Spiritual Disciplines in a Postmodern World: An Interview of Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard is interviewed by Luci Shaw*

Shaw: I understand you’re writing a new book.

Willard: Yes, I’m working on a book about the disappearance of moral knowledge, that is, about the cultural situation we are in now. I want to explain how that has come about. The book is more theoretical than popular; it deals with where the problem came from.

I want to make very clear what has happened. Of course the point is to be able to go back, or rather go forward, to a situation where we have reliable moral knowledge available in our culture once again. This has been a theme in my teaching for years, and it’s time to put it all down in writing.

Shaw: Are you seeing repercussions from the deconstructionist, postmodern way of thinking and of perceiving reality—is that a part of the present equation?

Willard: Yes, absolutely. That kind of understanding is, however, as much a consequence as a cause of the present condition. The basic idea is that empirical thinking has been elevated, but knowledge of the self is not empirical. It’s simply not verifiable by sense perception.

Given the triumph of empiricism and the difficulties we have in psychology with making any sense of moral knowledge, the postmodern deconstructionist stuff makes the loss of moral knowledge inevitable. I don’t want to try to refute all of those elements, but rather to help people understand how we got here.

Shaw: What do you see as the cause, the reason for movement in a direction that allows for this loss of moral knowledge?

Willard: The deepest cause is the rise of a kind of hedonism, along with an exaggerated individualism. As I put it in more technical, but I hope understandable, terms, the cause of the problem is the triumph of the will. The will is worshiped in our society.

Shaw: The will, and therefore the self?

Willard: Yes, the self. Everyone thinks that we ought to be able to do whatever we want to do.

Shaw: That’s a theme we hear constantly. For instance, on television talk shows, we’ll hear a young student proclaim, “I have a dream, and my teachers tell me I can be whatever my dream calls me to be.”

Willard: Right. We hear that over and over. Even in advertisements for recruitment in the armed services: “You can be whatever you want to be, and we can help!” Given that, we cannot then admit any moral knowledge, because that might get in the way of what we want to do.

Shaw: Conversely, if someone feels called to a more modest or less prominent role or responsibility, they may be rebuked for selling themselves short, or for lack of ambition.

Willard: Imagine a bumper sticker that says: “My child learned humility at school this month,” instead of “My child is an honor student at Success Academy.” The fact of the matter is this: the essence of morality is to tell you that in some circumstances you must do what you don’t want to do. If you have already set it up that you should be able to do whatever you want to do, then goodbye morality. Empiricism will just become an excuse.

Shaw: This new book of yours will create some controversy, I suspect. Within the academy it should create some waves.

Willard: I believe it will. I hope it will. I don’t expect it to be read as widely as my earlier works, however.

Shaw: What are your hopes and prayers for Christians in the new millennium?

Willard: This may sound pretty backward-looking, but it really is the most forward-looking thing I can imagine. My prayer is that Christians would really come to know what Jesus is up to in this world.

Shaw: That would reflect the theme of your book The Divine Conspiracy, would it not?

Willard: Yes, because The Divine Conspiracy is about how the kingdom of God is at work, and Christians need to be in on this. Good as they may be in some respects, the ordinary Christian just isn’t going to get it.

Shaw: For those who haven’t read this book, what is that “conspiracy” about?

Willard: The conspiracy is God’s plan in human history to overcome evil with good.

Shaw: And who are the characters in this conspiracy story? The conspirators? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Willard: They are in the original conspiracy, but they now have agents, sometimes working under cover—because the agents are not all Christians; and indeed, not all of them are human.

Shaw: There are supernatural powers at work?

Willard: Indeed. That is what we are told. One reason why angels have become so prominent (and that’s not all good by any means) is because of a recognition by people generally that there is much more at work in the course of human events than can be ascribed to human beings.

Shaw: Do you think that aspects of the “new physics” contribute to this?

Willard: Yes, the new physics is moving toward a view of the universe where people can see that it is for the manifestation of the glory of God.

Shaw: Isn’t that amazing? That we can come to that conclusion through human knowledge and experimentation …

Willard: Although it isn’t happening just through human knowledge. One of the fields I worked on in my graduate studies years ago was the history of science. I took a minor in that for my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin—the field was just opening up. One of the most interesting things is how much progress is due to “serendipity,” over and over and over. It just bowls you over when you get to know the history of science.

