Published: Fall 2012 in Feature Story

Developing Global Christians for the Academy, Church and World: The Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Center

By Gary W. Moon, Director of the Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Center

The Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture was established in 2011 through the generosity of Eff and Patty Martin. The institute began its work with the establishment of the Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation. The Willard Center exists to emphasize the importance of creating a new generation of individuals able to articulate and experience an interactive relationship with Jesus Christ and to establish the field of Christian spiritual formation as a discipline of public knowledge open to research and pedagogy of the highest order. Future plans include the establishment of a center for world Christianity, a visiting fellows program, opportunities for undergraduates to participate in the institute, and an extra-curricular program that emphasizes spiritual formation and character development for all facets of the academy, church and world.

Newsweek ran an unexpected cover story Oct. 8, 2012: “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” Some observers mused that the editors had death on their minds because they were about to take the print-and-mail version of the weekly magazine off life support. Irony aside, it’s an amazing story. Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who has taught at Harvard Medical School and other universities, had a near-death experience like few others. After seven days in a coma in 2008 with the human part of his brain, the neocortex, offline, he continued to experience consciousness.

Moments before medical personnel were to pull the plug on his earthly life, he suddenly awakened. There was no scientific explanation for what he had experienced. While his body and brain lay in a coma, his inner self continued to live.

Dr. Alexander’s recent book, “Proof of Heaven,” describes his journey in rich detail. He believes he has experienced the profound truth that both Einstein and Jesus spoke about in different ways. While we seem to live in a world of separation and distance, Alexander now believes that the materialistic picture of the body and brain as the producers—rather than the vehicles—of human consciousness is doomed. In its place, a new view of mind and body is emerging.i

Dr. Alexander’s journey would not surprise Dallas Willard. For decades he has written and taught that we humans are “unceasing spiritual beings” whose primary identities are not tied to our brains, and it seems that at least one neurosurgeon with impressive credentials agrees. What are the implications of being primarily spiritual beings?

What is Spiritual?

As human beings, we can do five things: think, behave, feel, relate and choose. The aspect of “choosing” or “willing” falls in the domain of our “executive center.” The Bible uses the terms “heart,” “will” and “spirit” interchangeably to describe this fifth aspect of humans: the central, disembodied source of energy and power, the “spirit.”

Spiritual” is not just something we ought to be; it is something we are and cannot escape regardless how we think or feel about it. It is our nature and our destiny.ii Our executive center awakens each day with the same choice Adam and Eve faced: willingness to live connected to God and eat from the Tree of Life; or willfulness to live separate and unplugged from God. This is the key choice of the spirit.

What is Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual formation is the process that gives the human spirit or will a definite form or character. It happens to everyone, from Billy Graham to Chairman Mao.iii It is like an education; it is impossible to avoid getting one. The question is, “What kind of spirit is being formed?” The process simply means that over time the inner person, the will/heart/spirit, is molded and formed for better or worse.

What is Christian Spiritual Formation?

Christian spiritual formation is the redemptive process of forming the inner human world to take on the character of Christ himself. If it succeeds, an individual’s outer life becomes a natural expression or outflow of the inner life, which reflects the character and teachings of Jesus. But the external manifestation of Christ-likeness cannot be the focus, or the process will fall into crushing legalism and parochialisms.iv

Spiritual formation in Christ fulfills the Great Commission as the regenerate soul makes its highest intent to live according to the commandments of Christ and seeks to realize this goal through an adequate course of spiritual disciplines.v The gospel, the “good news” of the entire New Testament, is that we can have a new life now in the Kingdom of God if we will trust Jesus Christ with our life and allow an inside-out change from a willful to a willing heart. Salvation is a life—a life lived in Christ.

What Would Calvin and Luther Say About Spiritual Formation?

