian theology. The book’s eight chapters, given originally as a series of talks, address different aspects of the book’s overall theme, but each chapter still comprises au nique blend of these four dimensions, making the book difficult to categorize. It is not straight Christian worldview, nor straight philosophy of religion, nor the others. A case could be made that he is creating a new genre. In any case, Willard constantly fleshes out his various theses through brief biblical studies (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Paul, idolatry in Hosea, and a host of other relevant references). It is likely that much of the book’s usefulness and power as a tool in the project of repair lies in its spiritually refreshing texture.
Three concerns seem to emerge from the book, around which much of the work of the book clusters. First, already broached in the preceding paragraphs, he desires that we understand the profound crisis of knowledge that has overtaken Christian faith. Second, Willard develops for his readers the true vision for knowledge as it unfolds in a full, robust Christian setting. Third, he shows how key elements of Christian faith truly deserve to be considered knowledge by means of his development of a series of arguments concerning the existence, nature, and actions of God. As these three concerns tend to recur throughout the book, a brief examination of them will provide an efficient framework for understanding Willard’s message.
Willard addresses the first concern by teaching some important basics about epistemology – the nature of knowledge and how it differs from belief, commitment, feelings, and traditions. This is important because religious claims, which mainly used to be considered knowledge, are now routinely considered all the rest, with great negative effect. Willard briefly summarizes the intellectual history of the last five or six centuries. In those centuries, the Western intellectual world transitioned from nearly total acceptance of Christian belief as constituting knowledge to a stance of nearly total doubt of the same. Willard’s main point is to show that this transition was not a function of careful, judicious deliberation over decisive evidence. Rather, because Christian theology in the late Medieval period had overreached in both content and degree of certitude, a “mood of rejection” began to build, soon becoming “an intellectual and academic lifestyle,” and eventually “an authority in its own right” (23,emphasis his). Willard characterizes this radical default condition of doubt as a mood and a lifestyle precisely because it was adopted with “no logical justification whatever” (23, emphasis his). Christians need to know that the thorough banishment of religious claims from the realm of knowledge is the result of an accelerating mood of rejection building over time, and nothing more substantive than that.
The banishment has had a variety of consequences, according to Willard. First, on the personal level, the power to live and act in the light of faith is seriously sapped, because belief alone is not a solid, stable basis for action. Further, this means that followers of Christ whose faith is based only on belief are far more vulnerable to a debilitating erosion of faith. Second, this reduced epistemic condition of faith is damaging for society, since the goodness and truth embedded in Christian faith will not be seen as a viable source of wisdom for governing our lives. Specifically, Willard details the “disappearance of moral knowledge” (chapter 3), offering for consideration five different cultural and intellectual factors that contributed to this disappearance, as well as indicating the gravity of this loss. Finally, the Christian church as a whole is profoundly crippled in communicating its truth to the culture, since religious belief is now regarded widely as either a “leap of faith” or a “personal preference,” but in either case, something that does not belong to rational public discourse.
The second general concern emerging from the book is Willard’s keen desire that the full richness of Christian knowledge be appreciated and embraced, and made manifest in the lives of the followers of Jesus Christ. One begins to see this focus simply in the way he teaches people to appreciate the import and richness of even a basic sense of knowledge. Few have gotten “inside” the concept of knowledge and its implications as Willard has. Of the benefits of knowledge, he states, “Knowledge brings truth and correctness under reliable control” (15-16), and knowledge “confers upon the possessor the right and responsibility to act, direct action, set and supervise policy, and teach” (30). Then, he connects these benefits of a basic notion of knowledge with the gravest of responsibilities:
People perish for lack of knowledge, because only knowledge permits assured access to reality; and reality does not adjust itself to accommodate our false beliefs, errors, or hesitations in action. Life demands a steady hand for good, and only knowledge supplies this. This is as true in the spiritual life as elsewhere (39,emphasis his).
