Dallas Willard is not a hurried or haunted man. When he speaks, his words come easy and natural, amended by a bit of southern lilt that traces him back to his rural Missouri roots. His pauses can feel like great gaping holes to an interviewer more accustomed to the dizzying pace of simultaneous high speed internet interaction and cell phone chatter. When Dallas Willard does answer, it seems to come from some deep place inside him, not just skimmed-off something from the surface.
Willard, of course, is an author and a teacher who’s been thinking about God longer than most of us have been alive. Though his vocational calling is philosophy professor, if you have heard of him at all, it’s probably not because of his provocative insights into phenomenology or his defense of standard formal logic. Most of his renown comes from his insistence on the primacy of Jesus’ teaching for Christianity. In a recent interview from his home, Willard addressed the "seduction of technology" and "stepping into the community that already exists."
RelevantMagazine.com: I’ve been thinking about this year’s high school graduates, and their experiences and how they’re really the first full generation to never have experienced life without the internet and these tremendous integrated systems of ours. To what degree do you think that this kind of technology and connection helps or hurts Christian discipleship?
Dallas Willard: …Well, I deal daily with college students and I have seen the seduction of technology. We live in a world where technology lifts mankind into a false sense of power and as a result my students have a feeling that if they can do something they should. They feel that they can go here, go there, shut that out, do what they want to, and that is the most seductive aspect to technology: it creates a false sense of intimacy and a false sense of sense of self.
Now, that need not rule out the use of technology, the bad aspects can be resisted, but you do need to have a place to stand in order to present yourself in a way that allows you to handle all the things that are coming at you. For example: games. For many young people this is just their life; they sit staring into some kind of screen endlessly, they come into class playing games, pretending they’re taking notes. They become obsessed. And that’s the difficulty: the obsession and the subsequent distraction that they experience.
We have this phenomenon of Attention Deficit that people are experiencing and diagnosing right and left. The problem is not deficit of attention but the distraction and splintering of attention. You almost never see a young person today who’s paying attention to one thing. There are various devices that they’re carrying and are plugged into and they just want to live in that world. All this amounts to a tremendous problem and we can describe it as the inner gathering of the self.
RM: The inner gathering of the self…?
DW: The inner gathering of the self just means that you have a chosen direction and your life is organized around it. What young people today, both Christian and non-Christian are experiencing is not a chosen direction, though there is the illusion that they are choosing. Rather, young people today are being constantly pulled by things that they submit themselves to. That’s the great temptation and the great problem for many people today. Most don’t even notice the temptation, but their lives are being pulled apart by it. And when it comes to issues of exercising character and will, it simply isn’t there for them. They can only respond to things that are pulling at them.
RM: It’s a loss of focus?
DW: …It’s a loss of self-direction and the consequence of that is no focus.
RM: I know that for most twenty-somethings, myself included, it’s easy to get lost in a maze of options…
DW: That’s exactly right. See, young people identify life with consuming…and not just consuming stuff you might buy in a store but consuming all the stuff that is offered to them. They are constantly being hammered with all types of things which they open themselves up to by staying plugged in. The old saying from the drug generation, "Tune in, turn on, and drop out" has been made manifest, we have a generation of young people now who are living in a constant state of "dropped out-ness" from the real world and from its history and from community and from the integrity of themselves. …And they don’t even know that.
RM: But you’re talking about a generation that has a put a great amount of emphasis on having friends and surrounding themselves with community…
DW: That’s an expression of their loneliness. But most of them don’t know what community means because community means assuming responsibility for other people and that means paying attention and not following your own will but submitting your will and giving up the world of intimacy and power you have in the little consumer world that you have created. They are lonely and they hurt. They don’t know why that they think community might solve that, but when they look community in the face and realize that it means raw, skin to skin contact with other people for whom you have become responsible…that’s when they back away.
RM: Maybe that’s why twentysomethings have been pushing marriage and childbirth further and further back…
DW: Well, you see, childbirth is the most rudimentary form of community. There’s the relationship between the man and the woman, and the relationship between the man, the woman, and the child…that is where community truly means being responsible for other people and people do not want that because that means that their freedom is limited.
When you step into that kind of responsibility, you’ve got to have some kind of resource to draw from and I would say that has to be the Kingdom of God. That, of course, is not accessible to many people and most Christians have not really heard about it.
