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I have read and re-read Chapter 3, “What Jesus Knew: Our God-Bathed World”.  Reading this chapter, for me, has erased all doubt: Dallas Willard has no interest in promoting anything that remotely resembles the orthodox Christian faith.  Of course, he claims to be recovering the faith, perhaps reforming it? Oddly he seems to think the Reformers are the ones who lost the faith.

Now perhaps the doctrine the Reformers held when opposing the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages holds no interest for you.  And maybe you do not think it’s necessary for Scripture alone to the shape of your faith and your worship of God.  If, instead, you happen to have no problem basing your religion on people’s experiences and it doesn’t bother you to ignore great chunks of Scripture which rebuke your beliefs and practices while building your theology; if you lean on quotes by mystics of many stripes, philosophers, and even atheists and fiction writers, then you might find my articles a waste of time.

But let me suggest that these posts could still be useful to you, though.  It can be difficult to follow Dr. Willard’s logic so I can imagine it might be helpful to have help from someone who has chewed on his words for awhile and attempted to digest them and summarize his thoughts and has also researched his sources to see where he is coming from and where he may be headed.  He can go the long way around to make what would be otherwise simple points, because Dr. Willard is quite fond of circumlocution and equivocation… otherwise known as beating around the bush.

I knew I was in for an adventure, exploring territory new to me as far as ways of looking at the Bible and Jesus’ teachings when I read the first sentence:

Jesus’ good news about the kingdom can be an effective guide for our lives only if we share his view of the world in which we live.  To his eyes this is a God-bathed and God-permeated world.

First of all, it is driving me to distraction that that Dr. Willard has used the word “gospel” dozens of times by this point and not yet given a clear definition of what he means by the term — at least not in terms that have been clear to me.  What I gather so far from Dr. Willard is that the gospel is Jesus’ news that the Kingdom of “the Heavens” is at hand or has arrived.  This news then… this is a guide for our life?  He does a good job of making me want to read on, because I remain confused and live in hope that he may finally help the light turn on for me.  But so far, researching his sources brings more light to where he is headed than his own words have brought so far.

In this chapter, however, he at least seems to be trying to define what he means by the “kingdom”.  This chapter will have to spread over at least two or more posts.  First I want to help define some terms that seems to best describe the school of thought to which Dr. Willard seems to belong, based on the evidence he’s provided so far in The Divine Conspiracy.

Christian Panentheism?

 Professor Willard spends several pages explaining what he means by a “God-bathed world”.  He says that when the bible refers to Heaven, where God dwells, is  historically misunderstood to be remote from mankind.  Dr. Willard argues that God and his angels actually inhabit the atmosphere around us.  In fact, Willard says, God also permeates the vast reaches of outer space.  The way he describes it all, how God is found in nature in various ways and that we can discover him through his creation, sounds less like biblical theism and more like eastern panentheism.  Panentheism is different from pantheism, which is the belief that God is all.  Panentheism is the belief that God is the external animating force behind all things and that everything is contained in God.  God interpenetrates every part of nature.

Dr. Willard spurns the belief that God is aloof, distant, and remote.  He rejects a God that is “high and lifted up” and “above the circle of the Heavens”.  Rather, Willard says He dwells within his created universe, permeating it from end to end. He also claims God wants to be known and will show himself to those who enter into his joy and seek to know him.  The need for the Cross asserted in Scripture — the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ to reconcile sinners to a Holy God — is never mentioned.  Rather, Professor Willard says God is longing to be known and we need just open our eyes to see him.  (For those of you yelling at your screens, “What about Romans Chapter 1?!”  Don’t worry.  I’ll get to that in the next post.)

Dr. Willard seems to imagine that a great deal hinges  on our perspective.  We have to see the world as God sees it.  That God is a joyful God and we should enter into the joy he receives from observing his creation  Remember how he talked about the problem we had like the pilot who thought down was up and up was down?  Willard seems to be saying that our main job is learning to see the same way that God sees.  It reminds me much of the path to enlightenment sought by Buddhists.

Christian Monism… Okay What the Heck is a Monist? 

He then spends time explaining a concept that truly had me scratching my head because it was so foreign to me.  He never comes out an just says anything.  He spends much time talking around something rather than just coming out at and saying it.  But as far as I can tell, Dallas Willard is not only a panentheistic Christian, but also a monist.  What is a monist?  I personally did not know myself until I stumbled across a description of this belief system while researching panentheism.  The two are often connected apparently.

The short version is this: in monism, there is really no distinction between physical and spiritual.  Everything is substance.  Here Are Dr. Willard’s thoughts on the matter (or on matter) from this chapter:

To understand spirit as ‘substance’ is of the utmost importance in our current world, which is so largely devoted to the ultimacy of matter.  It means that spirit is something that exists in its own right — to some degree in the human case, and absolutely so with God.  Thoughts, feelings, willings, and their developments are so many dimensions of this spiritual substance, which exercises a power that is outside the physical.  Space is occupied by it, and it may manifest itself there as it chooses.  This is how Jesus sees our world.  it is a part of his gospel.  p. 82

Dr. Willard says that miracles are performed by Jesus by pulling energy out of the unseen to transform into the physical in the visible world.

[Jesus] could create matter from the energy he knew how to access from ‘the heavens,’ right where he was.  (p.95)

Jesus was not really a miracle-worker but a really brilliant person who knew how to bridge the two parts of reality that were really all one.  “Christian monists” believe that the World was not created out of nothing but proceeded from God as part of the energy that he contains is transformed into the Universe at the moment of creation.