Shaw: It isn’t really just “serendipity,” is it? Perhaps it was ordained from before the foundations of the world.

Willard: Absolutely right. This is God at work in human history. This is a part of the story, and not just in science but in other areas. When you survey the overall scene you realize how little of what we call progress is due to human inventiveness, including the discoveries of Christopher Columbus—who he was and what he thought – and the court around him in Spain. We’re being trained to have this vision of how awful he was, subduing native peoples, etc., but that is shallow, shallow thinking.

Shaw: It’s accepted because it has become politically correct. That “correctness” is forcing us into false conclusions.

Willard: Of course it wasn’t just Columbus. You see the hand of God everywhere, all over. The most powerful force bringing the world together, into a situation where we’re going to have to love one another, or die, is business. Business is the primary way that the nations are being drawn together. And then space exploration.

Shaw: And our ruination of our own planet.

Willard: All of those things. I think that’s why, in the last church in the book of Revelation, we have that verse about Christ at the door, knocking. We use that image to get people to open the door of their lives to Christ. But it was the door of the church he was knocking at.

Shaw: Not just the individual heart?

Willard: No. Jesus was on the outside. He’s always out there, and we’re trying to catch up with him, if we’re not just sleeping. He comes and knocks on the door of the church and says, “Hey, you in there? If you would open the door, I would come in.” But the church gets so ingrown, so self-centered, self-absorbed, it’s not listening.

Shaw: It’s so prone to self-analysis, in a pseudopsychological mode.

Willard: Yes, and it’s a dead end.

Shaw: In your book In Search of Guidance you talk about the paradox of guidance. What are the elements of that paradox?

Willard: Well, the paradox has to do with the fact that on the one hand we talk so much about God’s guidance, and we especially want our leaders to be guided by God. Yet, when it comes down to us, we do the humble-mumble and say, “Well, you know, not me. I’m not big enough or important enough for God to bother with.”

It’s that combination: on the one hand we expect guidance, and we desperately need it, but on the other hand we’re not prepared to receive it and we think it wouldn’t really be appropriate. You have to be “kicked upstairs” to become a so-called “full-time Christian worker” for it to be appropriate.

Generally people can’t deal with this at all. Christians can’t. There’s that little joke about: “When we speak to God we call it prayer, and when he speaks to us we call it schizophrenia.” It’s a curious ambivalence that’s driven by our deep need as finite human beings.

Shaw: It’s almost like that story about Joan of Arc. When her accusers said, “Those voices you hear, they’re just your imagination,” she answered, “Yes. I know. That’s how God speaks to me.”

Willard: That’s a very good line. It’s by using our natural faculties in a certain way that God speaks to us. In a way, the paradox is the same as in the Incarnation—it’s the union of God with human beings in a relationship. The Incarnation’s much more than that, but it is that. (By the way, that book on guidance has been renamed. Its title now is Hearing God. The third edition has just come out with InterVarsity Press here and HarperCollins in Britain.)

Shaw: Is that a title you can live with, or does it short-sell the book?

Willard: Well, they did leave me the subtitle, “Developing a Conversational Relationship with God,” and that’s what it’s about. I don’t like the new title as much, because In Search of Guidance is indicative of something deep about us. We’re looking, longing, for guidance. One of the themes of the book is that we’re looking for guidance, but what we really need is something else, which includes guidance: a life lived in a conversational relationship with God.

Shaw: We really want to hear God.

Willard: Yes. So perhaps that title is not so far off the mark. I’m not unhappy with it.

Shaw: How are the spiritual disciplines to be practiced in community? What are the challenges we face as we attempt to do this?

Willard: Well, they are much more effective if they can be practiced in community, and you can’t really practice them without community. if you have a community where they are understood as a normal part of our lives, there can be instruction or teaching about them, which brings about a kind of accountability.

In the midst of that, problem-solving for individuals is so important. Because while the disciplines are not really complicated, learning them—silence, solitude, fasting, etc.—is apt to throw you on false courses, and there really needs to be some question-and-answer kind of set-up.

Shaw: As a safeguard?

