Tuesday, 8 September 2009
Dallas Willard and real knowledge
I've been reading Dallas Willard's new book Personal Religion, Public Reality? Towards a Knowledge of Faith (2009) over the last couple of weeks or so, and want to blog a few thoughts about it. Willard is probably best known, at least in the UK, for his books on discipleship and the spiritual disciplines; The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988) and The Divine Conspiracy (1998), but he is also a Professor of Philosophy in the University of Southern California, and his latest book brings both facets of his writing, philosophical and more explicitly Christian, into closer alignment than some of his previous offerings. Its a very rich, multi-layered book, as many of Willard's books are, so I'm not going to comment on all of it; suffice to say that in many ways it works as an excellent rejoinder to Richard Dawkins et al, since its purpose is to show how Christian knowledge is reliable knowledge, not some pie in the sky when you die form of wishful thinking. He takes great pains in the opening chapters of the book to define knowledge and faith. Taking an historical approach he shows how, since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, faith has been evacuated of its knowledge content. Knowledge has come to be seen as something that can be proven rationally while Christian knowledge has been relegated to the category of mere belief or commitment. Faith has become little more than the proverbial 'leap in the dark'. Christians, he writes, 'are urged to treat their central beliefs as something other than knowledge, something in fact far short of knowledge' (p. 1). While he traces this development philosophically, he argues that even within the Christian Church confidence in Christian knowledge has evaporated (p. 26). The commonly accepted view is that 'religion stands free of knowledge, that is requires only faith or commitment' (p. 4). His solution is that Christians regain confidence in Christianity as a body of unique knowledge, of revelation if you like. The biblical narratives teach throughout that an act of faith is always taken on a firm knowledge foundation. 'Faith is commitment to action, often beyond our natural abilities, based upon knowledge of God and his ways' (pp. 21-2). As I said earlier, there's much here that I could comment on, such is the richness of Willard's book, but I'll limit myself to what he has to say about the role of universities in the knowledge economy. To be honest I'm still processing much of this and thinking through some of its implications, so some of what follows might actually read more like a summary of what Willard has to say with some questions and observations thrown in. Willard identifies universities as the arbiters of knowledge in our society, institutions that determine what is knowledge and what is not. Their processes of determining what is real knowledge is based on research, but the test of good reseach is not the truth or knowledge achieved, but the use of good scholarly methodology and the opinions of the leading thinkers in a given field - a pretty damning indictment really, and one I'm not sure I'd want to endorse unreservedly. Where he is on surer footing is in his critique of the problem of academic specialisation. Indeed, knowledge has become so specialised that academics have little, if anything, to say to what he calls the primary questions of life. So, says Willard, 'real life . . . is abandoned by our knowledge institutions to feeling, force, politics and traditions. Ragtag, incoherent answers float here and there, with no responsible clarification and critique' (p. 65). In all, Willard's diagnosis is pretty bleak, but surely not that far from reality. His solution, at least as far as Christian academics are concerned is radical. We are criticised for teaching as knowledge exactly what secular institutions teach. We need to present the basic points of Christian knowledge with confidence, as an essential body of knowledge which the world needs to hear, not one that is against knowlege, or that in some quasi-spiritual way subverts secular/rational knowledge. He writes, in what to me is the most startling sentence in the whole book. We should 'no longer think of Christ . . . as an airhead who stands haplessly before people with PhDs' (p. 239). His challenge to Christian academics to relate the 'basic things they believe as Christians to their reponsibility for knowledge in their professional field' (p. 240) is not a new challenge of course. But maybe his methodology is more helpful than some of what has gone before. Willard argues that faith needs to be understood as dealing with things that can also be known, 'only when faith is at home with knowledge, does the project of integrating faith and learning have a manageable sense' (p. 241). Anybody who has read Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) will find Dallas Willard a stimulating conversation partner. I'm still mulling over the implications of his arguments in this area alone. There's much else in the book too; a wonderful chapter on discipleship, and a provocative, if slightly obtuse chapter on Christian pluralism. So, if anybody else has read this, or is inspired to read it, I'd be interested in the conversation partner . . .