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Knowing Christ Today

In this post, I'd like to introduce you to a book by Dallas Willard, of blessed memory, titled Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne, 2009). We will not grow to maturity if we do not grapple with and grasp this book's thesis: knowing Christ is real knowledge, not simply believing in him.

Dallas Willard was a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California for more than forty years, up to his death in 2013. (If you don't know much about Willard, I recommend this moving tribute from his friend and another well-known author, Richard Foster: Willard was best-known in Christian circles for his spiritual writings. I'll mention just two before getting to the point of this blog post: The Divine Conspiracy is an extended reflection on the Sermon on the Mount. I highly recommend it. The Renovation of the Heart, details how God's grace transforms us, or, in other words, how we are sanctified through and through. 

In Knowing Christ Today, Willard puts on full display, without any pretension, the wonderful gift of profound knowledge in full service to Christian discipleship. To be sure, Willard was a serious philosopher, but this book shows the deep integration between Willard's faith and his serious mind. As one studies the chapter titles and then reads the book, one can see Willard's mind working step-by-step through questions that are both intellectually challenging and culturally powerful. Here is an important point for all of us: no one living can escape the dominant intellectual influences coming to us through powerful cultural institutions. And Willard shows clearly how these forces illegitimately have marginalized Christian knowledge and have intimidated Christians. 

Now, moving to the point of this blog, here is Willard's definition of knowledge: "The capacity to represent the relevant subject matter as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience." Notice that phrase, "as it is." Knowledge puts us in touch with reality. Jesus Christ is real. The apostolic witness in scripture deals with reality. All reality is grounded in the God who is Trinity. All human knowledge flows from God our Creator. Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, the Word of God who enlightens all people. 

Two points from this work I wish to highlight. If you have had to spend much time around me, you know how often I have mentioned my dismay over how modern western intellectual history has separated faith from knowledge. And then, insinuating a good dose of materialistic ideology into the mix, people with a lot of cultural authority from that western intellectual tradition, have insisted that Christians can't really know God (they can only believe in God) and, even worse, virtually nothing about Christian theology can be considered real knowledge. 

Willard the philosopher doesn't blink. His exposition on the relationship between faith and knowledge yields rich rewards to the reader who is willing to go slow and absorb what he is saying. To paraphrase and summarize, faith is the commitment to act on the basis of knowledge. One cannot have faith without knowledge. 

Right away, the conscientious person (steeped as we are in western skepticism), starts worrying about the arrogance of "thinking that we know." Willard takes this worry head-on. The more you know a subject, the more you realize that subject's complexity and what you don't yet know! Real knowledge evokes awe, wonder, and humility, not arrogance. Well then, if this is so why do people who claim to know speak and act so arrogantly? Because the human heart is already prone to arrogance. Knowledge doesn't cause the arrogance, but it often does serve as pretense for the arrogant. 

Throughout the book, Willard shows why the integration of the hard intellectual work of understanding and the deeper work of knowing Christ is so desperately important. Again, I emphasize that, in beginning to talk about knowing Christ, we do not leave behind our intellects. We don't shift gears into rank subjectivism, as if it were just fine to create shiny, happy worlds inside the safety of our own heads. No. But also, knowing Christ goes far beyond demonstrating the intellectual strength of Christian teaching. We are not yet home if we just have a head full of correct ideas. In fact, we don't yet know Christ, even though what we do know is true and essential.

Thus, the chapter, "Knowledge of Christ in the Spiritual Life" gets at some of those spiritual dynamics. To know Christ is to be truly acquainted with Christ in the way we are acquainted with other persons. We know Christ through the spiritual disciplines, especially through deep and sustained scripture reading. Here I refer the reader to Willard's other books already mentioned, and one more, The Spirit of the Disciplines. In those works you can find more guidance for how we develop the practices of the Christian life that draw us into knowledge of Christ. Here, Willard sticks to major challenges Christians face in today's world thought by many to show why Christian claims to knowledge isn't real knowledge. One of the biggest of those challenges is our awareness of the many and diverse - even competing - opinions about God, the transcendent, and religion. HIs chapter on Christian pluralism therefore bears careful contemplation. On display is Willard's generosity and humility. We can learn truth from any quarter and sincerely appreciate those contributions. We can hold firmly, nonetheless, to Christ as the full revelation of the God over all. 

The book ends with a chapter to pastors. Willard calls pastors "teachers of the nations." It is a bracing vision. And by "pastors" we are not limited to just those of us with clergy credentials. The main point, though, is the crucial necessity of the teaching office. Once more, for those of you who have had to listen to me much, you know how I lament the failure of people like me to be good teachers of sound doctrine. God forgive us and give us opportunity to make amends!

So, although this post is not at all meant as an advertisement for the Spiritual Maturity Project, it does show our purpose for existing. Disciples of Jesus are students of Jesus. Willard compellingly shows us. We need not - indeed, we must not - resign ourselves to a weak and ineffective understanding of faith. We can know Christ and knowing Christ is real knowledge. We can live with proper confidence, to borrow a book title from another of my favorite authors, Lesslie Newbigin. And living with confidence, we can bear faithful and fruitful witness. May it be so.  



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