Willard: Yes. We need teaching that will keep people remembering such things as: “I’m not righteous because I do this. I’m not earning points. And when I fail, at whatever—solitude, fasting—I have not sinned.” That’s one of the most important things of all, because people are so bound by legalism that they think if they fail—suppose they’re trying to fast, and the food in the refrigerator gets the best of them, and they break their fast—they feel they’ve broken a commitment to God.

Shaw: So, there could be a dark side to the spiritual disciplines. It’s possible that they could be applied or enforced in a legalistic, almost abusive way, perhaps in an effort to control or exert power?

Willard: Absolutely. It has been done, and that’s one reason why in recent years there has been an attempt to recover the disciplines because, in fact, they were lost, by and large. That is true in places you wouldn’t expect it. I have found many Roman Catholics to whom the spiritual disciplines were almost unknown, lost.

There’s a wonderful priest in Pittsburgh who has a telephone program. He’s called me occasionally when my books have come out, and one time we were on the air discussing The Spirit of the Disciplines, when someone called in and asked angrily, “Why don’t you people teach these things any more? When I was young, Sister So-and-So taught us to fast, and taught us to contemplate and be silent, and now it’s not taught any more.”

It’s true. In many quarters of the Catholic church it isn’t taught, or at least not effectively. In Protestant churches, with very little exception, it was totally lost, until back in the ’70s, some writings began to appear.

Shaw: Yes. I’m hearing some grass roots response to this lack in the evangelical community. There are numbers of small movements toward a more contemplative life. I’m part of a California group, Women at the Well, which is an effort to show women in evangelical groups that it’s possible to hear God’s voice for ourselves—if we know how to listen in silence and solitude. But so many are afraid of silence, and of being alone. They wonder, What if nothing happens? What if God ignores me? Or what if he isn’t there? But on a three-day retreat, in gradual steps, and given some simple tools, people can begin to experience contemplation for themselves, and it’s transformative.

Willard: Well, that’s wonderful. The disciplines are self-validating. Now that I’ve had a long experience of teaching them and practicing them, I can’t remember a case when the disciplines, when seriously practiced, did not validate themselves. That is, I cannot recall a person coming back to me, and saying, “Hey, you know, this doesn’t work.”

Shaw: When St. Paul speaks about a “thorn in the flesh,” presumably he had some tenacious weakness or personal defect that he couldn’t seem to rid himself of, even with persistent prayer. Is this a sort of caveat to people with a perfectionistic nature? How does this operate with the disciplines that you teach?

Willard: Beautifully, really. That passage is about the answer Paul gets from God. Because he does get an answer, not silence. His prayer was answered.

Shaw: “God’s strength is made perfect in human weakness.”

Willard: That’s the key. And the key to the disciplines, because the disciplines are actually learning how to access the strength of God and the power of God.

Paul, in another passage, says, “I glory in my tribulations.” How can that be? Well, it was because, in his tribulations, he knew that the life of God was flowing in him. That was the one thing he wanted above all, in Philippians 3: “That I might know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.”

See, Paul knew this (I wish I had time to write a book about it). Paul “got it.” Maybe John grew into it later, but Paul understood it, and lived it, and it showed in his behavior. That’s why he wouldn’t come into town in a limousine, with a large staff and an expense account, enjoying the status of Apostle.

Shaw: He came as a maker of tents. A small businessman.

Willard: As we’re told in I Corinthians 15, he could say, “I was the least of the apostles. But the grace of God worked more effectively in me than in any.”

Shaw: Doesn’t this speak to the current ideology of personal empowerment? Think of the “downward mobility” of Jesus in Philippians 2.

Willard: That’s right, it speaks powerfully to it, because if we want to know what power really is, we have to step into the kingdom of humility. To learn how it works, the disciplines are indispensable.

Solitude is central precisely because it breaks us free of the world in which we’re used to exercising power or having power exercised over us. Solitude and silence together, when adequately practiced, form a framework within which we can absolutely and constantly be aware of the movement of God in us, and know it is not us. This is why the disciplines are so essential, because they break away that competing world that we have identified with. We are often just puppets of our own egotism and that of others.

Shaw: Those disciplines attune us to the wave-length of the Word of God and the voice of God, but we have to have our antennae out to receive the messages. Silence and solitude leave us undistracted, so that the messages come through clear and true.

