Dallas Willard has carved out a place of authority in evangelicalism as a leader in spiritual formation. The title of his new book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne, 2009) sounds as if he is making a case for subjective experience as the most reliable way of understanding God and the Scriptures. Actually, this book begins with a robust defense of the objectivity of Christianity’s truth claims.
Knowing Christ Today starts out strong:
“This book is about knowledge and about claims to knowledge in relationship to life and Christian faith. It is concerned, more precisely, with the trivialization of faith apart from knowledge and with the disastrous effect of a repositioning of faith in Jesus Christ, and of life as his students, outside the category of knowledge.” (1)
Willard claims that “a life of steadfast discipleship to Jesus Christ can be supported only upon assured knowledge of how things are, of the realities in terms of which that life is lived.” (7) Far from seeing knowledge in opposition to faith, Willard believes that “knowledge is a friend to faith, essential to faith and to our relationship with God in the spiritual life.” (10)
For Willard, belief is not powerful enough to govern our life unless it is connected to knowledge – specifically, the truth and evidence that knowledge is built upon. Our belief is strengthened when we understand that our knowledge of Christianity is just as vital and valuable as our knowledge in other spheres in life. The Christian faith is based, not merely in preferences or emotions, but in actual knowledge.
Willard makes some great points in the first third of this book. He emphasizes the need for those who profess faith in Christ to back up their commitment with knowledge. He sees knowledge as important for our Christian witness in the world. He calls Christians to stand firm on what we know to be true, even if society relegates our truth claims to the realm of belief.
Willard describes recent shifts in Western thinking about morality. He writes:
“This is what has now changed – not just which things are good or bad, right or wrong, but the very status of good and right themselves and of the difference it makes whether you are good or right or their opposites.” (68)
Willard’s analysis goes to the root issues that have led to our degenerating society:
“To say that moral knowledge has disappeared is just to say that what those people knew, and know now, is no longer made available to the public as knowledge by the institutions of knowledge in our social and political system, though it was so made available at times in the past.” (72)
Willard is right. The decline of moral values did not take place because some people in society simply woke up one morning and decided that certain taboos of the past were now acceptable. The true shift took place when morality was removed from the public sphere and treated as subjective.
Though Willard emphasizes knowledge in this book, he understands that knowledge is not enough. The human heart is irrational, leading us to choose not to believe what we know. We know we’re probably not going to win the lottery and yet we continue to play the lottery. Human life is full of self-delusion.
Willard also makes good points regarding the separation of church and state. He writes:
“The real significance of church and state is that religion is not teaching something that would be known in the knowledge of morality… If it were seriously imagined that the teachings of Christianity or other religious constituted a vital and irreplaceable knowledge of reality, there would be no more talk of the separation of church and state than there is of the separation of chemistry or economics and state.” (32)
Though Knowing Christ Today starts out well, the middle section focuses on rational reasons for the existence of God. These chapters are substantive, but there is nothing particularly new in Willard’s approach. It would have been better for him to footnote other apologetic resources and continue on with his initial thesis. Instead, the middle of the book feels like an academic excursus that goes on too long.
Later, the book takes a turn for the worse. Whenever Willard writes about Jesus, it is in the context of following Jesus as just a moral example. While Christ’s teaching is indeed a window into the love of God, I believe we learn much more about God’s love by examining his sacrificial death. But Willard never takes us to the cross – the very heart of our faith. His picture of Jesus in this book is so tilted to Jesus-as-example, that we miss out on the richer, more glorious picture in Scripture.
At the end of the book, Willard opens the door to inclusivism. He writes:
“Many people who are Christians by certain identifiable human standards – say, by baptism church membership, having ‘prayed to receive Christ,’ or regular partaking of the sacraments – still lack the inward ‘circumcision’ of which Paul here speaks. On the other hand, any who lack those recognizable marks, but have the inward heart God looks for is acceptable to God – no matter in what other ways they may or may not be identifiable.” (180)
It is interesting to watch as Willard himself pulls back from embracing the implications of his statements. He knows that inclusivism could affect our missionary passion. So he writes:
“…the Christian pluralism of which we here speak is not the Christian gospel. In fact, Christian pluralism is not really very ‘good news’ at all. It is more like a ‘loophole’ than a gospel. There is little or nothing in it that gives hope to the individual.” (188)
I appreciate Willard’s admission that inclusivism leads to bad missiological implications. But he has already flung wide the door for those implications by leaving the “loophole” in the first place.
Overall, Knowing Christ Today is a very uneven book. It starts out well and then takes a turn that, in the end, left me as baffled. Willard’s proposal is designed to help Christians consider the source and authority of morality, religion, and spiritual knowledge in our society today, but many of his affirmations lead to confusion rather than clarity.