Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Recovering Faith as Knowledge

A review of Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge.

The genius of Dallas Willard’s new book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne, 2009), is its explanatory power for many of the ills of contemporary Western society. I only wish Willard’s proffered cure were half as potent.

Willard, a longtime philosophy professor at the University of Southern California and author of such works as The Divine Conspiracy and The Spirit of the Disciplines, says the moral confusion we see today stems from one uber-problem: “the trivialization of faith apart from knowledge and … the disastrous effects of a repositioning of faith in Jesus Christ, and of life as his students, outside the category of knowledge.”

Our problem, then, is epistemological: What do we know, and how do we know it? Too many in the academy say that traditional Judeo-Christian answers to the deepest questions of life no longer count as knowledge. Willard says that to actually claim that you possess actual but not exhaustive knowledge on a moral or religious issue (what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth”) is a scandal in the modern world.

Relativists see certainty as a tripwire for arrogance and extremism, and uncertainty as a recipe for tolerance and peace. Thus we hear the post-9/11 fulminations of New Atheists such Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. They label all religions as potentially dangerous. Better to claim ignorance, they say—and more humble, too.

Yet knowledge need not provoke violence. Willard rightly says that sin is integral to the human condition and is not a specifically religious malady. Even atheists can behave badly, after all (the history of atheist tyranny is quite compelling in this respect). Sometimes religious knowledge even sparks humility.

So what is knowledge, and how do we acquire it, according to Willard? He says it is a matter not of opinion or strong feelings, but of correspondence to truth. “We have knowledge of something when we are representing it (thinking about it, speaking of it, treating it) as it actually is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.”

(Willard tends to emphasize his points through the generous use of italics, and all italics in quotations in this review are his. Often he appears to be talking down to readers, apparently believing they have succumbed to the spreading social ignorance of which he warns. “I should alert readers to the fact that this is not a devotional book and that it will require considerable mental effort to understand,” he warns in the introduction. “… I have tried to ease the pain as much as possible.” Elsewhere, discussing some of the causal arguments for God’s existence, he asks the reader, "Is your head spinning? Go slowly.” We’ll try to keep up, Professor.)

Once-hallowed religious beliefs, Willard says, have been relegated to the intellectual sidelines as a result of the post-Enlightenment struggle between what he calls “traditional knowledge” and secularism, which claims the mantle of knowledge without warrant and which rules in institutions of higher learning—even Christian ones—as the areas of human life that do not fit the “secularist story” multiply. As a result, knowledge disappears, and the vacuum is filled by others.

“In the context of modern life and thought,” Willard says, Christians “are urged to treat their central beliefs as something other than knowledge. Those beliefs are to be relegated to the categories of sincere opinion, emotion, blind commitment, or behavior traditional for their social group.” When this happens, Willard says, Christians cannot influence society for the good. Only knowledge, as opposed to mere belief, commitment, or formal adherence, conveys the right and authority “to act, to direct action, to establish and supervise policy, and to teach.”

Three examples from the brief political career of Barack Obama (not mentioned in the book) illustrate the brilliance of Willard’s diagnosis. First, at last year’s Saddleback Summit, Pastor Rick Warren asked the soon-to-be president, in the context of a discussion about abortion, when a baby is accorded human rights.

“Well, you know,” Obama, a professing Christian, answered, “I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”

In other words, the sanctity of human life is a mere conjecture or prejudice and not a matter of real knowledge. Thus, pro-lifers have no moral claim against President Obama’s pro-choice policies since entering the White House—including ending a conscience protection for health-care workers and forcing taxpayers to underwrite abortion with the words, “It is time we end the politicization of this issue”—as if his actions themselves are not political. Willard notes that when moral knowledge is lost, the authority to act devolves into a political power struggle, with preference given to “experts.”

Second, Obama’s assurance that he would “end the politicization” unavoidably brings to mind his parallel promise to take the “ideology” out of federal stem-cell policy by rolling back the Bush administration’s compromise position banning federal funding for research using new lines of stem cells taken from human embryos. Apparently the desire to protect nascent human life—which embryos indisputably are—is based on mere ideology, not knowledge.

