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Dallas Willard as Prophet and Antidote
A few years ago, I was chatting with a friend who used the phrase, "irony poisoning". I was unfamiliar with the term, but it didn't take much effort to tease out the meaning; through sustained exposure to media that fixates on the bleakness of life, one's mind and spirit are gradually desensitized to anything earnest. In retrospect, it makes sense that this same friend also said that "earnest is cringe" for many of his Gen-Z peers.
I don't think many would dispute that an acrid temperament expressing deep resentment and bitterness marks much of contemporary life. Commonly cited culprits include late-stage capitalism, climate change, social media, and political polarization. Many of my generation — millennials — are prone to romanticize the halcyon days of the late 90s and early 2000s. We struggle to pinpoint what exactly precipitated the end of those days — 9/11, the financial crisis, the 2016 election — but the collective feeling seems to be that sometime in the last thirty or so years, something changed. I've heard it even half-jokingly speculated that the activation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN opened up a rift in spacetime that landed us in a strange alternate reality.
I would argue that this collective mood of strangeness has a concomitant and equally pervasive mood of un-seriousness. It's rare that I hear any of my peers speak sincerely about national holidays, or praise a public figure whom they admire and seek to pattern their life after. And I struggle to blame them, really — we're increasingly aware of our ambivalent histories. We've seen the depths of duplicity to which leaders in all spheres of influence can descend.
Along with an awareness of the contemporary mood of irony and un-seriousness, I had always felt it to be a relatively recent thing, so I was jarred when I came across this passage from Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy:
[P]eople are haunted by the idea from the intellectual heights that life is, in reality, absurd. Thus the only acceptable relief is to be cute or clever. In homes and on public buildings of the past, words of serious and unselfconscious exhortation, invocation, and blessing were hung or carved in stone and wood. But that world has passed. Now the law is "Be cute or die." The only sincerity bearable is clever insincerity. That is what the clothing and greeting card graffiti really scream out. The particular "message" doesn't matter.
Absurdity and cuteness are fine to chuckle over and perhaps to muse upon. But they are no place to live.
If you're unfamiliar with WIllard's book, you might be surprised to learn that it was not published in the last decade, but in 1997. It was refreshing to read such a sympathetic passage while I made my way through Willard's spiritual classic. I felt a little less alone, and a little less peculiar in my feelings of destabilization. The aforementioned "halcyon days" were suddenly shown to be just as marked by insincerity and despair as the present. Its prescience even hinted at the timelessness of such a feeling. Despite longing for the days when "words of unselfconscious exhortation" were engraved on buildings, the fact that Willard expresses such a desire suggests to me that irony and sincerity perennially struggle with one another in human hearts throughout time. Fittingly, the human heart is the very thing Willard, and, in his view, God, is concerned with.
Willard had been on my radar for much of my life. Growing up as an evangelical in Southern California, I had heard his name and work mentioned and often praised. Willard was neither a theologian nor clergyman, but a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California who loved his students and his local church. He saw himself principally as a teacher, not a writer, and only began publishing his work when asked. As an academic, he treated with full intellectual seriousness the matter of Christian spiritual formation, and is credited as an influential figure in late twentieth and early twenty-first century Christianity.
Given the faces of American Christianity over the last couple of decades, though, I've wondered how influential he has actually been. Wherever one looks in the church, it seems as if pragmatism, compromise, and hostility are the order of the day. Culture wars seem to occupy the concerns of many corners of the church, regardless of ideological persuasion. In an evangelical congregation, you might hear a particular presidential candidate lauded along with fears about what is being taught in public schools. In a more mainline pulpit, the clergy might lambast that very same president and all who voted for him while advocating a form of "justice" that somehow feels simultaneously self-righteous and self-flagellating. But Willard's work looks at the same tendencies of the church throughout history and faces them down with kindness, conviction, and even humor.
Willard argues that much of the church, and humanity's, dysfunction results from the fact that people don't take seriously the notion that God's way of operating in the world, is not only desirable, but actually attainable. In his view, eternal life is something that is freely available to ordinary people and freely able to be experienced now.
