Dallas Willard Going Down the Contemplative Road, and Taking Others With Him

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Is Dallas Willard a proponent of contemplative spirituality? It seems to be a question that many ask. The UCLA professor and long time working companion of Richard Foster really doesn’t deny it, but yet the question still keeps getting asked. But it is a question that needn’t be asked, for Willard has made it clear through forewords he has written, endorsements he has given, projects he has participated in … he does indeed promote contemplative spirituality.

In an article on his website called “Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done,” Willard states:

Too often spiritual formation is regarded as a catch-all category that conveys little specific information. Gerald G. May writes, “Spiritual formation is a rather general term referring to all attempts, means, instructions, and disciplines intended towards deepening of faith and furtherance of spiritual growth. It includes educational endeavors as well as the more intimate and in-depth process of spiritual direction

For Willard to turn to Gerald May, of the Shalem Institute, for a definition of Spiritual Formation, reveals Willard’s affinity towards contemplative spirituality. When we spoke, via email, with May a few years ago and asked him, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation?” he answered, “Absolutely not!” This would be in line with Shalem’s philosophy as well, which has panentheistic sympathies. From their website:

In Christianity and other traditions that understand God to be present everywhere, contemplation includes a reverence for the Divine Mystery, “finding God in all things,” or “being open to God’s presence, however it may appear.

Gerald May is not the only Shalem-trained spiritual director that Willard has found favorable. He also wrote the foreword for Ruth Haley Barton’s book,Invitation to Silence and Solitude. Barton was trained at Shalem and later became part of the Willow Creek team, helping to put together curriculum there for their Spiritual Formation program. In an article in Discipleship Journal, Barton states:

Ask for a simple prayer to express your willingness to meet God in the silence … a simple statement … such as “Here I am.” … Help yourself return to your original intent by repeating the prayer that you have chosen.” – DJ, Vol. 113 1999

Barton now runs The Transforming Center, a place where pastors and leaders learn the art of contemplative prayer.

In Willard’s book, Spirit of the Disciplines, he favorably quotes Thomas Merton, Agnes Sanford and George Fox (all promoters of mysticism). Interestingly, Sue Monk Kidd is on the back cover of that same book giving an endorsement. Monk Kidd, author of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter went from a conservative Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher to worshipping the goddess within and saying that God is in everything, even excrement.

A recommended reading list on Dallas Willard’s website is further evidence that Willard is connected closely to contemplative. The list includes: Richard Foster, Evelyn Underhill (wrote book on mysticism), Jan Johnson (When the Soul Listens), Francis de Sales, Brother Lawrence, Henri Nouwen and several others. In addition, Willard was involved with the promotion of Richard Foster’s Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible. It should be noted that this book is edited by several authors who have contemplative proclivities.

Next time you hear the question asked, Is Dallas Willard a contemplative?, it will now be a little easier to answer.

A young man was searching for answers. Listen to what he found:

I bumped into the classic spiritual disciplines while taking a course called “Dynamics of Christian Life” in my second year of Bible school. One of our textbooks was The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. The course and textbook only touched on the actual disciplines, but the concept captivated me. The following spring, I found a copy of Richard Foster’s spiritual classic Celebration of Discipline in a used bookstore. Opening it and discovering each discipline detailed chapter by chapter, I felt a profound sense of joy and excitement. I’d found a real treasure.

Later, this young man became a free lance writer for Youth Specialties. Listen to where the spirituality of Dallas Willard and Richard Foster led him:

I built myself a prayer room – a tiny sanctuary in a basement closet filled with books on spiritual disciplines, contemplative prayer, and Christian mysticism. In that space I lit candles, burned incense, hung rosaries, and listened to tapes of Benedictine monks. I meditated for hours on words, images, and sounds. I reached the point of being able to achieve alpha brain patterns, the state in which dreams occur, while still awake and meditating. – “Disciplines, Mystics and the Contemplative Life” by Mike Perschon