Conversatio Divina

An Interview with the New Director of the Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Research Center

Gary W. Moon

We at Conversatio Divina are excited to announce that Steve L. Porter, a longtime professor of spiritual formation, theology and philosophy at Biola University is the new executive director of Westmont’s Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture, and senior research fellow.

The institute, as most of our readers know, seeks to support a new generation of leaders in the area of Christian spiritual formation and to establish this discipline as a domain of public knowledge open to research and pedagogy of the highest order.

Speaking as the founding director, I could not be more delighted, that my longtime friend, Steve, has agreed to accept this role. And that’s not just because he is going to let me hang around as the director of Conversatio Divina. I cannot think of a person on the planet better equipped for this role. And we thought that our readers would enjoy hearing about Steve and his vision for the future of the Institute.

GM:   Okay, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. What possessed you to leave your dream job at Biola to take this dream job?

SP:   I really did think of my role at Biola as a dream job. With my PhD in philosophy, I was teaching the theology of Christian formation at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology as well as Biola’s Institute for Spiritual Formation. The integration of philosophy, theology, and psychology around the topic of change were the waters I swam in every day with wonderful colleagues and students in each of those disciplines. I couldn’t imagine a better job for me nor were there any other schools that had such a position, so I was extremely happy at Biola and was, at first, uninterested in the Martin Institute position. What changed my mind is a long story.

GW:   Well, we’ve got the time, and I work for you now, so keep going.

In short, some years previous the idea that I was called to have some influence on the future of the spiritual formation movement began to settle in on me. I even wrote a little essay entitled, “Is the spiritual formation movement dead?” I didn’t think it was, but I thought that title might get more readers. Then, through you (Gary) and others, I began to learn more about the Martin Institute (MI) and Dallas Willard Research Center. What really grabbed me was this line in the MI’s mission statement: “to help establish Christian spiritual formation as a domain of public knowledge that is open to research and pedagogy of the highest order.” When I read that, I thought, “that’s what I’ve been doing my whole academic life—that’s my calling.” I had been attempting to help establish Christian spiritual formation as knowledge—that is, as something that is real, that can be reliably understood and intelligently entered into. That is what I was trying to do in my classes, publications, speaking, teaching, etc. But here was a whole Institute that wanted to do that at the level of institutional influence. How could we help establish spiritual formation in churches, Christian colleges, parachurch organizations, academic fields? I began to think that maybe Biola wasn’t my dream job as much as it was Divine preparation for where God was leading me. My wife and a few trusted friends and mentors began to pray and discern together about this. Time and time again the direction to head to Westmont was made clear.

GM:   Just listening to those words, Steve, puts a lump in my throat. Speaking for many, I’m delighted beyond words you’ve responded to that call. And, knowing a bit about one of your mentors, Dallas Willard, I can guess who planted the seed of “your calling.” So, let’s back up a bit. Tells us about your academic journey that led you to becoming one of Dallas Willard’s thirty-one doctoral students.

SP:   I wonder which number I was in the thirty-one doctoral students? Definitely in the high twenties, I would think. Maybe all of Dallas’s PhD students could figure out our respective numbers and start introducing ourselves that way: “Hello, I am number twenty-six.”

GM:   Well, you are all, so to speak, agents of change and transformation in the world; so now, I’m now wondering who was 007?

SP:   Hmmm. Well, we could investigate, so to speak. But, speaking for myself, in many respects, I came to study philosophy by way of spiritual formation and I
came to spiritual formation by way of a crisis of faith. As a junior Christian education major at Biola, I began to have fairly serious intellectual doubts about the truth of Christianity. A philosopher named J.P. Moreland, who had studied with Dallas, helped me resolve those doubts through a Christian apologetics course. But while teaching that class, J.P. would occasionally pause and say something about the spiritual life.

For instance, he’d talk about how you can come to discern your own thoughts from God’s voice or how the nature of fasting can help deal with anger and lust. He spoke about these things as if they were obviously true—a body of publicly accessible knowledge! I thought to myself, “what is this man talking about?” I had never heard anything like that before. My model of spiritual growth was: read your Bible every day, pray (which meant, ask God to make your life better), share your faith with non-Christians, and try really hard not to sin.

