Monday, February 19, 2007

Comparing Dallas Willard and Brian McLaren

Dallas Willard’s model of spiritual formation has been welcomed with open arms by the evangelical communities of faith while much doubt has been thrown at McLaren’s model, some of it personal. Why is Willard’s spiritual formation model so appealing?

First, it is concrete and easily understood. VIM is instructional and sequential. We are used to this type of thinking because we are familiar with modernity. McLaren’s model is mainly descriptive and there is not a real structure behind it because it was presented in a postmodern way.

Second, Willard’s model has a ‘scientific’ basis as he draws from his expertise as a philosopher and theologian and from psychological and personality theories to construct his model. McLaren did not offer any proof except to say that “ a more holistic concept of spiritual formation has begun to emerge – drawing both from Catholic and monastic sources and drawing from contemporary philosophy and educational theory as well.”

Third, Willard, though ecumenical in his outlook does not openly acknowledge his sources from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. McLaren, however, openly confess that he draws from both the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and also from other religious traditions. This has made him suspect in many ‘evangelical's’ eyes.

Finally, Willard’s approach is rational and scholarly. His impeccable academic credential as professor and former director of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California and his writings make him respectable as a voice to be heard. McLaren, an equally prolific writer, however then to be provocative. This coupled with his academic qualifications and his association with the ‘rebel’ faction of the emerging/emergent church movement resulted in him being a target of criticism rather than one to be listened to.

Any thoughts?

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

presumably most of McLaren's critics come from theologians, themselves seeped in 'systematic theology', biblical studies, etc. McLaren has also openly embraced and encouraged postmodernism, perhaps adding *this* suspicion to that of him not being a 'scholar'?

1:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


That is so true. It like believing and teaching Newton's mechanics with its cause and effect all your life. Suddenly someone comes along and tell you about quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. How would you react?

2:43 AM  
Blogger Deborah said...

I believe that Willard and McLaren's spiritualities are very much the same. Willard's is just more disguised. Willard has endorsed the works of New Age sympathizers, such as Sue Monk Kidd and Thomas Merton, which shows that his affinities are in the same ball park as McLaren's.

Deborah Dombrowski
Lighthouse Trails Research

7:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

hi deborah,

Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that both Willard and McLaren are basically saying the same thing - in very different ways. That is why I am interested in the responses to their models. You are right to point this out. Many people does not see this point but are sidetracked by the presentation of the models.

Off hand, I cannot recall Willard referring to Sue Monk Kidd but I do remember his reference to Thomas Merton.


4:12 PM  
Blogger Sivin Kit said...

I see Willard as a "scholar" willing to engage in the realities spiritual formation needed for our time and age. He's a good example of how scholars can contribute to the maturity of the church beyond the academia.

As for McLaren, I see him as a pastor or now more like a "practitioner" reflectively drawing on and integrating (even "popularizing") insights often confined to the academia or non-mainstream evangelicalism (cf. thus the appreciation of other traditions). He's a good example of how pastors and practitioners can creatively use resources to enrich church ministry and mission.

Both come from different vantage points (from a vocational point of view) and yet contribute under a common theme of "making disciples" and "the Gospel of the Kingdom."

I have some thoughts from a more "political" point of view. But that's for another day.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

hi sivin,

Thanks for your contribution. I see them approaching the same subject with the same commitment to the church.

Willard approaches from the direction of systematic theology. McLaren from the direction of practical theology.

I am however, interested to know about the "political" point of view.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a left-brainer and I just love the writings of Dallas Willard. He thinks very deeply and expresses himself very clearly.While Willard dwells on spiritual formation, McLaren's scope of interest is broader and has to do with church renewal in a postmodern society.

I don't have any problems accepting Sue Monk Kidd and Thomas Merton or McLaren. Why is there that constant sniping and witch-hunting? leanings.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

hi blogpastor,

I like Dallas Willard's writing too. He is clear and concise in his arguments. I attended some of his lectures. He lectures the way he writes.

I am looking forward to meeting Brian McLaren in person next month.

