Tuesday, November 19, 2013

review of Willard's "Knowing Christ Today"

Knowing Christ Today is another fine book by Dallas Willard. I don't think it's at the level of The Spirit of the Disciplines or The Divine Conspiracy (then again, what is?!), but it's still likely worth your time. (In terms of difficulty, it's similar to the former, but less thick than the latter.) 

Willard focuses on "knowledge" and claims about knowledge. More specifically, he is concerned "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...Those beliefs are to relegated to the categories of sincere opinion, emotion, blind commitment, or behavior traditional for their social group." (1)

But this is a strange definition for belief-- whether done innocently or for more sinister purposes. "Belief cannot reliably govern life and action except in its proper connection with knowledge and with the truth and evidence [that] knowledge involves." (3) And "a steady life directed, in a communal setting, toward the good and right can be supported only within a framework of basically sound knowledge and understanding. This does not fundamentally change when we come to religion." (7)

Willard notes that belief "has no necessary tie to truth...or evidence...[it] is a matter of tendency to act...involves the will in a way that knowledge does not." (16a) This comports with the economist's discussion of tastes and preferences which underline subjective benefits and costs, which then set up the decision to act on those preferences (or not), depending on incentives. Whether theism, deism, or atheism-- whether buying pizza or working overtime-- actions will be based on beliefs and the constraints one faces.

Beyond "belief", commitment "need not involve belief, much less knowledge...choosing and implementing a course of action." (16b) And then "at an even greater distance from knowledge is profession". (17) The sad result, for many in the Church, of missing this last point? Many "confuse what they need to teach with what one must believe in order to be saved. This leads to their members professing lots of things they neither believe nor are committed to-- indeed, do not even understand." (228)

As for Christianity, Willard notes that "the central teachings of the Christian religion, such as those of the Apostles' Creed, were from the beginning presented and accepted as knowledge...the Biblical tradition as a whole presents itself, rightly or wrongly, as one of knowledge..." (19-20) Moreover, "an act of faith in the biblical tradition is always understood in an environment of knowledge and is inseparable from it." (20) So, too, with any realm where knowledge is available but insufficient for dogmatic inference. The Bible even defines eternal life as knowledge (e.g., see: John 17:3; I Jn 1:1-5, 2:3, 4:7-8,13; Phil 3:10; II Tim 2:12, II Pet 1:2-5, 3:18).

But there has been an evolution over time in beliefs about beliefs and knowledge (23-29), caused by a variety of factors (71-83)-- a change that was embraced or at least condoned by Christians (as they moved toward inner experience, the Social Gospel, or withdrew from society). "These values and principles were relocated, by subtle increments within a long drawn-out process, into the domain of feelings and cultural traditions." (71) 

Alongside the diminution of religious belief and knowledge, we've seen the over-reach of science into realms beyond its own knowledge or even its competence. As an example, Willard quotes Dr. William Provine (5): "There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either." Willard notes that these claims are "simply laughable", not addressed by the scientific literature, and in fact, not within its purview. "Myth-making, as it turns out, is not the sole prerogative of religion. It is also a very active secular and academic pastime...perhaps it is some kind of human necessity." (10)

Worse yet, many of these critics lack the intellectual honesty/integrity to study such things earnestly. In this, they ironically play the part of the dogmatic, blinkered, anti-intellectual, fundamentalist (163-164).[Willard traces this back as far as 1855 (215, FTN 5). Willard also cites Feynman as a notable exception (217).]

In chapter 2, Willard goes into "worldview", using Hosea 4:6's reference to an improper worldview built on the shifting and false sands of idolatry (37-45). From there, he describes four elements of a worldview's sense of reality (What is real? What is well-being? Who is a good person? How does one become a good person?; p. 45-50), followed by the answers that Jesus gives to these four elements (50-54). Then, Willard asks the vital 5th question (55ff): "How do we know which answers to these four questions are true?"

From there, Willard makes a case for the existence of God (ch. 4); lays out a case for miracles (ch. 5); describes the Christian sense of "abundant life" and Sanctification (ch. 6); describes the call to Christian pluralism, true tolerance/unity and inclusivity (ch. 7, esp. 181-190); and concludes with a "post-Millennial" Kingdom view with its emphasis on disciple-making based on true knowledge/wisdom (ch. 8).

On miracles, Willard notes that they cannot be ruled in an open system/universe like ours. And he notes the possibility that one law of nature can transcend other laws. Turning to the religious angle, a belief in miracles more likely stems from a belief in a personal God, rather than the passive/apathetic god of deism (126). And he has a very helpful discussion of what would constitute proper interpretation of miracles as evidentiary (128-136), including the Resurrection (133-136, 226). 

I can detail this further if you're interested and don't want to read Willard's book, but one of the punchlines is that a "miracle" would not likely be understood by someone who doesn't want to believe. So, despite the protestations of non-believers who say they would believe if God "showed Himself", it is unlikely to be sufficient since they would probably convince themselves that it had some other cause or never really happened.

Willard also runs with a cool Peter Berger quote (145-146): "...the only Christian resolution of our argument...a confrontation of our perception of society with the figure of Jesus Christ. It is this figure of the crucified one which continues to haunt both the oppressors and the oppressed, casting its shadow over the religious celebrations and at the same time intruding its disturbing light into the corners where one escapes the sacred drums...a demand that transcends both society and religion—the demand to follow this figure of the crucified one. This demand calls us to an exodus, not only out of the Egypt of social mythology but also out of the Zion of religious security...

Willard comments: "The most profound critic of society and the 'masks,' Christian and otherwise, is Jesus himself. In this respect he stands in the line of the sharp-tongued Hebrew prophets and brings it to completion. He then quotes Berger again: “the crucial point of the relationship between Christian faith and the antireligious critique is to be found in a theological proposition....something very different from religion...Religion has many critics, but Jesus very few...In him God breaks through...Christian faith is not religion."

Some other small things: 
1.) Willard makes a nice point about higher ed-- and its purposes in producing, storing, and retailing information and knowledge, if not wisdom (56). 
2.) Willard notes that knowledge comes through three means: authority, thinking, and experience (58), whereas fundamentalists of various stripes seek a narrower range to avoid "messiness" (61). 
3.) Willard provides a useful discussion of the Silver Rule ("do not do to others...") vs. the more powerful Golden Rule (89). 
4.) Willard continues to sing the praises of Frank Laubach-- and this time, recommends his book, Letters by a Modern Mystic.


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