As this preceding quotation begins to reveal in the last sentence, Willard truly shines when he shows how knowledge of Christ and Christian things, when based and buttressed properly (that concern comes next), brings the richest dimensions of life within the domain of knowledge. Take for example the key issue of morality. Willard shows that secular understandings of morality utterly fail to give us guidance for life. This much is standard practice. But then Willard gives us ten remarkable pages showing that  love (agape) must lie at the root of all ethical action (and he cites Jurgen Habermas, Hilary Putnam and Emmanuel Levinas as being in agreement with this!), and  Jesus is the only significant moral guide whose entire fabric of moral teachings is based on and saturated in love (83-93). This is a good startat giving us the confidence to claim Jesus’ teachings as knowledge of the most significant kind, moral knowledge.
Working off Bertrand Russell’s useful distinction between knowledge by description (indirect knowledge of things one has via factual descriptions) and knowledge by acquaintance (direct, immediate experience of things), Willard’s chapter 6, “Knowledge of Christ in the Spiritual Life,” assumes that an adequate foundation has been laid such that we are within our epistemic rights to claim knowledge by description of many of the basic, foundational claims of Christian faith. In this chapter, he is concerned that we enter fully into life with God through the most intimate knowledge (by acquaintance) of the living Christ. Accordingly, Willard offers here a chapter-length introduction to his exquisite work (detailed in other books of his4) in spiritual life and the spiritual disciplines. By giving us this chapter, Willard is reminding us that this indeed is the end of knowing Christ – this is what all of our intellectual work is for.
Willard’s first concern shows us the crisis of knowledge today, and the second concern shows us the promise of the richness of fully knowing Christ today. The third concern is the variety of intellectual means by which we move from the crisis to the promise. This movement has two stages, brush clearing and building. Willard is admirably suited as a clearer of brush. Having lived and worked in the heart of the secular academy all his life, Willard understands and communicates its ethos and “folkways” perhaps better than any other writer today. He is adept at exposing the hollowness, inconsistencies, and arrogant pretensions of the “knowledge institutions” which presume to serve as the arbiters of knowledge today. First, he effectively disarms the notion that “science” is the only way to acquire knowledge. In brief, since there is no science of “science” (there are only sciences of specific areas of inquiry into the natural world), there cannot possibly be the “findings” of this “science” that, with true intellectual authority, dismisses religious claims from the realm of knowledge (58-59). Second, in similar fashion, Willard shows the technical incompetence of specialized scientific research, by its very constitution, to give counsel on worldview questions, which entails that it is technically incapable of serving as an arbiter of knowledge (57).
After the brush clearing comes the building, in four stages. First, Willard begins by arguing that worldview thinking (one’s general outlook on life and the world) is something that is unavoidable. It is not optional. Whether consciously or unconsciously, every person’s actions in life are based on answers to certain basic questions: What is real? Who is a really good person? Who is well off, or blessed? How does one become a genuinely good person? In some of the richest paragraphs in the book, Willard provides a nuanced statement of Jesus’ answers to these questions, answers that paint a highly winsome God-centered understanding of life. And since, as we have seen, it is illegitimate for “science” to attempt to set aside these questions – or certain answers to them – from rational discourse, it is therefore eminently proper to seek knowledge about the dimension of reality in which these answers can be found. Second, Willard sketches, at the end of chapter 2, a sensible epistemology which is intellectually responsible but does not presume to banish religious claims from the realm of knowledge. Third, Willard sets out in chapter 4 an excellent, brief series of arguments in natural theology that show that it is eminently reasonable to claim knowledge of the existence and nature of God as a transcendent, powerful, intelligent, designing, and creating being. Laypersons to philosophy will find these pages challenging, but also highly encouraging. Fourth, and finally, in chapter 6, “The Miraculous and Christ’s Presence in Our World,” Willard provides a train of reasoning that justifies our thinking that that great, transcendent being indeed has broken through into this world and revealed himself and his true character in the person of Jesus Christ. Again, this chapter constitutes a tour de force, in its combination of  standard apologetic repertoire with  brilliant cultural-contextual engagement and  deep spirituality.