RM: What you’re saying is really hard to hear because…this is so much the pulse of this generation, that we are…that I myself am…consumed by only the things we wish to be consumed by…
DW: That’s the Faustian drive that characterizes our culture generally and it is the sure way to defeat God’s purposes for your life…to assume yourself to be the center of your world.
RM: I think that once someone is lost in that kind of selfishness, it’s so hard to get through, to communicate that to someone without being horribly offensive to them…or it’s hard to hear that I’m ridiculously selfish without getting offended.
DW: It’s extremely hard. I know so well…when you look at their lives, everything from sex to their professional objectives, instead of seeing someone who is actually competent, you see someone who is, in rare exceptions, at their wits’ end. That’s why they have to go to clubs and drink too much and put themselves in odd positions in reference to their families. In the universities they’re ready to cheat, to steal, and to do anything they can to get ahead and this is a terrible problem. And it’s not just a problem at secular schools.
RM: Because, in this case there’s little real difference between Christians and non-Christians…
DW: I was at a Christian school just a while back and it was winter time and everyone had to store their coats and equipment to come into the cafeteria and eat. There was a huge problem with theft in that coatroom…basically because we have no sense of responsibility to our communities.
RM: So, what are the very fundamental things that you would recommend to someone who is struggling with this…to someone who’s been…what you said, "seduced" by the culture?
DW: You have to think in terms of radical disciplines that will return them out of this world of distraction they’re living in and help them find the center, and those are solitude and silence. …At first, they think it will drive them crazy because they will have lost their self as they know it, which lives out here in all of these places and does what it thinks is exercising power in its life. But to go into a quiet place and sit down and enjoy no noise, no speaking for long period of time…
RM: That just seems so counter productive.
DW: It does indeed. And let me tell you, this is not only a problem for your generation, it is a problem in the older generation as well. You should see CEO’s and lead ministers start wiggling when you say this to them. Of course, they have their breakdowns too, and their forms of distractions and power and what the young people have today is simply a new and more widespread form of it.
You have to take yourself out of the place of running your world. And there is nothing that I know of that can do that other than the practice of lengthy solitude and silence. That will allow you to begin to understand what Sabbath means. But most people can’t approach Sabbath because they’re so revved up and so distracted by so many things that they couldn’t even begin to think about it.
See, once you have begun to experience solitude and silence, you discover that you actually have a soul and that there is a God. Then you can begin to practice Sabbath and that will enable you to re-enter community. You can’t have community without Sabbath.
RM: I think that a lot of Christians are surprised when they begin to actually make a stab toward community that there is such a high level of brokenness and hurt and suspicion among even church people…
DW: I think that you’re right on…see, in our theology we’ve basically accepted that as the normal condition and that leaves us with nothing to help our condition. See, brokenness manifests itself as an inability for people to do what they know to be right, and the ability to do what you know to be right is a prerequisite for true community. People struggle toward things like accountability groups and so on, but to really have peace…that only really comes from turning your world over to God.
RM: Where did you come to recognize these kinds of things?
DW: What happened to me was that I became acquainted with the figures in the history of the church that had experienced the kind of life before God and in community that is spoken of in the scriptures. It was by reading about these people’s experiences that I was able to go back to the scriptures. And when I did go back to the scriptures, I found the depth of teaching for life that is present there. In the great passages like Psalms 1, 1 Corinthians 13, The Sermon on the Mount…the ones that pretty much everyone knows…they were very instructive as to what I needed to do as a disciple of Jesus.
And let me just add this one point about obedience, because this is the place it comes in. I found early on that learning from Jesus how to do what he says is the central point of the New Testament doctrine of salvation and life. It does not separate the afterlife from this life, but says: "Put your confidence in Jesus and live with him as his student". Then all the other things will take care of themselves, as long as you’re centered on learning from Jesus how to do what he says.
That is what is missing from our churches and from the young people we’ve been talking about. That is something that by grace and intelligence they can hear and when they hear it it’s kind of a shock. Well…actually for many of them it’s really not a shock. They say: "This is what I’ve been looking for." They just didn’t find it in the Christianity that was presented to them. And then you say, "Yes, what you are longing for is taken care of as long as you step into the community which already exists and that is the Kingdom of Heaven."