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Dallas Willard – Laying the Foundation

17 December 2007

Finally back to this “assignment” given to me by my friend, GS.

To be able to unpack Dr. Willard’s thinking as it relates specifically to Christian discipleship, we’ve got to find a starting point in his larger perspective as a philosopher.  (Humor me:  I’m going to speak of religious theory and its implications for character, will, and behavior as a coherent subset of the broader world of philosophy.  If that grates against you in some way, believe me when I say I understand.  But I’m going to do it anyway, leaving the nuances of the counterarguments for someone else to grapple with.)

Dr. Willard is fond of laying the groundwork for his ethical teaching by posing these four questions as the most important questions that a human can ask with respect to the formation of character:

1. What is reality?

2. What is the good life?

3. Who is a really good person?

4. How does one get to be a really good person?

Ethical theories, to be coherent, must answer these major questions coherently; their answers, in other words, cannot contradict one another, and they must proceed from a common set of premises.

Now, clearly, Christianity (in both its revealed and its derived dimensions) answers those questions in a particular way.  But we would get ahead of ourselves to start with a specifically Christian approach.  At least Willard does not.  Instead, he gets the ball rolling by considering what “knowledge” is:

A person has knowledge of a certain subject matter if he or she is capable of representing it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience—not to exclude authority correctly used.

I do not know why Willard qualifies his definition that way.  One might be tempted to argue that the ability to “represent things as they are” is by itself a sufficient condition to establish something as knowledge.  Perhaps he has in mind that even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, if only by chance; that is, even an idiot may be able to represent things as they are from time to time.

More importantly here, though, is the triune basis for knowledge.  As we listen to Dr. Willard, we find that an appropriate basis for knowledge – leave aside the standard for judging what constitutes “appropriate” in this case – consists in the balanced interaction of (a) authority, (b) thought/reason, and (c) experience.  Willard is highly skeptical of any “knowledge” that does not appeal to all three of those sources in a balanced way.  A helpful thought experiment for Willard’s readers is to try to imagine or recall circumstances in which one of those three pillars of knowledge was absent, and then to consider how the resulting “knowledge” was actually a distortion of reality rather than an accurate representation of it.

An aside here, while we consider what knowledge is.  Dr. John Patrick, a physician/scholar/professor in Ottawa, speaks frequently of “tacit knowledge.”  He illustrates tacit knowledge as that kind of knowledge that is intuitive but no less accurate because of its basis in intuition, as in the kind of craftsmanship that yields a Stradivarius rather than an inferior violin built from the same raw materials, templates and instructions; or the kind of knowledge by which the answer to “who is the finest obstetrician in town?” takes on the mantle of verifiable truth rather than merely a smattering of opinions.  I do not know how Patrick’s “tacit knowledge” fits into Willard’s framework – I have not taken the time to reason that out – but I have a sense that Willard would admit Patrick’s “tacit knowledge” as a canonical form, properly constrained.

Next, Willard describes the morally good person as

…[A] person who is seriously intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are [sic] effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. Thus, moral goodness is a matter of the organization of the human will into a character rationally devoted to the promotion of human goods.

Thus far, Willard has not appealed to anything that is distinctively  or overtly Christian, although you can surely hear the echoes of agape here.  That is, no doubt, in part a function of Willard’s Christian world view; thus his reasoning will always be circular in some sense.  (I do not know if circularity necessarily implies incoherence, but I doubt it.)

But again, the larger point to be noted here is that Willard is nothing if not an ethical pragmatist.  His caveats, for example, restrict the scope of one’s ethical responsibility (i. e., goods “with which he is effectively in contact” and “can actually promote”) and appear to respect the situational priorities (i. e., “in a manner that respects [the goods’] relative degrees of importance”).  Willard has little use for an ethics that cannot be brought to bear on concrete circumstances and that does not promise some form of concrete, beneficial, observable result to the society.

There is a great deal more to be said about these things, but Willard says them better than I do.  No doubt he would quarrel with me on some aspects of my summary, which is necessarily abbreviated.  But in the main, Willard’s ethical thinking is rooted in an interactively three-faceted concept of knowledge and a devotion to practical goods.

We still have a ways to go before Willard’s thinking takes us in a uniquely Christian direction.  This is plenty of food for thought all by itself.

BTW – Dr. Willard’s vigor and haleness notwithstanding, surely he is within a decade or so of retirement.  Who is going to coordinate the Festschrift devoted to Dr. Willard’s long and distinguished career in philosophy and religion?  I’d love to hear from you if you are that person.


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