But can a Christian believer actually become Christ-like? Like Christ? Do you think flawed and finite human beings can really become like the Son of God?

Willard: They can become that in such a way that it will be obvious to others that they are followers of Christ. This is the true ecumenicism—for people to follow Christ until they become like him. It is not a matter of external behavior. If you try to become Christ-like in your external behavior you will simply turn into a devoted legalist, and people will run from you.

Shaw: But your own self-consciousness about your inadequacies will be exaggerated, because, when you’re living to please others by external behavior, everything you do or don’t do is magnified in its significance.

Willard: That way lies paralysis, futility, and, as Jesus knew, hypocrisy. He warned of the “leaven of the Pharisees,” and the reason for that is because when you try to conform at the outward level you fail, but because you’re so driven you begin to fake it.

Shaw: Change of topic. There’s the exponentially growing emphasis on spirituality, and on being “spiritual.” But the definition of spirituality varies drastically, depending on who promotes it, including those whom we would not acknowledge as Christian. So what are the distinctives of a Christian spirituality?

Willard: The distinctive of Christian spirituality is precisely the formation of the inward person, one who becomes like Christ on the inside. The objective is that obedience to Christ would be achieved. But that is not the focus. The focus is on inward transformation into Christlikeness. The old, much-used, but too little applied, statement of Paul in Galatians 4:19 is that “Christ be formed in you.”

The short answer is, it’s the inner transformation of will, mind, and emotions into likeness to Christ’s will, mind, and emotions. We think like Christ, we feel like Christ, we choose Christ’s character, and it moves out into our body, our surroundings, and everything we do. But the transformation is essentially inward.

Shaw: Does that transformation begin to extinguish our human characteristics, or does it make us more fully human?

Willard: Well, here I’ve got to give a more complicated response. If we think, as I do, of the human character, the human being, as creative will (that is, its likeness to God, who is creative will without limit), that means we’re designed to create good. Of course, good not just for ourselves but in a more general sense. Now, if we take that to be human nature, our spirituality is the only thing that can make it possible and cause it to flourish.

Currently, to go back to our initial discussion, about the loss of moral knowledge, it is a dogma in intellectual and academic circles that there is no such thing as human nature. The practical image of the human being is of a consumer, an individual who does what he or she wants to do, and derives from it a lot of pleasure …

Shaw: … And responds positively to marketing initiatives.

Willard: Yes, and that’s partly because they’re conditioned to think of themselves as consumers. The person disappears, because the true person is not a consumer, but a creative will.

We are designed to be creators, initiators, not just receivers. Yet the whole model, the consumerist model of the human being, is to make us passive, and to make us complainers and whiners, because we’re not being given what we need. We cook up a “right” to that and then we say we’ve been deprived of our rights.

We see this in our churches, which pander to consumers. They say, “Come and consume the services we offer, and we guarantee you a wonderful time. You’ll go out of the church door feeling good.”

Shaw: Does this have something to say to the so-called “seeker-friendly” churches?

Willard: That language is a manifestation of the tendency to use words to get a leg-up on some else. I can’t imagine anyone being more seeker-friendly than Jesus was, but he didn’t pander. He never tried to attract people with a song-and dance. You can’t imagine him giving away embossed copies of the Sermon on the Mount to his supporters, or to the people who promised to come back to church next Sunday.

Shaw: What was it about Jesus that people found so magnetizing?

Willard: I think it was the authority that people sensed in him: he knew what he was talking about. That was what drew them to him. Then, as they listened to him talking about God, they realized that God was not a condemning God, and that Jesus wasn’t about to condemn them. He knew they were already over-loaded with condemnation and didn’t need him to add to their load. He said, “I didn’t come into the world to condemn the world.”

So people were encouraged lepers, and prostitutes, and tax-collectors, and Romans, and publicans – those people who were on the fringes. That’s really the story of the gospel, how these people were drawn to him.

Shaw: Dallas, in my own very limited personal contact with you, I’ve sensed a largeness and a generosity of spirit, which, I suspect, is a reflection of God’s largeness and compassion—his grace in your own life. How is God’s grace mediated to you in daily living?

