Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Friday, June 14, 2013

On Dallas Willard's Work: An Interview with Bill Heatley

Recently, I interviewed Bill Heatley in light of Dallas Willard's passing on May 8, 2013 (memorial service videos here). Bill is, among other things, the son-in-law of Dallas and Jane Willard. We discussed Dallas' work, including his "unfinished" work-in-progress. Bill, along with his wife Becky, have played and will continue to play a crucial role in helping to bring Dallas' work to the public.  Bill and I share a common vision and affection for some of Dallas' (often under-appreciated) work on the Professions and the theology of work entailed therein, which we also discussed in light of Dallas' long-anticipated manuscript on The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. Below is the full-text of the interview.

First, Bill, I must ask, how are you and the family doing?

Dallas showed us how to live in Christ and now he has shown me how to journey from life to life through death and the present reality of the great cloud of witnesses. So, there is great joy covering and infusing the deep sense of sorrow and loss. My mind turns to a question or event that I would talk with Dallas about and he's no longer there to chat with. A problem confronts me and he’s no longer there backing me up. So, we carry on and live, as best we can in God's grace, like Jesus would if he were we, and everywhere we go we remember to “give 'em heaven” as Dallas told Larissa, my daughter, to do. We miss him and look forward to seeing him again.

Can you say what is the status of Dallas' manuscript, tentatively titled, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge? I know many in the Christian philosophical community want to know. Is it now considered “finished”? Also, over the years, Dallas has done various talks related to “Christian apologetics,” including a few years ago for the EPS. Is there any future plan to compile Dallas’ work in this area toward a posthumous book? Is so, what might that look like?

Yes, before Dallas passed away, there were two book projects in various stages that Dallas was working on: a) The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge and b) Gentleness: Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus. The plans for publishing Disappearance and Gentleness are proceeding and I look forward to reporting on progress in the near future. There were also several other book projects where he was guiding others.

Can you be a little more specific about the status of the Disappearance manuscript?

There are two basic ways to understand the status of the Disappearance manuscript. There is the “completeness” factor and then there is the “maturity” factor. Before Dallas passed on, all of the chapters were completed. So, we have the entirety of the manuscript. But in terms of the manuscript’s maturity, all of the earlier chapters are more mature than not. But the last chapter needs some maturity. There is a team of scholars looking at this chapter as it stands now, comparing it to other versions, and seeking to reconcile it with notes from Dallas during the last time he taught on the subject at the University of Southern California in 2011. We want to ensure that nothing relevant is missing here in order to bring closure to this work.

Do you have a publisher?

Currently, there is not a publisher. We are looking for a reputable, mainstream academic publisher that will do great service to the presentation and widespread marketing and publicity of this title in academic contexts, such as in philosophy, history of ethics, and religious studies areas, and more.

Disappearance is a more academic project than not and intended to persuade fellow scholars. As a practitioner at heart, did Dallas intend to ever write a non-academic version of Disappearance?

Through his speaking and writing, Dallas had two primary types of audiences. He was attentive to both his academic and non-academic readers and listeners. I would say that his primary audience was his academic audience.  One of his intentions in writing Knowing Christ Today was to bring some of the Moral Knowledge material to a general audience. Of course, those same ideas are treated in much more depth in this current manuscript.

In light of all he’s written, do you know how Dallas viewed the stature of Disappearance? For example, did he view it as his magnum opus?

Those of you who know Dallas know that the words “magnum opus” would never leave his lips. I would say that he tended to view the Disappearance manuscript as an extremely important academic work, but I don’t think he would have said that all of his work to date culminated there. For remember his two types of audiences: academic and non-academic. Our family certainly considers his Divine Conspiracy as a magnum opus on the Christian spiritual formation side of things.

In fact, some of the earliest, rudimentary seeds for Disappearance are actually available in the Divine Conspiracy, and then you see further developments in The Great Omission and then well into Knowing Christ Today. He was ruminating, writing and speaking on themes relevant to Disappearance for probably the last ten years of his life.

Do you know what were Dallas’ hopes or aspirations for Disappearance?

He really wanted this work to penetrate into the academy and to make a difference among scholars. For 125+ years ago, it was common (even among scholars, let alone among practitioners) for moral knowledge to be seen as an actual body of knowledge intended to be integrated into life. For it gives authority to lead and guide life. But how moral knowledge is viewed today is very different.

Although it is not a widely-reported fact, Dallas was thoroughly interested in the history of the Professions and understanding their role in shaping “common goods” in society, correct?

Yes, in the last year he had turned his focus toward the “next phase” of The Divine Conspiracy and was investing time toward the professions and the common good. Another way he spoke about it was the common goods of the classic professions, “what are the common goods of the Legal Profession, Medical Profession etc., in terms of the kingdom?” It was an area of increased attention in his talks. For example, one of his last talks for The Oikonomia Network was on this topic. In his discussions with me and others, he saw the “next phase” as the bridging of the Christian “Spiritual Formation” stream in American culture and the “Faith and Work” stream. The impact of disciples in the workplace was, in Dallas' mind, the next wave of The Divine Conspiracy. As he told me, “spiritual formation that doesn’t include work, isn't spiritual formation.”

