Remembering Dallas Willard
James Catford, Chief Executive of Bible Society, talks about the impact the late writer and philosopher Dallas Willard had on him
It started in the thin, pure air of a Colorado morning.
We had woken early and deer were quietly grazing around the buildings where we were staying. Dew lay heavy on the ground. Just before 7am on Saturday 18 July 1998 about twenty of us, some cradling hot drinks in warm mugs, gathered in a small room. Few words were exchanged as we waited, little knowing what we were about to receive over the next few hours together.
Richard Foster was with us, as leader of our little group called Renovaré (that we pronounce 'ren-o-var-ay'), patiently sipping coffee until we were fully settled. Dallas Willard's new book The Divine Conspiracy [HarperCollins 1998] had been released a few weeks before, but this was its first airing amongst the ministry team that he had helped Richard set up more than a decade earlier.
Dallas stood to present the book that was to define his Christian ministry around the world. This day was to also change the direction of the lives of all of us scribbling in our notebooks on that crisp mountain morning. Dallas, as it turned out, was about to unlock an understanding of the Kingdom of God that few of us had encountered before.
Years later, on a car journey on the M4 from Swindon to London, I quizzed Dallas about when he first realised that the Kingdom of God is available to us here and now and not just when we die. It came to him as a young Bible student, right before he radically changed direction and went on to become a world class philosopher and professor at the University of California.
Dallas always started his teaching on experiencing a deeper life with God by talking about the Kingdom. That's because it's where Jesus started his ministry. But it didn't end there. Dallas went on to articulate a widespread revision - he preferred to call it a recovery - of Christian theology that has shaped the life and thinking of an entire generation of Christian leaders including myself.
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Other insights followed, especially about spiritual formation, and he supported Richard Foster tirelessly by speaking at Renovaré events across the United States and around the world. I had the privilege of hosting him in the UK on several occasions, always making sure that I managed to get good amounts of quality time in his company.
During a weekend walking near Rutland Water, I was so intent to understand the meaning of the atonement that my pace slowed almost to nothing as I pressed him on what really happened on the cross.
Another Willardian emphasis came out when we walked the streets of Oxford for two days one year when he was lecturing at Wycliffe Hall. This time our subject was the Bible and his insight was so great that, in 2002, I left my career in commercial publishing and became leader of the Bible Society. Like several other Christian organisations and churches around the world, much of our thinking and practice today has been shaped by Dallas.
As a young book editor from London, England, I had been a guest at that chilly dawn meeting in the Rockies. I was the least entitled to be there, but had the most to gain from this new experience of God and his divine conspiracy at work in our world. I drank deeply. Walking, talking, laughing and living alongside Dallas in the years that followed was a wonderful, joyful and unforgettable experience that changed my life. Now it is our turn to share with others the abundant life with God that he so generously shared with us.
James Catford is Group Chief Executive of Bible Society. He is chair of Renovaré Britain and Ireland and has served on the board of Renovaré in the US. At HodderHeadline and then HarperCollins he was publisher of four books by Dallas Willard including The Divine Conspiracy and Hearing God.