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Professor Dallas Willard: Philosopher who championed the cause of evangelicalism

People have more control over their feelings than is often realised, he believed

Dallas Willard was a philosopher who had a great influence on American evangelicalism. He was conscious that Christianity was under attack in parts of the university world, and much of his writing was an implicit response to that. He constantly emphasised that there was such a thing as moral and spiritual knowledge. This was a central theme in Knowing Christ Today (2009), subtitled “Why we can trust spiritual knowledge”. Here he lamented that Christianity had lost its reputation for promoting a basic body of knowledge that was testable and available to anyone who wanted to know about it. Elsewhere, he wrote that the mind becomes dysfunctional when the “light” of God is put out in the heart and soul. The widespread loss of faith had resulted in an ethical vacuum, he thought: there was no longer any corpus of moral knowledge operating in Western intellectual institutions.

Born in Buffalo, Missouri, Willard was an undergraduate at William Jewell College, Tennessee Temple College, where he took a BA in Psychology in 1956, and Baylor University (BA in Philosophy and Religion, 1957). After graduating he moved to Georgia, where he spent a year teaching English literature at a secondary school. He also worked there as an associate pastor in a Baptist church.

Although a career in the Southern Baptist church seemed likely, Willard's passion for intellectual questions drew him into postgraduate studies. “Before I knew there was a subject called philosophy, I loved it,” he once said. He started at Baylor and then moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he got his PhD in 1964 with a major in philosophy and a minor in the history of science. From 1965 he worked in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, serving as Director from 1982-85.

Over 47 years he taught courses on logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, the history of ethics, the philosophy of religion and the history of philosophy from the 17th-20th century. He had visiting appointments at UCLA and the University of Colorado and served on the Boards of Biola University and the CS Lewis Foundation; some admirers described him as “a modern-day CS Lewis”.

His philosophical interests came to be focussed around epistemology, logic and the philosophy of mind. He was a hard worker: he estimated that a couple of his early articles had been rewritten some 65 times. One of them was a piece that appeared in 1967 in the British journal Mind, “A Crucial Error in Epistemology”, challenging the idea that in cognition thought and its object “interact”; it was a mistake to see cognising as a “relation”. Always a realist, Willard was particularly drawn to the phenomenology of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. He devoted 15 years to a study of Husserl's early thought, resulting in Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge (1984), and went on to translate Husserl's works in Early Writings in the Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics (1993) and Philosophy of Arithmetic (2003).

If Willard's philosophical works were known to a relatively small group of scholars, his writings about Christianity, and particularly the nature of Christian discipleship, were read by a much wider circle. The first, In Search of Guidance (1984), later republished as Hearing God (1999), was about discerning God's will. This was followed by The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988), an exploration of the disciplines of abstinence and engagement that Willard saw as essential for Christian living. It became a kind of companion volume to the influential book by the Quaker writer Richard Foster, A Celebration of Discipline (1983). Willard was involved in Renovaré—an organisation promoting spiritual formation that was founded by Foster; and he co-edited the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Study Bible (2005).

Willard's reputation as a thoughtful writer was strengthened by The Divine Conspiracy (1998), Christianity Today's book of the year in 1999. Always fascinated by questions like “What is the good life?” and “How do you become a good person?”, Willard argued that there was nothing arbitrary about developing a Christian character. People who aspired to be Christians needed to undergo a certain kind of training – “a curriculum for Christlikeness”.

Similar themes were addressed in Renovation of the Heart (2002) – also a winner of a Christianity Today book award, this time in the category of spirituality. Here Willard outlined in more detail his belief that people have more control over their feelings than is often realised; with divine assistance people can replace destructive feelings with good ones, those associated with love, joy and peace. The emphasis, again, was on the capacity of human beings to change.

Willard saw no conflict between his work as a professional philosopher and his Christian commitments. “Faith is confidence grounded in reality, not a wild, desperate 'leap',” he insisted. It was the fluency with which he articulated these points that made him a central figure for evangelicals wishing to assert the relevance of Christianity to the academic project and modern life. There was also a peaceful and measured quality about his method of communicating that meant he was often in demand as a public speaker. His books have been translated into many languages.

Willard died shortly after announcing that he had advanced cancer.

Dallas Albert Willard, philosopher: born Buffalo, Missouri 4 September 1935; married 1955 Jane Lakes (one son, one daughter); died 8 May 2013.