A lot of my intellectual doubts about Christianity actually stemmed from the emptiness inherent in that form of spirituality. So, philosophy was extremely helpful for me personally. Philosophical analysis helped me examine both the intellectual and existential credibility of Christian faith. I ended up doing a MA degree in philosophy of religion at Talbot School of Theology, which is at Biola, and taking more classes with J.P. and Doug Geivett who was yet another former student of Dallas.

GM:   So, maybe J. P. or Doug were 007?

SP:   Hmmm. I’m sure that Doug and J.P. could both probably say, “I was one of Dallas Willard’s first ten doctoral students.”

GM:   Okay, I’ll stop.

SP:   In the MA program at Talbot, Dallas was often referred to, and we read some of his philosophical work. He also came to speak from time-to-time. It was during that period—the early 1990s—that myself and a group of four or five fellow grad students organized a series of spiritual formation conferences at Biola. We called these conferences “The Journey” long before that phrase became mainstream. Dallas spoke at all three of the conferences we put together.

GM:   Okay, I’m trying very hard now not to interrupt. But I just got another lump in my throat from the memory of how Dallas gave so freely of his time to support his “boys, and girls, out there” doing the work he valued so highly.

SP:   Right, apparently there was and probably still is a list of names in Dallas’s home office of his former students who are “out there” doing the work. Dallas and his wife Jane would pray over that list. He did give so freely of his time.

There are many Dallas Willard answering machine stories. The Willard’s answering machine always picked up a call and you’d get about a minute into leaving a message when Dallas would often pick up the phone. He’d been listening the whole time while I stammered out a question or an invitation for him to come speak. Sometimes, he’d just pick up the phone and say, “Well, hello Steve. Yes, I can come speak on May 24, but it would have to be after 7 pm due to traffic. What would you like me to speak on?” He was very generous with his time. Of course, he knew his work was extremely important for the kingdom and that fueled his generosity.

Anyway, while I was at Talbot, I never really thought about getting a doctorate. But after I completed my MA, I started teaching some undergrad classes as an adjunct instructor at Biola and I realized that I really enjoyed learning and teaching at that level. And I began to catch the vision of how important that work was for the kingdom. I applied to several different PhD programs—some in theology and some in philosophy. I was most interested in studying the nature of spiritual change, but there weren’t any programs I knew of at the time that allowed such a thing. Many of the persons I knew who spoke deeply about the Christian life were philosophers, so the idea of going to USC’s school of philosophy and studying with Dallas seemed like a fairly good way to enter the field of Christian spirituality. Although none of my classes were on that topic per se and neither was my dissertation, philosophical training is very helpful for getting to the bottom of things and that is what is needed when it comes to the need for and nature of conformity to the image of Christ.

GM:   Thank you, Steve. And, to state the obvious, philosophy has given you the methodology for exploring the topics close to your heart. But before we leave those years you had with Dallas at USC, would you give us one of your warmest memories concerning your time with Dallas?

SP:   Hmmm…can I swear? Maybe I’ll save that story for another time.

GM:   We applaud authenticity and transparency. So, give us two memories.

SP:   Okay, the non-swearing story first. One day we were sitting down in a small seminar room just down the hall from Dallas’s office at USC. It was actually more like a copier room with a small table in the middle. There were about four or five of us who were doing an independent study with Dallas on the founder of philosophical phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. To be honest, I don’t know how interested I was in Husserl at the time. I liked being around Dallas and these other students were good friends. For me, Husserl’s Logical Investigations was just an excuse to get together weekly. That’s how I studied philosophy—it was always a means to an existential end. We were sitting down at the table for one of these sessions and as I sat down in the chair next to Dallas, he placed his giant, right, farm hand on the top of my left knee and he said something like, “I’m glad you are here today, Steve.”