The penultimate chapter, chapter 7, “Knowledge of Christ and Christian Pluralism,” deserves a brief mention. Willard desires to forestall any possibility of a tone of arrogance entering into the thinking and behavior of Christians as a result of their coming to realize that, in the great conversation of ideas, they are, indeed, armed with knowledge rather than mere belief or commitment. To this end, Willard engages in a subtle and sensitive examination of the question whether persons who have never heard the gospel of Christ might still come to God. His answer can be offered here in a few concise statements. It is a logical impossibility that all religions are equally true (170-171). He thinks that it is possible that some can come to God without having heard the Gospel of Christ, but anyone who is “saved”will be “saved by grace or gift, by the abundant kindness and mercy of the God of love”(183). He states, Jesus “was and is the eternal Word, and whoever comes to the Father comes through the eternal Word. Period” (185). Finally, there is no way, apart from the explicit Gospel of Christ, of knowing that one is right with God. He states:
No one, I think, is in position to say who does or does not “make the cut” on the basis of “patiently doing good” or of being sufficiently loving, or that anyone actually does so. It is certainly not my place to assure any that they are “in” (189).
While Willard calls his position “Christian pluralism,” recent scholarship in this highly controversial subject is coalescing around a taxonomy of positions that would tend to refer to his position as a version of “optimistic agnostic inclusivism.”5
Three modest points of constructive criticism can be brought forward for brief mention. First, many who are trained in philosophy will cry that Willard is making a host of claims about knowledge that are highly controversial and routinely disputed, without engaging the critical discussions or attempting to justify his assumed answers on these questions. While Willard would be the first to acknowledge that this is so, I suspect that he would say that the fact that technicians have complaints about the details should not necessarily devalue the case he has made, especially since his claims about knowledge are centrist and historically grounded positions. Further, he has said that the technical book on epistemology is the next to be written.
Second, in the beginning of chapter 6, “Knowledge of Christ in the Spiritual Life,” Willard is keen to emphasize the excellence and necessity of “direct awareness of [Christ] and his kingdom” (142). Willard’s keenness that all aspire to this more intimate level of spiritual knowledge tends, by contrast, to amount to a denigration of “knowledge by description.” But as Willard himself will acknowledge, most of the rest of his book is an attempt to reclaim for Christians the right and practice of using the term “knowledge” as it applies to knowing that God exists, knowing that he is an intelligent designer, and so on, all of which are cases of “knowledge by description.” Greater care should be taken to maintain the significance of descriptive knowledge of God, while still urging people to press further toward the true end of knowledge of God by acquaintance.
Third, one reason why this book is so good is that it possibly the first (certainly at the level of a general, educated audience) to mount a frontal assault on the pervasive default setting of skepticism that is applied selectively to transcendent questions and claims. I would wish, however, that Willard had gone further. I think it is unlikely that the “mood of rejection” Willard decries on page 23 will be overturned in any widespread way without first addressing the (usually unstated) assumption, first enshrined by Rene Descartes, that any knowledge claim requires proof (of some kind) before one is entitled to make the claim. Put simply, the question is this: who has the burden of proof? Does the person claiming knowledge bear the burden of proving, or does the critic of that knowledge claim bear the burden of proving? A common sense view of this matter, my view, holds that the burden of proof belongs to the critic.6 But this is indeed worthy of a full paper of its own.
Willard has written an exciting book that will be widely read. It could easily be used in college- or seminary-level courses for apologetics, Christian worldview, introduction to philosophy, and lower-division philosophy of religion. Especially given that its last chapter, chapter 8, “Pastors as Teachers of the Nations,” reveals that the book is aimed primarily at leaders within the Christian faith (Willard refers to them all conveniently as “pastors”), the book could also be profitably used in a range of ministry courses. As with most of Willard’s books, I expect it will be widely used in churches in adult education classes and thoughtful reading groups. Finally, I am hoping to use this book in my own university’s training program for new professors, Seminar on Faith and the Academic Profession.
Cite this article
- Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA:HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).
- A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (New York,NY: Harper & Row, 1961).
- Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Rediscovering Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (San Francisco:HarperCollins Publishers, 2006); Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs,CO: NavPress, 2002); The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: Harper,1998); The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper and Row,1988); Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1999). This is the third edition of In Search of Guidance (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1984).
- See the outstanding article on the taxonomy of this issue by Christopher W. Morgan, “Inclusivisms andExclusivisms,” in Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism, eds. Christopher W. Morgan and RobertA. Peterson (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 17-39.
- See George Edward Moore, Philosophical Papers (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1962), ch. 9, “Four Forms ofScepticism,” especially page 222, originally published George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1959.