Here is an excerpt I pulled from the Catholic Encylopedia.  I don’t know if this article will make the concept more clear for anyone, but I found the article useful because of the connections it makes with Dr. Willard.  It mentions philosophies and beliefs that are prevalent throughout The Divine Conspiracy.  Dr. Willard is a great admirer of these philosophies or at least of the people that hold them, which I will detail in my next post:

The ancient Hindu philosophers stated as a fundamental truth that the world of our sense-experience is all illusion (maya), that change, plurality, and causation are not real, that there is but one reality, God. This is metaphysical Monism of the idealistic-spiritual type, tending towards mysticism.

Among the early Greek philosophers, the Eleatics, starting, like the Hindus, with the conviction that sense-knowledge is untrustworthy, and reason alone reliable, reached the conclusion that change, plurality, and origination do not really exist, that Being is one, immutable, and eternal. They did not explicitly identify the one reality with God, and were not, so far as we know, inclined to mysticism. Their Monism, therefore, may be said to be of the purely idealistic type.

These two forms of metaphysical Monism recur frequently in the history of philosophy; for instance, the idealistic-spiritual type in neo-Platonism and in Spinoza’s metaphysics, and the purely idealistic type in the rational absolutism of Hegel.

Besides idealistic Monism there is Monism of the materialistic type, which proclaims that there is but one reality, namely, matter, whether matter be an agglomerate of atoms, a primitive, world-forming substance (see IONIAN SCHOOL OF PHILOSOPHY), or the so-called cosmic nebula out of which the world evolved.

There is another form of metaphysical Monism, represented in these days by Haeckel and his followers, which, though materialistic in its scope and tendency, professes to transcend the point of view of materialistic Monism and unite both matter and mind in a higher something. The weak point of all metaphysical Monism is its inability to explain how, if there is but one reality, and everything else is only apparent there can be any real changes in the world, or real relations among things. This difficulty is met in dualistic systems of philosophy by the doctrine of matter and form, or potency and actuality, which are the ultimate realities in the metaphysical order. Pluralism rejects the solution offered by scholastic dualism and strives, with but little success, to oppose to Monism its own theory of synechism or panpsychism (see PRAGMATISM). The chief objection to materialistic Monism is that it stops short of the point where the real problem of metaphysics begins.

In short, for a professing Christian to hold monistic beliefs would require the denial of creation ex nihilo —  in other words, that God has created everything out of nothing.  This is the biblical view of the means of creation as well as the nature of most of many of God’s miracles.  But monism is consistent with Willard’s assertion that Jesus brought life from the invisible realm into the visible to transform into the visible substances such as bread, such as in the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.  And he implies, or rather even claims, that we ought to be able to learn to do the same as his “apprentices”.

Actually, it just hit me, just I was sitting and typing, what bothers me about changing the word “disciples” to “apprentices”.  Disciples learn from a teacher, but apprentices are training to become precisely what their teacher is.  Call me one of “little faith”, but I’m pretty sure I shall never walk on water or feed five thousand from a few loaves or raise the dead.  But through the preaching of the gospel, I hope to give the Spirit opportunity to raise the spiritually dead through its proclamation.

And Speaking of the Gospel, by the Way…

What I can say with the most certainty about all that Willard has said so far is that everything he asserts regarding what it means to be Christian and the source of eternal life has nothing, as far as Willard has taught so far, to do with the Cross.  He has not mentioned it once.  Neither has he mentioned sin.

He does use the word “gospel” but anyone can use that and insert their own meaning.  I thought I’d insert what the reformers defined as “gospel” from the Formula of Concord to compare that against Dr. Willard’s used of the term.  I’ve already addressed his abuse of the word “gospel” and will have much more to say on this in my next post where I give more detail of Chapter 3 of The Divine Conspiracy.  This is from Section Five of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord:

3] Now, when we consider this dissent aright, it has been caused chiefly by this, that the term Gospel is not always employed and understood in one and the same sense, but in two ways, in the Holy Scriptures, as also by ancient and modern church teachers.

4] For sometimes it is employed so that there is understood by it the entire doctrine of Christ, our Lord, which He proclaimed in His ministry upon earth, and commanded to be proclaimed in the New Testament, and hence comprised in it the explanation of the Law and the proclamation of the favor and grace of God, His heavenly Father, as it is written, Mark 1, 1: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,the Son of God. And shortly afterwards the chief heads are stated: Repentance and forgiveness of sins. Thus, when Christ after His resurrection commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel in all the world, Mark 16, 15, He compressed the sum of this doctrine into a few words, when He said, Luke 24, 46. 47:Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations. So Paul, too, calls his entire doctrine the Gospel, Acts 20, 21; but he embraces the sum of this doctrine under the two heads: Repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

5] And in this sense the generalis definitio, that is, the description of the word Gospel, when employed in a wide sense and without the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is correct, when it is said that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the remission of sins. For John, Christ, and the apostles began their preaching with repentance and explained and urged not only the gracious promise of the forgiveness of sins, but also the Law of God.

6] Furthermore the term Gospel is employed in another, namely, in its proper sense, by which it comprises not the preaching of repentance, but only the preaching of the grace of God, as follows directly afterwards, Mark 1, 15, where Christ says: Repent, and believe the Gospel.

I’ve just stated much that may take a bit of time to digest.  I know it did for me.  I will let my readers digest it while I compose the main bulk of my review of “Chapter 3 – What Jesus Knew: Our God-Bathed World. “