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Willard on Faith, Myth Making, and the “Intellectual Slums”

I’ve been looking forward to Dallas Willard’s latest book for a while now, and was happy to see it arrive on my doorstep yesterday afternoon.  Willard is tackling the question of whether/how the claims of faith constitute genuine knowledge (as opposed to private beliefs, opinions, emotions, blind commitments, etc).  I’ve only had time to read the introduction thus far, but it looks like a very intriguing, not to mention timely, project.  Here’s a few quotes from Knowing Christ Today:

[W]e are bound to ask, is it possible to know the things you believe as a Christian?  To what extent?  And does it really matter whether you do or not?  Doesn’t Christian faith automatically relegate you to an intellectual slum?  Many—religious or not—deeply feel that it does.  Some even think you should be proud of the slum.  That is the status history has managed to hang upon faith…. In some quarters great faith has been equated with a belief or commitment that manages to sustain itself, with great effort, against knowledge—or at least with no support from knowledge.  Faith is then regarded as essentially a kind of struggle.  Some speak of the “lonely person of faith” as an admirable but odd manifestation of heroic willpower.

The cultural context in which the ordinary western Christian lives assumes that

the basic teachings of Christianity—the existence of a personal God, his intervention and direction in human affairs, the spiritual nature of human beings, the fundamental reliability of the Bible and central teachings of the church, and so forth—have been discovered to be false or without credible evidence.  In short, Christianity has been “found out,” and it is at best only a set of humanly contrived myths and traditions, if not an outright fraud.

Against this pervasive (and, according to Willard, pedagogically entrenched) cultural understanding of the nature of faith, Willard describes one of the central themes of his book:

[T]he developments of modern thought have not shown the substance of Christian teaching to be false or groundless.  There have been many discoveries, to be sure, but none producing that result, or even close.  Modern discoveries, therefore, have not shown that Christianity’s central teachings do not or cannot form a body of knowledge accessible to capable and responsible inquirers.  Certainly the currently prevailing myth of intellectual and academic life is that this has been shown.  But myth making, as it turns out, is not the sole prerogative of religion.  It is also a very active secular and academic pastime—and a human one as well.

Should be an interesting read.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    I would be interested in finding out how faith claims could be considered knowledge.

    “Certainly the currently prevailing myth of intellectual and academic life is that this has been shown. But myth making, as it turns out, is not the sole prerogative of religion.”

    Hopefully it is not accomplished by trying show that everything we consider knowledge is just a prevailing myth, narrative or whatever postmodern term is in vogue. That would be disappointing.

    June 5, 2009
    • Yeah, I’m curious to see where he goes in this book. I think that even Willard will have to grant at some point that the claims of faith represent knowledge of a different sort than the knowledge we have of the empirical world. That’s not to say that “spiritual knowledge” (Willard’s term) is not related to or informed by empirical knowledge, just that the meta-claims of religion seem to go beyond what can be known empirically. I’m sure he’ll address something like this at some point, but I’m not very far in yet.

      June 7, 2009
  2. Ken #

    In the quotes it seems that Willard views the “substance” of Christianity as “teachings.” Unless he has changed course since he wrote Divine Conspiracy, I suspect that teachings refers to morality, or how to live.

    Looking for the substance of anything is inherently reductive. My impression is that Dallas Willard reduces Christianity to morality.

    I don’t believe Christianity is reducible to morality or anything else.

    June 7, 2009
  3. It’s been a while since I read The Divine Conspiracy, but I don’t recall thinking that Willard reduced Christianity to morality. I certainly haven’t gotten that sense so far in this one. Perhaps Willard emphasizes morality, at times, to counter those who reduce Christianity to something like “justification by faith alone” and to emphasize the importance of spiritual formation. I don’t really know for sure.

    June 8, 2009
  4. Ken #

    I agree that Willard would not approve of reducing Christianity to something like “justification by faith alone.” I do not think, however, that this is what he leans against. Rather, he leans against modern culture, against atheism and materialism. In lectures he gave at Stanford he expressed it as Nietzsche against Christ.

    Willard talks and writes extensively about how we should live. In the Stanford lectures he said that if we live the way Jesus taught us to live we would see that it is a better way to live than the alternative provided by modern culture (as described by Nietzsche.) That is what he appears to mean by the “body of knowledge accessible to capable and responsible inquirers.”

    Willard’s central concern is morality. His central claim is that in morality, which he associates with the teachings of Jesus, is the salvation of the world.

    My impression is that opposition to modern culture and an emphasis on how to live (morally) have always been emphasized in evangelicalism. Willard may be popular among progressive evangelicals because he is an intellectual philosopher, he opposes modern culture, and he believes Jesus advocated contemporary progressive values (especially those associated with communitarianism.)

    In my own experience, “capable and responsible inquirers” reach many different conclusions about truth (or the lack of it in a universal sense) and how best to live. Willard’s position is that people who do not agree with his conclusions are mistaken, which is to say, apparently suffering from incapability or irresponsibility.

    June 8, 2009

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