It’s hard to write a new book on spiritual formation. Even the books that are good seem to have covered already-covered ground. What more is there to add? Dallas Willard takes a different angle. Rather than aiming for spiritual formation or spiritual disciplines, which advice always runs the risk of sounding pedantic, he speaks of “forming Christlikeness.” In this review I will summarize some of his key points, note some potential problems and tensions, and end with a reflection.
Unlike other authors on spiritual disciplines, Willard is a trained philosopher and brings analytical reflection the table. Without entering the free will debates (he likely affirms contra the Reformed tradition, of which I am an adherent), he notes that the will (or the mind, or the heart) never acts in isolation but always in conjunction with other faculties. This has important implications for spiritual growth: one simply can’t “grow the mind” without growing the heart, will, etc.
The chapter on the Soul was worth the price of the book. He really broke new ground on that topic. Contra most philosophy textbooks, new age manuals, and even some Christian theology works, the “soul” is not the “ghostly-ghost stuff” that inhabits the outer shell of the body. Without getting to a precise definition of the soul (which might not even be possible), I think he is right. A better reading, if not exact, will be the center life-focus of an individual. And here I can only refer to the texts where it speaks of Yahweh’s nephesh. Again, the implications for spiritual life: our whole being is involved in the process.
The book was much better than I expected. It wasn’t pedantic and he covered ground not found in Foster and Whitney. I have some concerns about the books he recommended. Like Foster, he seemed to convey the idea that any Christian who has written on the reflective life should be consulted. I am not so sure. I highly doubt that consistent Roman Catholics, Charismatics, or others would agree one can isolate the spirituality (Francis de Sales et al) from the larger theology. Indeed, Willard’s own arguments (rightly) suggest otherwise.
But by all means please read the book. It’s probably the best spiritual disciplines book on the market