At the memorial service for Dallas Willard—the beloved teacher, philosopher and author—J.P. Moreland told a story that has stayed with me. Moreland—once Willard’s student, later his friend and colleague—spoke of Willard’s commitment to truth: not just for himself, but as something he felt responsible for sharing and advancing with others as best he could.
Moreland recalled a discussion Willard had with a student in front of peers at a 1982 doctrinal seminar. Willard made the statement that “when we look at an object or think about it, we don’t construct it or make it up,” rather it exists as it is with observable qualities and characteristics. The student “didn’t buy it,” and countered that, “when you look at something, you give it its color. It’s not colored unless you look at it.”
So Willard tested the idea: He grabbed a Styrofoam cup, placed it on a table in front of the student and their colleagues, and asked the student “why don’t you turn around and stop looking at the cup, and the rest of us will see if it stays colored?” Of course, the cup kept its color even when the color-imbuing student turned his back.
Willard was direct and sharp. He did not apologize. The tension in the room was thick.
Moreland, who felt that tension, asked Willard later in the day, “What just happened in there?”
“J.P., we have to stop being bullied.”
Moreland reflected on this scene, and what it showed him about Willard, in the memorial service:
“Now Dallas was a gracious, compassionate man. But he wasn’t bully-able. And when he knew something was true, he stood there. I want to be like that.”
What Does This Mean for Us?
I am no philosopher, and the odds are that you are not one either. Philosophers like Willard and Moreland advance and defend ideas as a vocation. But each and every one of us carries truths that are relevant not just to us as individuals, but to our friends and communities: to society.
Earlier in my life, I tended to rush toward consensus even at the expense of my own convictions. It was easier to end the argument through acquiescence, and honestly, I felt holier that way. I was proud of how “humble” I could be.
Like for many in my generation, this mindset was a response to the bitter fights of the previous generation, when so often claimed truths were used as a weapon to cause harm, rather than a tool to promote good. We know too well the potential of valuing doctrine—religious or otherwise—over people.
But these dangers should not bully us into bifurcated lives. It is inconsistent to hold something as truth in our lives, but dismiss its relevance in the lives of others. To keep truth to oneself is not equivalent to humility. If it is indeed wisdom, to not share it is masochistic.
To believe in something does not require a claim of one’s own omniscience or inerrancy. The ability to think, to hold convictions, is human. Our most noble advances in society have come out of an individual and communal pursuit of what is true.
The truth is revealed in our study, our relationships and our experiences. Yet, sometimes we can be quick to back off when we are challenged. We can even doubt whether our story means anything at all. But the truth in your story, the truth you carry in you, really does matter. It matters to all of us.
The Mistake of Dismissing the Public Value of Ideas
We have too easily conflated the defense of ideas with the polarized culture of cable news debates and social media screeds. Those who debate ideas seem to always be judgmental, bitter and cranky, but we forget how central the advancement of ideas has been to the history of the Church. Indeed, much of Jesus’ ministry was about overturning false ideas that had become conventional wisdom.
This is perhaps most clear in the Beatitudes, where Jesus first confronts false or incomplete ideas (“You have heard…”), and moves to directly contest that idea with a new one. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Yes, becoming a disciple of Jesus is about much more than acquiescence to a list of doctrinal truths, but discipleship includes the transforming of our minds.
Just think of all of the great art, literature and activism that would not exist without Christians committed to the defense and advocacy of Christian truths. There would be no Wilberforce or King to fight slavery. No C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton to inspire and educate us about orthodoxy or the foundations of our faith. As Christians, we must take the life of the mind—our mind and that of others—seriously.
Lessons for Pursuing and Advancing Truth
So speak up in that meeting. Have that coffee shop conversation you have kept postponing. Write the article you have been afraid to write.
As we seek to take seriously our own ideas and those of others, we can keep the following ideas in mind:
The goal is not victory, but faithfulness.
Even Jesus gave people the opportunity to reject His teachings. When Jesus told a rich man that following him would require giving up his allegiance to his possessions (Matthew 19:21), the rich man “went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matthew 19:22). Yet, the man’s unwillingness to follow the teaching did not lead Jesus to compromise. Instead, He reaffirmed and expanded on the teaching to the disciples (Matthew 19:23-24). Like Jesus, we can defend ideas without getting defensive.
We can be wrong.
We do not have to be 100 percent certain of every position we take, particularly in informal settings, in order to state our position. Indeed, it is often more compelling to acknowledge aspects of our argument we are uncertain about, even as we confidently advance what we believe to be true.
Humility does not require a lack of commitments or conviction. One of the most wonderful, humbling experiences is to be convinced of error and to turn from it. Christians call this repentance. But it is only possible if we acknowledge what we currently believe, and test that belief in the light of the evidence and the truth of Scripture.
Operate in love.
There is a great temptation to take pride in our ideas for their own sake, but whatever true knowledge we have does not come from us, and it is not for our own self-aggrandizement. This is the lesson and caution of the Pharisees, who had the truth, but misused it. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because of this: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). The Pharisees used ideas to serve themselves, not others. We should resist this temptation.
As Christians, we are to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind. We may take a false step, but that is always a risk of pursuing faithfulness. We can find truth together, learning from one another, but only if we love our neighbor enough to share the convictions that we hold dear.
Michael Wear is a writer, speaker and consultant who helps organizations navigate the 21st century American religious and political landscape. He is a former advisor to President Barack Obama, serving in his White House and leading faith outreach for his re-election campaign. MichaelÕs website is michaelrwear.com and he is on twitter at @MichaelRWear.