Willard: Well, this may sound a little irreligious, I’m afraid, but it’s primarily through creation. I’m sitting here, enjoying the sight of a lemon tree outside my window. I don’t know if it was because I was raised ’way out in the country where there really wasn’t anything other than nature to see, but still, the most vivid images to me are of the abundance of creation. Grace is abundance. It’s overflow. It’s God giving for the sake of giving.

Shaw: For the joy of it. Exhilaration.

Willard: You know, when I was young, and lived ’way out there, it’s the abundant productiveness of nature that sticks with such beauty in my mind. A flock of sheep, and lambs, and cows, and trees, and fruit, and squirrels—I really do draw from that. It’s the first thing that strikes me when I get up in the morning. Then mediation comes to me through the Word of God in meditation and prayer and the words of others around me.

Shaw: Those responses to nature are the responses of a poet. That’s how poetry comes into being, when there’s a sudden excitement and exhilaration of spirit in just observing and being part of that creation, seen in its daily detail and singularity.

Willard: And only poetry is adequate to express it. Or perhaps dance.

Shaw: I think music expresses that same wonder and exuberance. But non-verbally. Or at least with a different kind of language. The genius of poetry is that it verbalizes what many people have felt without quite knowing how to express it.

Willard: I know how the experience is mediated to us in English. But even in the Greek, which may very well not have been Jesus’ language, it just seems that everything he touches is poetry.

His words sing like nothing else I’ve ever read. They break through layers and layers of translation and transition from other languages. Perhaps that was what was meant when it was said of him, “This man doesn’t teach like the scribes and Pharisees; he teaches with authority.”

Another thing—and I believe you might agree with me because you’re a poet —I think that if you had to characterize poetry or even art, generally, it has to have that authority. Without that it has nothing.

Shaw: It has to speak out of the reality of personal experience. That’s where its authenticity shows. If you as a reader can feel what the poet is feeling, what the poet is offering to you of an event or insight or emotion, then the transfer is complete. The gap has been bridged.

Willard: I love so much a few lines from Robert Frost, a prayer written in his later years: “to prayer I think I go. I think I go to prayer. Along a corridor of woe, and down a stair.” You can just feel where he’s going, the genuineness of it. I think the lines conclude, “If religion’s not to be my fate, I must be spoken to, and told, before too late.”

The great thing about poetry is, it doesn’t matter what you believe about these issues. When it is poetry, it is on and you get it. Unless you’re locked off in some consumerist corner. Regrettably (back to our theme, I guess), even poetry has become a product, and the people who own it treat it as “product.” A great painting will make the news only if it’s sold for $36,000,000. It’s so distressing.

Shaw: Everything is quantified, or viewed as quantifiable, in terms of monetary value, which is the lowest common denominator in our culture.

Willard: Everything of value culturally, given the loss of moral knowledge, is sucked into this economic vacuum where it’s chewed up and spewed out until nothing of value remains. So people wind up eating and drinking and doing all the things human beings do, but in lives stripped of the glory that is a manifestation of grace.

Beauty is, above all, a manifestation of grace, of abundance and generosity. It’s the reason why God placed flowers on the earth: to have little voices calling to us constantly about grace. You walk in the field, and here’s a flower. Jesus valued the “lilies of the field.”

Shaw: And a flower speaks so … radically. (I guess that’s appropriate to say in Radix. A flower is so literally-rooted.) The plant’s a parable of transformation, of taking the decay and muck of organic humus and turning it into a thing of color and fragility. Something delicate, and so dramatically different from the soil it came from. That is what grace does.

Getting back to language, I have often felt that it’s important for poetry, and for Scripture, to be read aloud. Something changes when our voice tones carry those words rather than our eyes reading them in silence, flat on the page. Reading aloud, with expression and understanding, adds a new dimension. It’s a resurrection of sorts, a raising of a story, or an image, or an idea, into life. It becomes a living thing.

Willard: That happens only when there is a soul capable of reading and hearing. Then the reading takes on awesome power, and the effect is so much greater. You’re not dealing just with meanings and abstractions, but with the presence of a living soul adding intonations that can never come from the print on a page. It hooks into a larger reality. Just to hear someone read Scripture … so much of that is disappearing from our services.