How might the work on the Professions and the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge be related?

Good question. I think they can be related as two parallel tracks. For the first track, Dallas believed that the “next wave” of The Divine Conspiracy would crash into the professions and the work of all Christians as we live out our discipleship 24x7. The second track is that many of the professions today suffer from a tangible disappearance of moral knowledge.  You see this in the many ethical issues within business that have flooded the news for years now, and in the business courses offered in college that teach ethics merely as what I prefer to call “litigation avoidance” rather than something that has an effect on actually improving the character of the students in the class. In this regard, it’s not surprising that it is essential that moral knowledge is regained as a body of knowledge in academia.

Any indication of what Dallas wanted to start writing but was never able to do so?

Nothing further started as a book idea but many areas of interest and attention. The two books mentioned above were where he was investing his thoughts and energies. He desired to have a similar impact on the Academy as he had on Spiritual Formation and he also wanted to redeem the field of Apologetics back to its original ethos.

Can you say a little more about what Dallas saw needing to be “redeemed”?

As of late, Apologetics – as both an area of study and practice – has been divested of gentleness and the life that Christ came to bring, which Peter references prior to the infamous 1 Peter 3:15 passage. Instead, Apologetics has been reduced to being like a game; an intellectual sport of sorts. It was never intended to look  like that. 1 Peter 3:15 refers to giving an answer to those that ask “why” about the kind of life we have in Christ. It is a life-based response in the character of Jesus. As a study and practice, it has lost its gentleness.

Dallas' 2014 book on apologetics with HarperOne will seek to develop this understanding further. The heart of the book is based on a series of talks on apologetics that Dallas gave many years ago, with additions from other talks over the last few years.

Now, more than ever, it seems like a good time to let people in on what has been your involvement over the years with helping to bring Dallas’ writings to the public. You and your dear wife Becky – coupled with Dallas’ Lady Jane – have been as he would say, indispensable! How have you been at work behind-the-scenes?

Dallas always had a steady family of friends helping him with his writing. He was always so gracious in acknowledging their input. The “Willard Council” was instrumental in helping balance Dallas’ teaching schedule and increase his focus on writing. The family of friends helped with feedback, editing of various kinds, suggestions and encouragement. I’m not sure there was anything “special” about what we did. We just loved him and supported him in any way we could. Dallas always had my back on everything and I had his back on whatever he was doing.  And of course, as he said on the dedication page of Hearing God, Jane has been by his side every step of the way as a “Sweet lady, Good soldier, Faithful companion on the way.”

To enable us to continue that aspect of ministering with him, Dallas gave me and Becky his blessing to establish “Dallas Willard Ministries” which, in conjunction with The Dallas Willard Center, is committed to furthering the good work of Jesus through the writings and teachings of Dallas. Information about both of these ministries is available on our websites: and

Many seem to think Dallas’ work was “unfinished” at the time of his death. What do you think he would say to that claim in light of what he knew and believed about one’s vocation, God’s providence, and the Kingdom of God?

I think he answered that on page 399 of The Divine Conspiracy
We should expect that in due time we will be moved into our eternal destiny of creative activity with Jesus and his friends and associates in the “many mansions” of “his Father’s house.”  … We should think of ourselves as being absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment.
So Dallas is still working at whatever is next for him in his “eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”

The work of Dallas here among us isn’t done either, and the baton has been passed to those of us willing to carry it on. Dallas always had a unique way of seeing and explaining things.  He lived his life immersed in the Trinitarian Reality and because of that reality there was always more for us to learn from Christ through him. The Lord measured his days and Dallas’ work on earth was finished on May 8th, 2013 at 5:55AM PST, but the work of Jesus that was made manifest in and through Dallas’ teachings and writing; that work continues.

At the “Knowing Christ Today” conference sponsored by the Dallas Willard Center in February there was a great awareness that we were being commissioned to carry on the work that Dallas had showed us needed doing. We must decide to either remain by-standers and spectators to The Divine Conspiracy or active participants in the kingdom among us who intentionally engage the with-God life that is presently available.

That’s wonderful, Bill. Can you elaborate a little further on how you see the Dallas Willard Ministries nonprofit differentiating itself from the work of the Westmont Center?

The two are intended to operate as Siamese twins; you know, joined at the heart. At the heart, there is a commitment to collaboratively work together to further Dallas Willard's teaching, whether for academic or non-academic audiences. The Center will be primarily focused on the academy and the Dallas Willard Ministries nonprofit will be primarily focused on non-academic equipping.

I am reminded of Dallas' perspective about the indispensability of “pastors as teachers of the nations.”

Yes, pastors as teachers of the nations are both an “academic” and a “ministry” interest. Because “pastors” have the epistemic right and obligation to guide life on the basis of moral and spiritual knowledge of reality. So, yes, it all comes together with the pastors. And that's how Dallas saw it, even at his last conference at the Westmont Center, where he commissioned pastors to be teachers of the nations.

Bill, any final words?

Just what Dallas said to my Larissa, his Grand Daughter, in April: “Give ’em heaven!”


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