According to Julie Canlis, the 2007 Templeton Award winner for Theological Promise, John Calvin understood early that “religion was not only for the mind but also for the heart. For Calvin the gift of the gospel was not in correct doctrine but in its ability to penetrate to the heart and emotions—indeed, even to transform them.”vi

In Calvin’s own words, “The gospel is a doctrine not of the tongue but of life. It is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart.”vii

Canlis suggests that the “systematic” Calvin who became so admired is an inadequate depiction, for he viewed doctrine not as the communication of beliefs about God but as a personal experience of the gospel, the good news of being adopted into Christ. We must always remember that Calvin was first and foremost a pastor who was intent on forming a people for and by union with Christ.viii

The term “evangelical” did not enter the stream of Christianity with Billy Graham—or even Billy Sunday. It originated in 16th-century Germany during the percolation of the Protestant Reformation. People became known as “evangelicals” because of their appeal to the “Evangels,” or Gospels of the New Testament rather than the power of the traditional Western church. Martin Luther suggested that the new churches call themselves “evangelical.”ix

Two things lie at the heart of Luther’s evangelicalism: the Bible as the ultimate source of authority; and personal experience of conversion to and practical communion with God. Perhaps the best example of Luther’s own communion with God appears in the 40-page answer he penned in response to a question from his barber, Peter Beskendorf, about how to pray. Luther’s beautiful answer was published in 1535 as “A Simple Way to Pray, for Master Peter the Barber,” and it presents Luther’s own rich use of spiritual disciplines, including solitude, silence, listening, meditation, obedience and journaling.

Early evangelicals were known for their experience of God. But over time, as so often happens, this focus on the experience of God lost its appeal. The Apostle Paul’s primary theme, the experience of “union with Christ,” was also the message Calvin and Luther proclaimed. But other, less demanding options began to replace it.x

When nominal Christianity first became possible following the Edict of Milan, the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers (monasticism) soon developed. More than a thousand years later, during some of the darkest days of church history, the bright lights of the Reformation began to glow. Over the course of the last 500 years, in places where the lights of the founding saints began to flicker, groups emerged that craved communion with God and a transforming relationship with the Trinity. They share a desire for living life in the light of Jesus’ teaching (a present experience of life in the Kingdom) and Paul’s focus (living life in union with God, experiencing a religion not just of the head but also of heart, limb and relationship).

What Role Does Westmont Play?

There are five key planks in Westmont’s mission statement: liberal arts, Christian, residential, under-graduate and global. More than a decade ago, Westmont established the Gaede Institute to pro-mote the continued vitality of the liberal arts tradition in American higher education. The creation of the Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture and the Dallas Willard Center for Christian Spiritual Formation spotlights the second key word in Westmont’s mission statement: Christian.

The Martin Institute/Willard Center seeks to equip a new generation of individuals to articulate and experience an interactive relationship with Jesus Christ and to establish the field of Christian spiritual formation as a discipline of public knowledge open to research and pedagogy of the highest order. The institute and center will operate under guidance from Westmont’s president and provost, an advisory board that includes the president and a trustee, and a committee composed of faculty and staff. Not only will the Martin Institute/Willard Center make a positive impact on both academic and student life at Westmont, but it will initiate broader conversations on Christianity and culture and develop a collection of materials accessible to researchers and other visitors.

Why the Close Ties to One Individual?

An institute dedicated to such broad topics as Christianity and culture, Christian spiritual formation and college life cannot be based solely on the work or thought of a single individual. While the work of the Martin Institute/Willard Center will be historically and broadly based, there are many reasons for Dallas Willard to serve as a primary focal point at a center dedicated to spiritual formation.

Dallas has stood at the intersection of Christianity and culture throughout the last 50 years, and he has written on wide-ranging topics. His well-known works and distinguished career at the University of Southern California are compelling. His willingness to engage spiritual thought, academic achievement and Christian community is especially noteworthy. Most significantly, during the last 25 years, he has emerged as the most compelling voice shaping this important conversation.

Bridge to Early Church and to Early Evangelicalism

“Regression to the mean” is a phenomenon in statistics that describes how the mean or mathematical center of a distribution seems to take on a gravitational force, pulling outlying objects back toward the center. Church history reveals many times of great fervor and zeal, revival movements resulting in molten souls and transformed lives. But following most of these bursts, we witness a regression. Lives aflame with presence and love show a tendency to cool off, to fall back toward the norm.

There are many remarkable ages in Christian history, but two are especially important for our consideration. One is the first three centuries of the church, when the world looked on and said, “Look how they love.” The second is the Reformation. While great regression followed the fervor of the early church, Calvin, Luther and, to a lesser extent, Zwingli, fanned the flames again in the 16th century.

I believe that Dallas Willard’s theological work offers a bridge to both the early church, when the word “Christian” was born, and to the Reformation, when the word “evangelical” first came to life. His view of salvation, while inclusive of most prominent theories of atonement, reminds us that salvation is also a life, a journey toward union with God, and not merely a legal transaction. The early church also held this view. Willard writes with an appeal to scriptural authority (“The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God” contains more than 500 biblical references) and with a focus on the experience of conversion to and communion with God that defined “evangelicalism” as that important word was being introduced in the 16th century.

