A first and second reading of The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard a few years ago was quite a discovery at the time, and it is a book that can be recommended as both an answer to the weakness of church life in western society and as an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chs. 5-7. Willard was a professional philosopher and indeed a professor of philosophy; he was based in Los Angeles, and was concerned with the phenomena of American church life. His writings on philosophy are certainly within the professional sphere but this book is accessible to the general reader; I should say that the other books of his that I looked at were not profitable to me.
Briefly comprehended, in The Divine Conspiracy he says that it is the teachings of Jesus alone which provide moral compass and instruction in character development; that this is neglected in churches and lost to society at large; Jesus’ teaching needs to be restored to the centre of our lives and society; it is encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount, which is investigated in some depth.
In his introduction Willard says of the early church :-
Jesus himself was thought of as someone to admire and respect, someone you thought highly of and considered to be a person of great ability. Worship of him included this – not, as today, ruled it out. This attitude was naturally conveyed in such New Testament names and phrases as ‘the Prince of life’, ‘the Lord of glory’, ‘abundant life’, ‘the inexhaustible riches of Christ’, and so on. Today these phrases are emptied of most intellectual and practical content.
This last sentence in particular shows Willard’s interest, which he develops in the opening chapters by showing the results of neglecting Jesus as teacher in terms of a dichotomy, two separate strands of church life. One is the liberal church, engaging in social action, believing that because of Jesus, love comes out on top, but substantially ignoring Jesus’ teaching on redemption; the other is characterized as right-wing, very conservative and focused wholly on atonement, getting people ‘saved’ – that the gospel is all about eternal destiny, which, Willard says, cuts it off from life. He says this in some detail of course but in the case of my strand (the second!) it still reads as something of a caricature, albeit a challenging one! However, it is surely the case that drawing the two strands together is Jesus’ teaching on ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. Willard demonstrates that heaven in Jesus’ thought is not far away, but very near, surrounding us; not just in our hearts, not just within, but not merely outward, political, either, but penetrating with its ethics and values and power into every area of life. The kingdom ‘programme’ is set out in the Sermon on the Mount. Willard points out how strange and tragic it is that the three chapters of Matthew 5-7, which surely lie at the very heart of Jesus teaching, should be both misunderstood and so neglected.
In this review I want to focus on a few points that are made; it should be emphasized that the book is lengthy at 400 pages, so it covers a lot of ground; at no point does it become tiresome, but is rich both in terms of ideas and love for God – it is inspiring in both directions.
The ‘Beatitudes’ have always troubled me; the ‘beautiful attitudes’ – but that is not what they are. Willard tells of an army man who turns away from Christ and God because as he says, this just was not him – to be effective he had to be strong, not weak; assertive, not meek; active, not mourning…It made no sense to him that he should be required, apparently, to pursue the very opposite qualities to those he needed in his law-keeping occupation; apparently one thing Jesus is not is a man’s man! I too had been taught that somehow, for example, to be ‘poor in spirit‘ was somehow a sort spiritual attainment with a reward – the kingdom of heaven. But we know very well that is not what the gospel teaches; Jesus receives us as we are. The Beatitudes are not essentially a set of commands to be fulfilled. The meaning of the Beatitudes is that Jesus has just been healing the sick among the crowds of poor people, and now he is saying, ‘You, poor as you are, are blessed because I am here among you; unhappy, lowly, hungry, desperately wanting something good to happen….you are blessed because I am here and no matter who you are the kingdom is open to you.’ Willard reworks each beatitude away from the legalistic interpretation that if you get to be something you are blessed. The ‘pure in heart’, for example, he sees as perfectionists, those for whom nothing is ever good enough; something like this must be true, because if you only get to be blessed if you have the amazing quality of being pure in heart, then there is no hope for anyone; it’s Catch 22 – if you’re not pure you can’t be blessed and if you’re not blessed you can’t get to be pure; if this is what the saying means, we had better give it up as a bad job, which is what many of us do – and abandon the teaching of Jesus on the basis of this misunderstanding! ….Not everyone will like it, but to me it’s very liberating and truthful; we are certainly in a bad way, as Willard remarks, if we don’t understand and agree upon these fundamental principles of the kingdom.
In his sermon, Jesus goes on to show that to endeavour to fulfil laws is a road to psychological ruin; but this is not what tends to be taught as his intent. Mt 5.25 is used to suggest that going to law is wrong, but that is not what Jesus is saying – he is dealing with heart attitude, that we should not be vindictive. In vv 29-30, Jesus seems to suggest cutting off your right hand if it sins – ‘if it offend thee’ – as though it were the hand that was wrong and not you! Surely he doesn’t teach that does he? – Willard says he is making fun of the Pharisees; in this way Willard continues to subvert everything legalistic – and this surely is what Jesus is doing.
What Jesus is doing then, in this ‘sermon’, is to set out what we would today tend to term the basis for sound psychology – not so much ethics – how we should behave – as how we should think! If the point about not going to law is a ‘psychological’ one, about not being vindictive, it may very well work out that the best thing to do in some particular circumstance, without being vindictive, is to go to law! With this approach, seeing the sermon as good psychology, Willard shows, for example, how Jesus goes first for the core issues, and then later to specific behavioural issues. Thus, he begins by discussing anger; he explores and points out how angry people are. Only when he has dealt with the anger issue, does he go on to the symptoms of anger and estrangement (from God), for example violence and sexual issues.
Of course, the people flocked to hear Jesus; why? – because there was no condemnation; he was accepting the people just as they were, and telling them how to get better! We might note that, of course, there is a great deal of very good, sound psychology being practiced outside of our often narrow Christian circles. It would be good if we could show the world that these principles are God’s principles and that Jesus is their principle exponent. As Willard says of Jesus, discussing Mt.5 25-42, ‘he is right on target for today. Sex and violence are the two things repeatedly cited as the areas of our greatest problems’. We might then add that Jesus is psychology PLUS, since his Gospel addresses the deeper psychological issues of life – guilt, mental illness…through the application of redemption. The spiritual has profound psychological impact. We certainly need the person of Jesus; the soul also needs the ‘mechanisms’ Jesus provides through the spiritual realities of redemption; Jesus, surely, is ‘our life’, but he is also, both in his teaching and person, our therapist, our teacher, a statement which brings us nicely back to the starting point of this article.