Shaw: You’re right. In many churches the reading of the Bible has either disappeared or been trivialized—it’s a formality that has to be endured so we can get to the sermon. But Scripture has a power that is beyond the intellectual.

Willard: It brings us back not only to beauty, but to the moral insights on which it is based. Such moral insights are integral to trinitarian reality—the ultimate foundation for morality—the relationships within the trinity.

Shaw: Do you see heaven as being radically continuous or discontinuous with our present earthly life?

Willard: Continuous. Jesus in John 8: 51-53 talks about this. “Those who are involved with my word will never see death.”

Shaw: Will we recognize the kingdom of God when it comes, when it arrives?

Willard: I think it will take us some time. I think there will be some great moments of revelation. But if I hesitate in what I say it’s because I believe that the kingdom of God is already here, already at work. Jesus told us, “We’re not going to say, ‘Oh, here it is,’ or ‘Oh, there it is.’ Because it’s among you.”

I think when we step through death we will be in a different world, and it will suddenly occur to us, “Hey, I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before.” Or, “Oh, here’s someone I thought was dead. Aren’t they dead?” I think it will come that way. For those who are not companions of Christ I don’t think it will be obvious, but that’s another story.

But the question is so important. Currently, and for some time now, really, the teaching about heaven and hell has totally lost its impact. That’s partly because it hasn’t been thought of in any realistic terms. We have thought of it as some sort of celestial “fall-back,” with shelves where the old saints are parked, I suppose, with fabulous images of harps and clouds and so on.

My reading of Jesus is that he understands there to be a radical continuity here. There is almost a casualness, a flippancy, we might say, when he talks about this. Imagine just turning to the thief on the cross and saying, “See you later today, in Paradise.”

Shaw: Almost a throw-away line.

Willard: I think it’s regarded as not meaning much. But when you go back and read Scripture, one of the few things that’s recorded in all four Gospels is that at Jesus’s baptism “the heavens opened.” Of course, in the Old Testament, the heavens opened periodically. I believe that at such moments what had been there all along suddenly became visible.

When it opened for Stephen as he was dying, after being stoned, he simply saw what was there all the time. That clarity never ceased for Jesus. On the Mount of Transfiguration he was just operating in the world that was real for him all the time, and the three witnesses were enabled to get a little glimpse. Of course, Jesus couldn’t go around with his face and his clothes shining like that, or the people would have taken him to be some pagan deity.

Shaw: What about Moses, when his face shone so much as he descended from Sinai that he had to veil himself?

Willard: Well, we’re supposed to manifest that glory too. I think of the story in Genesis where there’s a description of Adam and Eve after their disobedience—they “knew they were naked, and sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” I don’t think that’s about sex, or the human body, but it’s about what they were like before that. They were naked, and unashamed; there’s no indication that they’d had clothes and lost them; rather, their bodies glowed, as we get a glimpse of in these other incidents.

When you look at a light bulb, you can’t see the light bulb, but you see the light. When that light’s turned out, we’re aware of the limitation, the loss.

Shaw: There seem to be these little hints in the Scriptures, these flashes of light. But in a way, heaven is too mysterious, too utterly other, for us to imagine. Words abstract it so, separate it so far from our human lives as we live them, that we honestly don’t know how to think about heaven. Or hell, for that matter.

Willard: This goes to a very deep issue that we really do need an answer to, or our faith will not make much sense. That is the question: “Why isn’t God obvious?” We would think he could be. (I put on the front page of The Divine Conspiracy, a quotation from C. S. Lewis that I think helps with the problem. It’s actually a remark from Screwtape to Wormwood, and it deals with this issue.)

You see, God doesn’t wish to overwhelm us. He’s put us in a position where our will can go in either direction. We are responsible for our decision. It’s what we choose to see that matters. In order for us to have that choice, God leaves things so that we have to seek them.

Isaiah cries out, “Truly, you are a God who hides yourself.” Deus absconditus. That’s a part of this whole picture. We have to seek, so that the promise of Jeremiah 29 can be fulfilled: “You will find me, when you seek for me with all your heart.”

Shaw: Here’s that Screwtape quote: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” That’s such a marvelous insight from Lewis.

