Home > Uncategorized > Book Review: Knowing Christ Today, by Dallas Willard

Book Review: Knowing Christ Today, by Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard is one of my favorite authors. He is exceptionally wise, and writes with clarity. Knowing Christ Today is about knowledge: what it is, how we obtain it, and how it relates to things like belief, faith, and commitment–in particular knowledge about Christ, and faith in Christ.

I realized recently that this subject, that is the subject of how we know things (epistemology), is probably my single favorite philosophical terrain. I think it is fascinating and important thing to think about. What impressed me about this book is how clearly and effectively Willard brings to light the intellectual and moral disaster of modernity: how it came about, and how it affects all of our society. But what is this disaster? Well, for Willard, the disaster begins with a denial of certain categories of knowledge. In general “spiritual” or “religious” concepts are thought to be completely outside of the domain of obtainable knowledge; they have been relegated to the realm of personal conviction. A person may have religious beliefs–he may not, modernity believes, be said to have religious knowledge.

This is, at least, the working assumption of our secular academic institutions today. A person certainly cannot be said to have knowledge of God; it is even laughable to think this. Beliefs relating to God (for example, the Christian confessions) are simply not in the realm of knowledge. The irony here is that our western academic principles were originally built on practically the opposite assumption: that all knowledge is, in some way or another, related to knowledge of God. This, in fact, is the true foundation of the scientific method (though that is too long a story to get into here).

Willard summarizes how this state of affairs has come about:

In the Western world, a great historical struggle between what might be called “traditional” knowledge, represented by the church, and modern knowledge, represented by science, has brought us to where many can only think of religion as mere belief or commitment. A significant part of what the traditional “Christian” authority in late medieval and early modern Europe presented as knowledge turned out not to be knowledge at all. Some of it was shown to be false by genuine advances in knowledge, and some of it was found to be based upon unreliable or questionable sources. A pervasive mood of rejection then arose. That mood became in intellectual and academic lifestyle and spread across the social landscape as an authority in its own right. It branded all traditional and religious “knowledge” as mere illusion or superstition and all of the sources of such knowledge as unreliable or even delusory. This mood came, with no logical justification whatever, to govern the world of Western thought, and you will see it today in the popular works of anti-Christian and antireligious writers. Over a period of time the status of “knowledge” came to be reserved, as a matter of definition, to the subject matters of mathematics and the “natural” sciences–and questionably, to that of the “social” or “human” sciences as well. (Emphasis mine)

I am amazed by the concision and depth of insight in this paragraph. Willard rightly labels the present intellectual climate, in which rejection of religious knowledge is automatic, as having originated as a mood of rejection, with no real logical foundation or justification. That is exactly what it, as a phenomena, boils down to–I have always felt something like this but never have I been able to put it into such words. I have heard how religious topics are discussed in the halls of the academy, how something quite other than reason seems to be the primary fuel for how one moves from proposition to proposition, where there is rarely a logical deduction in sight. What is amazing to see that this is the case among people who, in many other areas, demonstrate extraordinary gifts of careful thought and honest inquiry.

Willard believes that academic institutions serve a vital purpose in society. Thus we are in a crisis now because secular academia has been left to do a job it can’t manage. Among other things, it is expected to provide moral instruction. It can’t manage this task because the sort of knowledge really required for such a task–that is, knowledge of God, and in particular of Jesus Christ–has been ruled beforehand out as impossible. For Willard, the solution to this, in its most basic form, is simple: to avoid complete disaster, we need to, as the title of the book suggests, know Christ today. We need to return knowledge of him to the forefront of reality, so to speak. We need people to come again to know that Jesus Christ can be known. Willard spends much of the book talking about how we might come to this point.

The modern world needs to come to know the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. I fear that people would find this idea laughable. But the fact that this may seem a laughable proposition may be regarded as evidence for its truth. If one were to suggest that a lack knowledge of Plato, or knowledge of the founding fathers, or of basic science, or of anyone or anything else, was a present deficiency in our society, needing to be repaired, no one would be surprised. People might disagree, but no one would find such a position surprising. But to suggest that knowledge of Jesus Christ is something we can have, and something we desperately need…that I feel trepidation in saying this and know that many will find it utterly absurd, is evidence, I believe, that something is different about his case.