Warm greetings were not uncommon with Dallas, but something happened in that moment through Dallas’s words and physical touch. At that time, I had never heard Dallas describe how the kingdom of God can flow through someone’s body into another person’s body, nor had I heard other people testifying to that occurring when it came to Dallas’s physical presence, but I experienced it that day. It was not electrifying and it lasted only a moment, but there was a tangible experience of security and rest flowing through Dallas into my life. It was only later that I heard Dallas share that he was intentional about such things—asking God’s power to move in and through him to others. And there are so many people who independent of one another, testify to similar encounters with Dallas. I wrote a book chapter shortly after Dallas’s passing entitled “the evidential force of Dallas Willard.” He was embodied evidence of the reality of the Jesus way.

GM:   That’s powerful. A very beautiful story. And, if you give us permission, I’d love to put up the article you wrote, or at least, provide a link to it.

But, if my math is right, you still owe us another story.

SP:   Okay. And now for the swearing. After my second year at USC, I applied to the University of Oxford to study philosophical theology. Richard Swinburne, who at that time was the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oriel College (Oxford), was considering my application and notified me that I needed a second letter of reference. I went to Dallas’s office to ask him to write a letter of reference that we needed to FAX to Professor Swinburne that day (this would have been prior to the days of email attachments). Dallas wrote the letter while I sat in his office.

We then walked down the stairs to the FAX machine in the administrative area of the philosophy department. As we are walking down the stairs, Dallas says, “Steve, let’s see if we can get you into the University of Oxford. It’s not quite as good of a place to study philosophy as it used to be, but it’s still pretty good. There’s a lot of bullshit there. But it’s bullshit with an English accent and somehow that makes it better.”

GM:   That’s pretty funny.

SP:   I was laughing at the time, but, you know, he was right. I ended up taking a two-year leave of absence from USC to study for the MPhil in philosophical theology at Oxford. It was a tremendous education, especially with Professor Swinburne, but Dallas really right-sized Oxford for me with that comment. There were many days where I didn’t take myself or Oxford too seriously because at times there is a lot of BS going on in academia, especially in the most prestigious schools. So, it was a funny moment with Dallas but it was also profoundly helpful to me. He put Oxford and my studies in a right perspective.

GM:   That reminds me that I once had to do a presentation immediately following a person with a Cambridge Education and a pitch perfect accent to match. I was sporting a pretty strong southern accent and felt I had to remind the audience that any inclination to add fifteen IQ points to the prior speaker, and to subtract fifteen from mine, should be resisted.

But, Steve, before we start bringing the conversation to a close, would you tell us a bit about your personal life, your family?

SP:   One of the things we learn from Jesus’ incarnate life is “it’s not good for man (or woman) to be alone.” The second person of the Trinity comes to earth and makes himself dependent on Mary, Joseph, his siblings, his neighborhood. He needed their help to “grow in wisdom and stature.” And then when he begins his public ministry in his late twenties/early thirties, he turns to twelve unlikely candidates for starting a worldwide revolution and says, “Follow me.” Jesus modeled that human life goes better in twos and fours and twelves.

I have been incredibly grateful for the twos and fours and twelves in my life. Our human relational network is an embarrassment of riches. But it has also taken hard work. My wife Alicia and I met at Biola University and our friendship and eventual marriage was grounded in processing life at its spiritual and psychological depths. We still do that. Those early days of our relationship were seeped in spiritual formation.

It was the mid 1990s, the sails of the spiritual formation movement were catching some wind, and Alicia and I were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet Dallas, Jim Houston, Larry Crabb, Brennan Manning, Emilie Griffin, Glandion Carney, Henri Nouwen, and various others. And we weren’t alone. We were in our early to mid-twenties and we had a little Friday night “Oxford Holy Club,” so to speak, made up of about a dozen or so like-minded Jesus followers. Many of us lived in community, served together, and studied together. It was a rich foundation.

To make a long story short, we really never left that group. We still meet regularly with two different small groups—some of the members go back to that group from the 1990s. That’s over thirty years of spiritual friendship. God has used it mightily. In The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen writes, “It is far from easy to keep living where God is. Therefore, God gives you people who help to hold you in that place and call you back to it every time you wander off.” That’s what spiritual community is all about. Alicia and I and our two kids—Luke and Siena—are incredibly blessed to have those sorts of people in our lives and to be those sorts of people for one another.

