Walking Through “The Divine Conspiracy” by Dallas Willard – Intro
Dallas Willard has become one of my favorite authors in large part because of his thoughtful attention to matters of discipleship, specifically what it means for Christians to be properly formed spiritual followers of Jesus Christ. All disciples are intended to follow Christ and grow in Christ-likeness, so anyone who thinks and writes well on these matters should be a welcome addition to the church today.
Among the many provocative things he has written, “The Divine Conspiracy” may be the most wide-ranging, arguably the most significant, and thus likely the most neglected of his works. I read it for the first time about a decade ago and I am sure I missed most of what it had to say. I am returning to it in order to pick up more. So I want to walk through this book together. I will not pretend to write on all or even most of the significant ideas Willard raises, but even catching a few here and there will be useful to me, and hopefully to others as well.
The Introduction is worth some thought. In it, Willard notes a significant lacunae, or hole, in Christian discipleship. Jesus clearly taught that we are to live his life and commandments, and we don’t. In fact, we probably don’t know how.
“It is the failure to understand Jesus and his words as reality and vital information about life that explains why, today, we do not routinely teach those who profess allegiance to him now to do what he said was best….We just don’t do what he said. We don’t seriously attempt it. And apparently we don’t know how to do it.” (pg. xiv)
If true, if even only largely true, this is a serious indictment of the church. Shouldn’t followers of Jesus Christ be recognizable as His? Yet it seems plausible that for the most part, we may not be. And, as he states a little earlier, it is because we have lost our understanding of Jesus as bringing “information and reality” (pg. xiv). Regaining this understanding would lead us to see Jesus as bringing vital and practical information to be learned and practiced, and see his life and teachings as true reality. The results would be life-transforming.
The topic of spiritual transformation is one on which Willard has offered a lot of insight. Every human is formed, or is in the process of being spiritually formed, by the gods in their life. No person escapes the shaping of their souls – only those who pay attention to it with Christ have their souls shaped in his likeness. As he puts it, “It is a matter of how we cannot but think and act, given the context of our mental and spiritual formation” (pg. xv). So the key to discipleship is not a matter of altering surface behaviors, but changing the ideas that move our lives from deep within. He says, “So any significant change can come only by breaking the stranglehold of the ideas and concepts that automatically shunt aside Jesus, ‘the Prince of Life,’ when questions of concrete mastery of our life arise” (pg. xv).
While some may be tempted to think that a book like “The Divine Conspiracy” is a little technical and disconnected from ‘real life’, or ‘above their heads’, nothing could be further from the truth. Willard intends this book to be intensely practical – something that has the potential to change everything about us. That kind of goal, however, requires work. Spiritual formation in the image of Christ does not happen in a microwave set on HI for three minutes. So a work addressing the fundamental issues of discipleship cannot be properly consumed in one, simple sitting.
I am looking forward to the feast.