The strength of a man’s virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts.
As a distinguished professor at the University of Southern California, Dr. Dallas Willard has gained the respect of those in academia. He has also gained the respect of mainstream audiences by writing bestselling books on topics of spiritual formation and religious thought. As an author, he’s certainly in a different league than I. One of his books sold more copies in a single day than the three of mine have over the course of five years. When talking with him, I feel like I’m like the little kid in front of the Rodin statue in the side image.
A Lesson in Philosophy
I first met Dallas in Washington D.C. when traveling with him to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for a conference on science and faith. On our two-hour drive, I was able to ask him about the Good Life, and it was as if he already had a lecture prepared on the subject.
When I asked him about the Good Life, he noted that it’s one of the best questions we can ever ask as humans. However, he thought it was “too big” of a question. To adequately answer this question, he said we need to break it up in four other questions (leave it to a philosopher to answer your question with more questions):
1) What is real?
2) Who is well off?
3) Who is a good person?
4) How do I get to be a good person?
I’ll try to provide you with a response to these four questions as eloquently as he communicated them to me during our drive.
What is real?
Dallas admitted that this is a profound question. Even more importantly, it is question that no one has any authority to answer. He asked me if I had ever heard of a Department of Reality at a university. I told that we had some pretty eccentric professors at Yale whose research was in obscure fields, but they were not bold enough to work in “reality studies.” He admitted that the same was true at USC. He then told me that this leaves the question open for anyone in academia to pursue (science, politics, religion, etc.).
Dallas told me that this first question pivots on answers to other fundamental questions such as: “What can we count on?” “What is at stake in life?” and “What are the things that guide our lives?”
Dallas’s personal answer does not rely on his philosophical research, but rather on his religious beliefs. He said that he views the spiritual dimension of life as the highest realm of reality. Therefore, the thing which is most real to him is interacting with a God who can reveal truths to us through life events and Scriptures. Under his view, what is at stake in our lives is having the chance to have eternal life with a God who wants to have a relationship with His creation.
Dallas briefly mentioned other popular views of reality. One could believe in a power-based version of reality in which life is about gaining the most money or power within one’s society. Or, one can take a scientific materialism view that leads people to believe that we are just a bunch of atoms that have coalesced by chance to produce this thing called life. He admitted that he is a philosophy professor and not a preacher, so he lets others decide what version they think is best for them.
Who is Well Off?
Dallas quickly noted how one’s answer to the second question is totally dependent on one’s answer to the first. Since his version of reality is based on theological beliefs, his answer is “anyone who lives interactively with God.” More specifically, he was referring to those who want to accomplish the will of God and want to have an eternal relationship with God that will start here on earth. He calls this “living in the Kingdom of God.”
Who is a good person?
Again, this question is totally dependent on the previous question. For Dallas, he recognizes that we all have faults and will always make wrong choices. Since we will always make mistakes and cannot change our condition, a good person is one who accepts God’s invitation on how to have a good life. Basically, a good person is one who has found their purpose in life and has committed to pursuing things that are greater than their individual existence.
How can I be a good person?
Before he gave me his answer, I told him that this question sounded the same as #3. He assured me there was a slight nuance between the two. He noted that this fourth question emphasizes action. This idea of “action” and “doing” has been a major theme within his bestselling works.
Dallas believes that many of his fellow Christians leave out the action component of following Jesus’ teachings. Their actions do not reflect the type of life that Jesus taught about. He says that many religious people only have belief; they incorrectly believe they are good people because they have recited a specific prayer or belong to a church. However, their beliefs are not true convictions because they do not produce action.
While at our conference at the Chesapeake Bay, I asked Dallas if he could elaborate more on how belief should inspire action. He did so by giving me a simple example. He pointed to the chair I was I sitting on. “Nick, did you believe that chair was going to support you before you sat upon it?”
“Um…yeah. It looks to be a sturdy wooden chair with four legs. I don’t see why not.”
“So, when you decided to come over here to talk with me, you did not hesitate to sit upon it. You trusted it would support you, so you took action.” He explained how this should be the case with individuals who follow spiritual teachings. They should hold a belief so strongly that they do not even have to consciously think to act on it. Dallas fears this is not the case for many fellow Christians because they see Jesus as either a magician who can cancel all their wrongs with a snap of a finger, or an ancient sage-like figure who presented a wispy notion of good moral behavior.
Dallas believes Jesus’s teachings represent more than this – he believes they are the wisest instructions for us to use in making decisions. He believes we should trust in these teachings to the point that we know they will lead us to the Good Life if we take action on them.
The Kingdom Principle
Now that I have given you some of Dallas’s theological beliefs and the philosophical framework in which he broke down the question, I want to give you the exact response that he gave when I reconnected with him at a recent event at Stanford University. He said, “The Good Life is those who live in the Kingdom of God.” By “Kingdom of God,” he is referring to those who recognize they have an eternal destiny if they choose to use their range of influence to bring God’s will into society.
Dallas noted that the phrase “the Good Life” has been used routinely in our culture to the point that it now lacks the meaning that philosophers imply when they use the term. For example, he referenced the former slogan of Sears: “The Good Life at a Great Price.”
“This leads you to believe the Good Life can be purchased,” Dallas stated. “But this is not the case. The Good Life is not a commodity that is attained by human work.” The Good Life is something we obtain by discovering the truth. John of the New Testament tells us ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.’ “That is the Good Life,” Dallas explained. “Life in the Kingdom of God where there is no fear and a complete hope for an eternal future.”
I found Dallas’s answers compelling, but even as a religious person myself, I was somewhat shocked that Dallas put so much stress on the teachings of Jesus as the foundation of the Good Life today. Dallas is a philosopher who has read thousands of books of all genres; certainly there are books of philosophy and psychology that touch on the same principles that would be easier for modern readers. “There is no other book or philosophical teaching that compares?” I asked.
Again, he answered my question with another question. “Nick, what has been the most influential speech in history?”
I was stumped. I was recalling several speeches from American history including MLK’s “I have a Dream” and JFK’s “Ask not what you country can do for you.” But, I knew these only touched a small slice of people in whole scheme of human history. I thought back to the Bible. “I guess it would have to be Jesus’ teachings.”
He said that I was correct, more specifically, the answer is the Sermon on the Mount. No other speech has had the same massive influence. Nearly every society of the Western world for the last 2,000 years has been impacted by its message and the actions it has inspired. This fact has helped him trust in the Bible to be a source of knowledge that guides him through life’s complicated paths. He believes that everyone, not just old professors like himself, can be positively impacted by following its timeless truths.
Looking through a Philosophical Lens
I do not expect you to agree with all of Dallas’s thoughts, and I hope this chapter did not come across as preaching about religion. The main purpose of this chapter was for us to look at the Good Life by answering four questions that put the Good Life question into a philosophical framework.
After talking about philosophy in this chapter, we will discuss the philosophy of happiness and how it can help us find the Good Life.
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.
I know the power obedience has of making things easy which seem impossible.
–Teresa of Avila
The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power.
— Dallas Willard
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