Dallas Willard, Evangelical Salvation and the Spirituality of Resistance

[Recently I’ve made a few more posts at HomebrewedChristianity.com.   Scroll down and click on their sidebar badge to the right side of the screen to take you there.  The post below is a re-post from the Homebrewed blog last week.]

“Isn’t the whole point of Christianity salvation? Not in terms of being “saved” from “eternal fire” but in terms of being saved from bondage, shame, fear, injustice, and all the other hells around us all the time… so that we can become new beings and find our true identities to “save” this world and all of humanity with it, with God leading the way. Not with platitudes but with actual restoration?” – Ryan Miller, re-quoted by Tony Jones

This tribute comes a bit late in terms of the speed and lifespan of internet news, but I hope Dallas Willard’s death just means that the best reflection on his work and the appreciation for his contribution and what kind of person he was has only begun.

Like no one else perhaps, as a philosopher-theologian of the human spirit, Willard rescues evangelical Christians from bad soteriology.  This is partly because he is able to speak the language so well and then transform it by uncovering its lack of depth.   He and a few others did this for me a while back, and I remain very grateful.

Willard says:

Spiritual formation is not something that may, or may not, be added to the gift of eternal life . . . It is the path one must be on if his or hers is to be an eternal kind of life” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 59).

I understand this as one of the great shortcomings of certain Protestant theologies – namely, the dualism of justification and sanctification that reduces salvation – or worse, “the gospel” – to the former.  As soon as salvation becomes something we simply get after death that must be “paid for,” I believe it loses its force.

But obviously we don’t see those like Willard going back to Medieval Catholicism either.  No, they’re much more Eastern than that. In other words, the urgency of salvation for Willard and others is transformation – and for transformation’s sake.  That is, not because of a self-interested preoccupation with avoiding punishment.[i]

For many though, I suspect this isn’t anything new, and some would even suggest it’s not enough – possibly because it still seems so focused on personal piety.  It’s ahistorical.  Salvation, whatever it is, should be more social, more political!  And Willard should be more aware of the role of gender in his diagnosis of the nature of sin, etc.

This is probably all true…

Recently I was reading Dorothee Soelle’s book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance.  Chapter eleven opens with the following from Theodor Adorno:

“As far as possible, we ought to live as we believe we should live in a liberated world, in the form of our own existence, with all the unavoidable contradictions and conflicts that result from this. . . . Such endeavor is by necessity condemned to fail and to meet opposition, yet there is no option but to work through this opposition to the bitter end.  The most important form that this will take today is resistance.”

Soelle goes on to talk about how, unlike the European Marxist workers’ movements, the American farmworkers movement was led by a man who prepared himself carefully for every action through fasting and prayer.  Cesar Chavez, knowing poverty intimately, once fasted twenty-four days before a large and very dangerous strike.  Those who knew Chavez described him as free and happy.

As least for now and in my context, I’ve come to agree with Soelle that the term “liberation” is to some degree inadequate, and could maybe be replaced with the word “resistance.”  My conviction, following Soelle, is not just that we need mysticism and resistance.  Rather, it’s that today, mysticism, or contemplative spirituality, is a very important form of resistance.

Specifically Soelle shows how mysticism serves to resist the ego, accumulation, and violence.  She criticized the First World for its failure to learn resistance.  Despite our “knowledge,” we are powerless.  She speaks of how most of the great women and men of mystical movements for a time being indeed practiced the contemplative “way inwards,” but their aim was consistently the unity of the contemplative and the active life, of ora et labora (work and prayer).

The superordination of contemplating over acting was criticized and overcome by the likes of Eckhart and Teresa of Avila.  “To know God means to know what has to be done,” Levinas said.  The mystics only echo back, “and here’s how you know!”

I might differ with Willard in this regard: spiritual formation doesn’t have to be the starting point for transformation.  As Soelle insists, “oneness with God, beginning in action, can also discover the mystical unity that undergirds resistance” (p. 201).  Nonetheless, for those of us whose faiths weren’t born out of the fruit of resistance movements, we’d probably do well to still apply the spiritual wisdom of Dallas Willard.

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