What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard, PhD

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

“We have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live.” -Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard served as a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for over 35 years. He exerted tremendous influence in the areas of epistemology, the philosophy of mind and of logic, and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. However, it is Willard’s writings in the field of religion that may prove to be his greatest legacy.

Willard has also become one of the world’s leading voices in a renewed understanding of spiritual formation. His Hearing God (1984)[1], and The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988), helped launch the modern Protestant spiritual formation movement. Subsequent publications have only deepened his impact. The Divine Conspiracy (1998) was selected as a Christianity Today “Book of the Year.” Renovation of the Heart (2002) received Christianity Today’s Book Award in the category of Spirituality. The Great Omission (2006) received a Christianity Today annual Book Award in the Christian Living category.

His final new book, Knowing Christ Today (2009), contained Willard’s lifetime of reflection on the connection between spiritual formation and philosophy. I believe it will prove to be his most influential work.

Willard’s writing, lecturing, and counsel have greatly influenced my own understanding of spirituality. Key concepts in Renovation of the Heart help shape the framework of my dissertation thesis and even merit a special appendix comparing and contrasting Willard and America’s most famous spiritual formation book: A Treatise on Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. (More in future posts.)

In the selection below, Willard, introduces the topic, “What is Spiritual Formation,” with concepts that I will build upon in future posts. Enjoy.

Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done

by Dallas Willard on Dwillard.org

“… until Christ be formed in you.” (Gal. 4:19)

“Spiritual formation” is a phrase that has recently rocketed onto the lips and into the ears of Protestant Christians with an abruptness that is bound to make a thoughtful person uneasy. If it is really so important, not to mention essential, then why is it so recent? It must be just another passing fad in Protestant religiosity, increasingly self-conscious and threatened about “not meeting the needs of the people.” And, really, isn’t spiritual formation just a little too Catholic to be quite right?

We could forget the phrase “Spiritual formation,” but the fact and need would still be there to be dealt with. The spiritual side of the human being, Christian and non-Christian alike, develops into the reality which it becomes, for good or ill. Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one. We need to take a conscious, intentional hand in the developmental process. We need to understand what the formation of the human spirit is, and how it can best be done as Christ would have it done. This is an indispensable aspect of developing a psychology that is adequate to human life.

The reason for the recent abrupt emergence of the terminology into religious life is, I believe, a growing suspicion or realization that we have not done well with the reality and the need. We have counted on preaching, teaching, and knowledge or information to form faith in the hearer, and have counted on faith to form the inner life and outward behavior of the Christian. But, for whatever reason, this strategy has not turned out well. The result is that we have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live, and can hardly get along with themselves, much less with others…

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Next: Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections and Lent



[1] Originally published as In Search of Guidance.