Willard is not claiming, by the way, that one “needs God to be moral”–though in a certain sense that is true. But it is not as if atheists, agnostics, Hindus, or anyone else are necessarily immoral people, compared to Christians. That is not the point. To one who believes Christ to be everything that he is claimed to be, all moral knowledge is knowledge of Christ. People may come across this, or be blessed with it (“common grace”) without explicit knowledge of its author (Willard, in fact, focuses on this at length in one chapter). But it is also true, as a historical fact, that Christianity, the movement begun by Jesus, brought important knowledge of Christ to the world that had not had it before. And it is also a historical fact that the modern world, at large, no longer listens to Jesus much. To Willard, this is what is at the root of an intellectual and moral crisis that only Jesus himself can fix.

What impresses me about Willard’s presentation of these things is that he so clearly and consistently communicates the idea that Jesus Christ himself has something real to offer the world: knowledge of truth, of reality, of how things really are. One would think, in fact, that this would go without saying–but I suspect that, for many people today, it would not even occur to them to think of the offer of Christianity in those terms. This is, as Willard discusses, primarily a result of the fact that we no longer think of faith as being a matter of knowledge–we separate the two by misunderstanding what each (and particularly faith) is.

In particular, faith in Jesus is not irrational commitment to a proposition, but rather rational commitment to a person, and absolute trust in him and his ways. What, then, does this person teach us? Among other things, Jesus teaches us that agape love–unconditional love of neighbor, and desire to will his good–besides being the moral thing that we all know it is, is actually the best thing for the individual to do. It will actually lead us into more ultimate joy and peace, being as it is the only true foundation and wellspring of eternal life, which is “to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (John 17.3). This may not mean happiness in the present, but for God who raises the dead, that is not the central concern. No one will be judged on whether they found happiness in the present.

The modern world knows that it is right to sacrifice one’s own good for that of another, or for the common good. But modernity, being centered on the present life, does not provide a deeper foundation, an ultimate justice, that gives victory to this moral principle. In the modern picture of the world, the good, though sometimes remaining good, loses. Everything all goes away; the true victory indeed goes to those who bend the rules, who use their will to get what they want, at the cost of others. Hence we–all of us–are reluctant to actually be as good as we might be, to do the things we know are truly right. Absolute love of neighbor, though admitted in theory, never truly makes it into our practice. Thus Willard writes:

We may wish to be loving–to be kind and helpful in our relations to those near us. But we do not trust love, and we think it could easily ruin our carefully guarded hold on life. We are frightened of the world we are in, and that makes us angry and hostile, and contempt makes it easier to harm or disregard the good of others. So the world boils with contempt. The more refined the human setting, the more fine-tuned the contempt.

What I like about this passage is that it points to the root of much of our sin as being in our “carefully guarded hold on life.” I find this to be quite true. I think about how much of my day to day selfishness is rooted in the long term goals I have set before myself in this life. I think about how I rationalize my disregard for this or that person, how I come up with a “moral” explanation for why I ought not help them, so that I can go about things in the way that best serves me.

We often think of contempt as being a cold and conscious disregard for others. What is scary is that it is not necessarily the case that contempt is conscious. In fact, sometimes the most damaging sort of contempt is that which we do not recognize as such, the contempt we have for those individuals we set apart from our love and feel absolutely morally justified in doing so. This is why Christ’s command to love our enemies, even to love those who probably don’t deserve it, is so important. Otherwise we will forget that our standards of goodness are not infallible–that, in fact, they are actually quite warped. And thus we will forget that we are actually not all good ourselves.

We tend to think of ourselves as being good people because we love those who, in our unconscious estimation, are deserving of our love. We come up with a philosophy of life that includes a definition of who is good: “All I ask is that people be nice and show some consideration.” “Live and let live, that is my philosophy. I can’t stand people who won’t abide by this.” We may not be perfect, but we fall on the right side of the line, according to our own standard. We thus create an idea of g0odness that satisfies our own conscience, and allows us to live as we want. Of course it is not this simple, since we are all conflicted. But, by and large, this is what we try to do.

Into this steps Jesus Christ, who tells us “for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8.35) Tomorrow is Easter, on which we celebrate the event that demonstrates that this claim is true, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This demonstrates to us–gives us true knowledge–that we need not “save our lives,” but that instead we may be saved by his life.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Anonymous
    April 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm


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