By Dallas Willard
Dallas Willard received his PhD in Philosophy from Baylor University in 1964. He served as Philosophy professor from 1965-2012 at the University of Southern California. In addition to The Allure of Gentleness, Willard wrote 13 books including The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart, and Spirit of the Disciplines. He passed away in 2013.
The Allure of Gentleness was put together by Willard’s daughter from a series of talks given in 1990, along with notes and a list of additions Willard wanted included.
Willard’s purpose in writing this book was to return to a sense of apologetics as a shared journey of exploration, where we invite people to examine their doubts, welcoming the questions that trouble believers and seekers. The main thesis is that a gentle spirit and a kind presentation of the intellectual aspects of apologetics make them more effective.
The book is short, just seven chapters on 170 pages of content. Chapter 1 lays out Willard’s case for using our rational faculties in service of Christ. Chapter 2 applies this idea to apologetics as a practice. Chapter 3 offers a biblical model for apologetics. Chapter 4 explores the relationship between faith and reason. In chapter 5, Willard defends divine revelation. Chapter 6 addresses pain, suffering and the problem of evil. Finally, chapter 7 explores the ongoing interaction between the disciple and his Lord.
I really like reading anything Willard writes. When I read his work, I feel like I am having a conversation with the Christian grandfather I never had. I always come away feeling challenged and motivated to strive to do better, to seek God more fervently, and to emulate his manner. This book is no different in that respect. However, for those very reasons, there are a few things in this book that bother me.
One of the less troubling comments Willard makes is with respect to cosmic evolution. He notes that, “The suggestion of cosmic evolution (order out of chaos) as an alternative was not presented until the nineteenth century.”(76.) But it seems as though Willard is conflating the idea of cosmic evolution with biological evolution. Until the early 20th century, the reigning paradigm was that the universe was eternal and static. It was not until the work of Einstein and Hubble foreclosed on the steady state model that theories like Big Bang cosmology were proposed. Another place where Willard’s views could bring about confusion is in his section “Reading E=MC2 From Left to Right.” Here Willard asserts that God is energy. This lends itself to confusion because of equivocation of “energy.” If by energy one means the ability to do work, this is not a problem. However, when physicists speak of energy in the context of E=MC2, energy is a form that matter can take. However, I do not believe Willard means to say that God is a physical being.
In addition, Willard has a section he calls, “There is No “Good” Without Evil.” However, if it is the case that evil is a deprivation of good, how is good dependent on evil? Willard seems to be arguing that human evil is necessary. I can see his argument that certain goods require evils, such as courage requiring threats, mercy requires wrongs, and generosity requires needs, but a world without threats, wrongs and need could still be good.
The most troubling thing Willard writes is in his discussion on the hiddenness of God. Willard argues that God “…is capable of not knowing whatever he does not wish to know—should there be any such thing.” (66.) This idea is not even coherent, for in order for God to choose to not know something, he would have to know it and when it would obtain in order to be sure he does not know it. This is a strange departure from the classical view of divine omniscience. Willard defends the view by drawing a parallel to divine omnipotence, noting that on omnipotent God is able to do anything power can do, but it does not mean he does do everything his power allows him to do. However, omniscience is not the ability to know, but the possession of the knowledge.
Finally, Willard gives a weak defense of the idea that God speaks to individuals. I say weak because the Bible passages offered do not support his argument. I do not mean to say that God does not, or cannot speak to individuals even today. What I am saying is that the passages Willard cites do not teach that every believer can expect to experience this. (For a more detailed treatment of this issue, see http://www.str.org/publications/does-god-whisper-part-1#.VOUFmVPF9Oh)
These concerns aside, I highly recommend this book, as well as anything else Willard writes. It is written at a level that a high school student can understand, and an academic can enjoy. It is an encouragement for those considering apologetics as a part of their skillset, and a challenge to those of us who have developed some skills to apply them in a more Christ-like manner.