How can such knowledge be accessed? For his source material, Willard looks to the Sermon on the Mount. The book is a sort of extended commentary on Christ's sermon. He describes it as Christ's teaching on "the meaning of the availability of the heavens." Rather than a series of atomic and isolated ethical vignettes, he argues that the sermon is a coherent piece, referring to it as the "discourse on the mount". Its contents are not laws, or "banal legalism", but simple statements about the truths of life. Thus, the poor in spirit "are called 'blessed'" not because of an inherently "meritorious condition", but simply because the good news of the kingdom is available and freely given to them as they are. In Willard's words, "no human condition excludes blessedness." Such blessedness is the starting point for everything that follows.
For Willard, the ethical directives of the sermon are in direct alignment with the character of a freely loving and merciful God, and are indeed able to be practiced by people who have encountered such love and mercy. And Willard points out that the ethical concerns addressed aren't simply matters of propriety or socially acceptable sins — Jesus directly addresses the darkest parts of the human heart: contempt, rage, manipulation, lust, and judgment.
Willard's discussion of these vices is grounded and even tangible. He corporeally describes anger as a "feeling that seizes us in our body", and contempt as the "studied degradation of another". To see how contempt plays itself out in daily life, one need only think of how one digitally visible misstep or transgression often leads to the unearthing of countless others in the shaming rituals of social media. His treatment of lust feels uncomfortably applicable to our day. Writing well before the MeToo movement, Willard writes that "'The look' is a public act with public effects that restructure the entire framework of personal relations where it occurs," and argues that "Sexual harassment as we know it would simply disappear under Jesus' ethic of sexuality." And it's difficult to argue with his argument — if relationships between people were marked by a desire to truly seek the best for another, it would all but preclude domineering, consumptive, or hedonistic treatment.
I could continue to recapitulate Willard's exposition, but I think the foregoing examples show that Willard's treatment, and its source material, speak directly to many contemporary concerns in a forthright way that must be contended with. But while all of this sounds good, it's difficult to imagine putting it into practice. Whether or not we want to pattern our life on the Sermon on the Mount, and build our proverbial houses on rock instead of sand, the matter of human willpower nonetheless vexes us.
In the matter of willpower, quotidian drudgery, pain, and boredom can often feel overwhelming. The felt experience of life often does suggest that reality is, to revisit an earlier notion, absurd. One need only think about recent headlines to feel that the biblical "powers" of Sin, Death, and The Devil area actually calling the shots. And these powers are good at deflection and often elide easy identification: circumstances that impede our happiness become Sin, Death becomes an escape from pain, and The Devil is whoever is responsible for our present predicament. We embrace vices as appropriate responses to absurdity — contempt for our enemies becomes "righteous anger", judgment becomes "justice", and lust becomes "self-care".
And if there's one shortcoming of Willard's book, I would say it's that he doesn't give the aforementioned powers their due diligence. The New Testament makes plain that dark principalities still occupy our world and vie for dominance, though they will have their promised due one day. These active forces underly the felt absurdity of life, and when one neglects their reality, one runs the risk of falling into idealistic triumphalism that will invariably disappoint.
But thankfully, there is a deeper, more true reality underlying everything. It is this reality that Willard consistently points to. Speaking of the kingdom life's availability for all, he writes, "Personal need and confidence in Jesus permits any person to blunder right into God's realm." The mercy of God is not contingent on a person's ability to live in light of it — it is simply given free of charge. Practicing and embodying such love is rather a happy consequence of simply acknowledging what is already true.
What is the significance of all of this for those who have been poisoned by irony, who have inundated their minds with dank memes and Twitter dunks? I think reading books like Willard's are like an earnest splash of cold water, a megaphone of sincerity, an elixir of hope (insert metaphor of choice here). Reading a book like The Divine Conspiracy feels almost like a countercultural act. It does not offer hacks or witticisms. It will not tell you how to outsmart your enemies, or correct your problematic relatives. It simply reminds you that we are more than "particles and progress", that in the midst of "Commercials, catch words, political slogans, and high-flying intellectual rumors [that] clutter our mental and spiritual space," there is a hopeful message for us, our friends, and our enemies. It tells us that we actually can experience the faith, hope, and love that are already ours. Seriously.