Willard: Isn’t that the point? That God puts us here, and in effect says, “What do you want?” If there is a person who says, “I deeply, desperately, want God,” then as that soul can stand it, it will find God.

Shaw: It would almost be like being confronted with a nuclear explosion, wouldn’t it? My understanding is that God chooses to reveal himself gradually, in metaphor, in vision, in the imagination, because otherwise we’d be annihilated by his presence.

Willard: The standard teaching is “If you’ve seen God, you’re ready to die.” Because it will blow you away—kill you. just the effect on your mind will kill you. People often die of shock, or bad news—they fall dead.

Basically the situation is that God mediates himself to us in forms, first of all, that will work, so we can find him that way, but also in ways we can tolerate. This is the background of prophetic writings such as “He is like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap, and who can stand when he appears?”

Shaw: But even some of those prophetic visions were enigmatic. Ezekiel particularly. And the Revelation of John. There’s still a lot of mystery there.

Willard: Yes, especially from the ordinary human point of view in a fallen world. Prophetic language is just loaded with imagery that would truly be horrifying if you got near to it. After all, when John saw his old friend on the Island of Patmos he dropped down as if he were dead.

Shaw: And Daniel. Same thing. And that Being had to lay a reassuring hand on each of them to allow them to get up and stop being afraid and hear a message from God. It was grace at work again.

Willard: That’s teaching us that if we’re going to deal with God there has to be an infusion of grace that enables us to do what he’s telling us to do.

Shaw: Who takes the initiative here? I know God took the first great initiatives in Creation and Incarnation. But at what point does the human desire to know God become so compelling that God responds and begins to reveal himself?

Willard: I think rather late in the process. We’re apt to misread cases like Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. One of my favorite cases is Isaiah, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord.” King Uzziah was one of the best kings that ever lived in Israel. Isaiah had gained some maturity, and he’s realizing now that his eyes hadn’t been focused in the right place.

But God had come to him and even at that point in his life his response is “I am a man of unclean lips and live in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” So you see, I think it’s pretty late that we begin to have that kind of revelation.

I do believe that God is constantly moving in gentle ways around people (except possibly those who have absolutely hardened themselves in their own self-will to the point where God isn’t going to bother them). I think he’s constantly eliciting in us the desire for himself.

When it comes to the conscious level (and I certainly have to say this for myself, and in everything I’ve read from others past and present) the conscious desire for God arrives rather late. Before that, there will be a lot of fumbling, a lot of misfiring, perhaps some very deep and unsatisfied yearnings that are hard to identify or act on. Hopefully there will be some good input from others—parents, family, and so on—that would stimulate this. But the answers come well down the line.

If you look at George Fox, Martin Luther, or others, it does seem to be that way. The prevenient grace of God, as the theologians call it, has usually long been at work, and at a certain point it emerges to a conscious desire to know God. A few tender souls may know this much younger, but for others, it will take a while.

Shaw: C. S. Lewis has a poem that reflects that theme, that we may think we’re praying, but really, it’s God praying through us, so that he becomes both sides of the conversation.

Willard: The thing we have to be careful with is—this doesn’t mean we have no part. What it means is that our part is something we cannot imagine separated from God’s part.

Back to disciplines—If I’m fasting, it’s not just me fasting, it’s God fasting with me, and through me. In order to do the disciplines in a way that is joyous and strengthening and good, they have to be experienced as an extension of grace to us.

Shaw: So The Divine Conspiracy is also the divine companionship.

Willard: That’s where “Lo, I am with you always” comes in. The Roman centurion recognized The Divine Conspiracy in Jesus when he said, “Lord, just say the word … I know how this thing works!”

Shaw: Cornelius had intimations of that, too.

Willard: You don’t get very close to God without picking this up. God will make sure that you are preserved and you can be preserved only if you don’t get into the isolated individualism that many people still regard as true religion.

*Dallas Willard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California and the author of numerous books, including The Divine Conspiracy, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, The Spirit of the Disciplines and Renovation of the Heart.

Luci Shaw is a poet and author of many books including Water My Soul: Cultivating the Interior Life. She is also the poetry editor for Radix and Crux magazines. This interview is re-printed with permission from Radix magazine, Vol. 27, No. 2.