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Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

Nov. 15, 2011

Knowing Christ: A Guide for Today's Disciples

by Dallas Willard

It all comes down to "taste and see" in the end.

In this 2009 book, respected Christian philosopher and USC professor Dallas Willard tackles the subject of whether Christian truth can be restored to a generally accepted status of knowledge in the world, rather than a philosophy or one religion among many.

At first Willard uses the classical philosophical arguments about the First Mover and logical proofs of causation to make his points that the existence of God is provable and should be considered part of the knowledge base. These arguments, while solid, nevertheless come from the realm of philosophy, considered "soft" knowledge by empiricists. Such arguments, no matter how compelling, can not be put in a Petri dish and studied, subjected to scientifically valid repetition, and so forth. In the end, they are not objectifiable" and so relying on them to convince those in the "hard" sciences of the validity of Christian knowledge seems tenuous at best.

Willard does not help himself by his too-often snide swipes at academicians, universities and scientists. His frequent use of quotation marks around key words such as knowledge, professionalization, answers and so on are unhelpful to his case that Christians need to be fair and gracious to those who disagree with them. Nor is his commentary about universities seeking to control all knowledge and make themselves the only conduit by which it is achieved. One senses an unsettling whiff of conspiracy theory and paranoia here that is unbecoming in such a book.

Like Willard, I too work in a secular university and well know the strengths and weaknesses of the institution. My concern here is that Willard seems to base his comments on the few outspoken hard scientists who make the headlines and apply them too broadly (much like secular people often base their views of the church on the fringe crazies who are constantly in the news). Willard is a better man than this and needed to have been more nuanced.

Willard too often walks the path of longing for the good old days when the tenets of the Christian faith were taken as common knowledge. There were many problems in the faith and in the world in that imagined golden age; Willard does not acknowledge them. Nor does he strongly enough acknowledge how the church's own failings have contributed to the present status quo. His critique of the church is muted at best, and often nonexistent.

Willard is much more persuasive and, quite frankly, at home, in the second part of the book. Despite putting forth the philosophical arguments earlier, here he acknowledges that Christian knowledge and certainty is largely the product of tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. Knowledge of the verity of the Christian worldview is possible. But it is experiential, verifiable only by those who actually give it a try. This is the key, Willard acknowledges, and therefore it must be the aim of those who possess this knowledge themselves to encourage those they are in relationship with to take an initial step of faith and see what God does with it.

This part of the book is loaded with good advice for Christian practitioners. Virtually every concept Willard presents is worthy of discussion, and the general exhortations here could provide a high-level blueprint for how to witness, how to be gracious to those we wish to engage, how to preach, and how to organize and run a church. The chapter on Christian pluralism will be disturbing to the usual hardliners, but will provide much food for thought for those with more open minds.

In sum, the first part of the book is the weaker. While it sets up some idea of the current situation Christianity finds itself in the U.S., it does so in a flawed way that does little more than reinforce stereotypes of the secular world familiar to conservative Christians. The second half where Willard focuses on the truth of the Christian worldview and how one comes to know it, is quite good and provides much food for thought.

ISBN 60882441

©2011 Rebecca Copeland

 

Helpful but uneven; relies too much on stereotypes of academia present in the conservative church.