A third example: This past spring Notre Dame’s decision to award the president an honorary doctorate did not sit well with many alumni and friends of the university, who rightly pointed out that Obama’s pro-choice policies contradict clear Catholic teaching. (Notre Dame is a Catholic school.) While supporters, including the university president and most students, defended the action on the basis of tolerance and diversity, visiting scholar Francis J. Beckwith pointedly noted that the real issue is epistemology:

Unless the university does not believe that the Church’s understanding of the moral law is true and knowable, it can no more in good conscience award an honorary doctorate of laws to a lawyer who rejects the humanity of the proper subjects of law than it could in good conscience award an honorary doctorate in science to a geocentric astronomer who rejects the deliverances of the discipline he claims to practice.

At some point, a Christian university must recognize that the truth it claims to know matters, even if the truth is unpopular, and even if the propagation and celebration of that truth may put one’s community at odds with those persons and centers of influence and power that dispense prestige and authority in our culture.

So what is Willard’s cure? He says, first of all, that Christians cannot hope to return religious knowledge to its rightful place in society unless they believe in it themselves. So the professor—an expert on German philosopher Edmund Husserl’s work, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge—attempts to convince us of what we should already know, namely, that God exists, and that miracles (including Christ’s resurrection) are possible, even likely.

His philosophical and logical presentation, a stripped-down version of what we have already seen in the writings of Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, and Lee Strobel, is a welcome reminder that Christian truth represents the universe as it really is—in other words, knowledge. Willard’s defense of the unique contributions of Jesus Christ to the West’s cultural heritage is faith-affirming and intellectually bracing.

I have my doubts, however, whether these chapters will convince a hardened atheist such as Hitchens (who recently told me in a public forum that the biblical picture of God represents “a horrible, unchallengeable despotism that could never be voted out or overthrown or transcended, and a parody, a horrible parody of the idea of fatherhood”). Hitchens, in his anger, is impervious to logical arguments and throws mud on the stained glass window of God’s beauty and holiness.

Perhaps sensing this weakness, Willard moves on to “Knowledge of Christ in the Spiritual Life.” His key point: “Those who do know Christ in the modern world do so by seeking and entering the kingdom of God.” This is a knowledge based upon commitment. Here Willard distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge, knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance and, yes, Willard does italicize them). We know Christ when we acquaint ourselves with him and with his people.

Hitchens admitted to me during the debate that there is no amount of evidence that would convince him to become a Christian. And yet he has had extensive personal contact with author and educator Douglas Wilson as they debate the existence and nature of God, so perhaps there is yet hope for him.

However, in a book seeking to lay a foundation for the recovery of Christian knowledge, Willard, author of The Great Omission, makes a curious omission himself. He has little to say about the Bible. He relegates the study of the Word of God written to a subsection of “Fellowship with other disciples, living and dead.” Willard, not surprisingly, is eager to commend spiritual disciplines such as solitude and silence in the process of sanctification (a word that does not appear in Knowing Christ Today).

Willard also invests a chapter defending his concept of “Christian pluralism,” which boils down to a kind of inclusivism (all who are saved will be saved by Christ, but they need not necessarily have ever heard of Christ). In so doing, in the opinion of this reviewer, he takes certain of his scriptural proof texts out of context and cuts the theological hamstring of active, frontier-crossing missionary work. But those are debatable points—which makes me wonder all the more why the author included them in a volume on knowledge.

I wish Willard had grappled more with the interplay between faith and knowledge, because knowledge can only take you so far in the Christian life. And while in his focus on kingdom living Willard says little about the agent of the kingdom, the church, what he does say is almost uniformly negative. (To be fair, his critique of the academy is equally blistering.) It is hard to see how the social and personal transformation that we all desire can come to pass without a revitalized and vibrant church.

Yet Willard ultimately gives the task of repairing the breach in knowledge to pastors, defined by him more broadly than as shepherds of local congregations. Pastors, Willard says, are “those who self-identify as spokespeople for Christ and who perhaps have some leadership position or role in Christian organizations.”

In some ways, these pastors, like Warren and Willard, will have to be at home in the academy, behind the pulpit, and in the world. According to Christianity Today, when Willard decided to study philosophy in the 1960s, he says God told him, “If you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you; but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you.” In a sense, Willard wants more pastors like himself.

But not everyone can be like Willard. Acquiring the knowledge they will need for such an expanded role—as teachers of the nations—requires an expansion of duties and horizons that goes beyond the abilities and calling of many pastors today. But if the church can get a few more with the knowledge of Dallas Willard, that can’t be bad for the kingdom of God.

A little knowledge can still go a long way.


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