Dallas Willard, Brian McLaren, Sue Monk Kidd, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen... I guess we can learn something from all of them. We just have to reflect and make sure we are learning the right thing.


1:53 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

When I came across Dallas Willard's book "Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge" I was concerned Willard might be deceived into thinking that mystical experience (which can be true or false, depending on one's relationship with God) supersedes Scriptural understanding and obedience to God's will. Willard is such a great writer, though, I quickly decided my concern was ill-founded and embraced him totally . . . until I did further research, read excerpts from 'The Divine Conspiracy,' and discovered that he places a tremendous emphasis on the practice of spiritual disciplines.

Jesus Christ never instructed us to engage in spiritual disciplines: He instead instructed us to LOVE GOD ABOVE ALL ELSE, and then to love and serve our neighbors (which includes enemies). To love God with all that you are is the "the great and foremost commandment." Matthew 22:38.

The only spiritual discipline necessary (or even advised) is a genuine prayer life based on a regular study of Scripture. A GENUINE prayer does not ask God to intervene in the world and make things happen (for yourself or others) but is instead a coupling of Socrates' wisdom that 'a self-examined life is the only life worth living' with trust that God is present, concerned, and intensely (passionately) interested in the process and outcome of one's self-examination. In other words, the self-examination is done in the form of an inner dialogue with God in which one is aware that God is listening in and cares and will help fruit to blossom and ripen in one's character and life as a result of the self-examination/prayer.

The few times I have tried spiritual disciplines, I have found that they focus my attention back on myself instead of on God and His will. For example, as a senior in high school I fasted once on Good Friday and later realized that I became totally focused on myself that day as a result: marveling that I was doing something 'noble' but not telling anyone, continually conscious of my body instead of the needs of others because I was hungry and my stomach rumbled at inopportune times threatening to embarrass me, etc.

I could give other examples, but space won't allow. Bottom line: When you are deeply engaged with God and reflect regularly on your actions in the world in a process of self-examination, you begin to see how arid, self-serving and narcissistic spiritual disciplines truly are.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

hi dianestranz,

Thank you for sharing your opinion on spiritual disciplines. From my understanding of Dallas Willard's and Brian McLaren's writings, their emphasis have always been that spiritual disciplines is a means to knowing God and not as a means to focus on oneself.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Alex,

Of course Willard and McLaren (and everyone else who recommend spiritual disciplines) intend them as means for reaching God and not as a way to focus on one's self. My point is that we are DECEIVING ourselves by thinking this is the case.

Jesus' entire point when he prays the words which have come to be known as 'the Lord's prayer' (Matthew 6:9-13) is that the way to reach God is to speak your heart to Him, trusting that He's with you, He's listening, and He cares. I love the Lord's Prayer as much as the next person, but by reciting it and thinking we are somehow 'praying' because we are repeating the same words Jesus used, we miss the point. A genuine prayer is not a repetition of someone ELSE'S words! Jesus did not memorize the Lord's Prayer from some other source: he simply directed his focus to God and then poured out the unique contents of his heart and mind -- as he tried to teach us to do the same thing.

Many theologicans have posited that we actually engage in spiritual disciplines and recite 'prayers' written by others as an unconscious way to AVOID genuine relationship with God. We do this either because(1) we feel unworthy to approach God directly as Jesus taught us to do or (2) we are like Augustine who said he wanted relationship with God 'but just not yet.'

In other words, we know we should care about doing God's will and submitting ourselves fully to His direction, and we want to convince ourselves that we are the sort of people who put God first, but the reality is that we are too hesitant, scared or uninterested in actually TAKING a leap of full commitment. I mean, if we start talking to God, He might request we do something we don't want to do! And what a conundrum THAT would be!

So we fast and self-mortify, walk labyrinths, attend worship services, recite memorized words on prayer beads, volunteer our time to charities . . . whatever keeps us busy so we don't have to REALLY encounter God, yet still gives us the feeling that we are 'moving in God's direction.'

That was the point I was trying to make. Hope it's more obvious this time! Have a good day.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi dianestranz,
Thank you for clarifying your point. Now I see your concern. Thanks again.

11:35 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home