Bridge Across the Six Streams

Other authors have written beautifully about the “Six Great Traditions of Christian Faith” and “Seven Paths of Christian Devotion.”xi These encouraging works and many others present the great traditions as a feast for the soul to experience and enjoy and as paths for all to explore rather than as denominational or tribal distinctives to be disputed and defended. Dallas Willard’s writings offer bridges to and across various traditions.

Bridge Across Academic Disciplines

Tom Plante presented his bio-psycho-social-spiritual model at a recent reception for the release of a book from InterVarsity Press, “Integrating Counseling and Psychology: Five Approaches.” He is past president of Division 36 of the American Psychological Association (APA), Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J. University professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. Willard’s model of the person is strikingly similar to Plante’s, which is included in numerous APA publications and is the focus of research by the Institute of Spirituality and Health. Collaborative work between Plante’s institute and the Martin Institute/Willard Center as well as partnerships with various institutes and centers around the world represent a keen interest and long-term goal of our center. This is one example of the many ways that Dallas Willard offers bridges across a variety of disciplines. In fields such as philosophy, religious studies and psychology, practitioners are willing to allow the teachings of Jesus to be a source not just of faith but also knowledge.

Bridge between Church and Academy

While I was completing my doctorate at Fuller, I had few theories with real-life applications. This distressed me and led to a lifelong fixation on the need to harness the energy of the academy in addressing the real-world needs of common people.

As an academic philosopher and former department chair at the University of Southern California, Dallas Willard understands how to bridge this divide. A renowned philosopher, he has articulated and defended various philosophical positions throughout his distinguished, 45-year academic career. An ordained minister who has taught in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller for more 27 years, he has focused on practical implications. One of the most exciting aspects of the Martin Institute/Willard Center is the desire to build bridges and mutual respect between the academy and the church.

Bridge between John 3:16 and John 17:3

When speaking about Christian spiritual formation and the importance of classic Christian disciplines, I often ask, “What does salvation have to do with spiritual disciplines?” The correct answer is “nothing.”

Spiritual disciplines do not have anything to do with John 3:16. There is nothing we can do to make God love the world any more or any less. Spiritual practices do not have anything to do with the sending of Jesus or His sacrificial death on a cross. Salvation cannot be earned.

In John 17:3, Jesus defines eternal life (or eternal living) by noting, “This is eternal life, to know the Father and the Son, whom he sent.” Eternal living involves knowing—an embarrassingly intimate word—the Father and Son (with the Spirit implied). Eternal living, salvation as a life, involves an interactive and transforming relationship with the Trinity.

How do the spiritual disciplines relate to this relationship? In the context of John 17:3, the spiritual disciplines are akin to a flower turning to face the sun, opening petals and leaves to radiance. The spiritual disciplines are historical practices that help us become more aware of and available to the power and presence of God. Grace is diametrically opposed to earning God’s favor but not to making an effort to move toward God.

Dallas Willard offers a bridge between John 3:16 and John 17:3 that stretches out over John 10:10. This passage explains the reason Jesus came: that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Serving at an institution like Westmont, which is dedicated to combining material and spiritual knowledge, is a great privilege. I hope that the Martin Institute and Willard Center will fulfill its broad goals: create a new generation of individuals able to articulate and experience an interactive relationship with Jesus Christ; and establish the field of Christian spiritual formation as a discipline of public knowledge open to research and pedagogy of the highest order.


i Eban Alexander. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
ii Dallas Willard. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998. 79.
iii Dallas Willard. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 2006. 104.
iv Ibid. 105.
v Ibid. 76.
vi Julie Canlis, “Calvin’s Institutes: Primer for Spiritual Formation. In Crux: A Quarterly Journal of Christian Thought and Opinion Published by Regent College. Spring 2011, Vol. 47. No. 1 (p. 16)
vii Calvin, Institute, III.6.4; 1559 edition, taken from the two-volume Library of Christian Classics (20-21) edition, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960). See Canlis.
viii Ibid. Canlis, p. 17.
ix Dallas Willard. “Discipleship.” Found in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, edited by Gerald McDermott, 2010.
x Ibid.
xi I am referring to Richard J. Fosters’ Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, and Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe’s Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion.

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