GM:   What a wonderful, wonderful development. Thank you for that. May all of these friendships and groups continue for another three or four decades, and then all of eternity. Steve, let’s get down to the matter at hand. Your new role with the Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Research Center at Westmont College. What is your vision for the future of the Institute?

SP:   Gary, I am increasingly convinced that the Martin Institute (and efforts like it) are exactly what is needed today. There are cultural, ecclesial, historical, and psychological forces that are keeping Christians from consistently living out the kind of life Jesus came to offer and the church and world are in crisis because of it.

As Dallas would often say, there is not one problem plaguing the world today that would not be almost entirely remedied if there were more loving persons involved in the situation. Homelessness, extreme poverty, mental illness, international conflict, environmental concerns would all be largely remedied if enough loving persons took loving action. God’s plan for the world has always been and continues to be “the body of Christ”—the people of God—living out his agape love for the world, starting with those in greatest need. “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14), Jesus says. But we are unable to be light without his life flowing through our veins. As John says, “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). We need to learn to abide in him as his life and light abide in us such that we bear much fruit.

And that is what the Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Research Center are trying to help people do. We aim to carry on the kind of work Dallas himself was up to: to help establish Christian spiritual formation as a domain of publicly accessible knowledge at the highest levels of research and pedagogy. So, for the next two decades, I intend to discern alongside the Martin Institute staff and leadership how we can most effectively do that.

Unfortunately, I find it easy to imagine a Sunday morning, post-sermon conversation in which one church member shares she is struggling with anxiety and the remedies recommended by other church members include therapy, anti-anxiety medication, yoga, and mindfulness practices stemming from Zen Buddhism. Someone would no doubt offer to pray and ask God to instantaneously deliver the person of anxiety. But there would likely be no mention of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 6 on how to be free of anxiety or Paul’s presentation in Philippians on the way of contentment in all circumstances.

And even if biblical teaching was mentioned, a superficial approach to the passages might leave one with the erroneous idea that the Christian solution to anxiety is simply to try harder to be less anxious. The Christian community often does not understand how to effectively access the transformational resources available in Christ, and so, we turn to other sources for assistance. These other sources are often not bad (for example, mindfulness or anti-anxiety medication), but we don’t understand how they can be effectively integrated with the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit.

Discussing what he calls the “disappearance of moral knowledge” in the western world, Dallas writes, “Religion, and the Christian tradition in particular . . . lost in the public mind its standing as a body of knowledge about what is real and what is right.”Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) 23. How might we help regain in the public mind the standing of Christian spiritual formation as a body knowledge? That’s what we will be doing for the next twenty years at the Martin Institute for Christianity & Culture through conferences, workshops, publications, online resources, fellowship programs, and related efforts.

GW:   Beautifully said. Inspiring. I personally thank you, Steve, for all of the interactions we already had over the past, well, biggest part of three decades, and the ones that are to come. I think you are a dream person for this dream job and I can’t want to see what hath God wrought and is wroughting.

One final question. To help those with interest in the Martin Institute to know what we are up to, would you mind giving us a brief overview of what is happening there now, and then to give us a bit of glimpse into your and the board’s vision for the future.

SP:   The Martin Institute currently pursues four initiatives: Incarnatio, the Dallas Willard Research Center, Conversatio Divina, and Cultura. Apparently we think Latin makes us sound more holy.

GM:   Funny. But, I actually prefer Greek for that.

SP:   Hmmm. Incarnatio is our on-campus center for spiritual formation work with Westmont students led by Mariah Velasquez, who is the associate director of the Martin Institute. The Dallas Willard Research Center facilitates scholarly work on Christian spiritual formation and is led by Mark Nelson, who is the Monroe professor of philosophy at Westmont. Gary Moon, the founding director of the Martin Institute, I think you know him, shepherds Conversatio Divina, which curates online resources in spiritual formation, drawing off ancient Christian spirituality, Ignatius of Loyola, and Willard, and develops other spiritual formation programs and resources. And Michael Di Fuccia oversees the Cultura Fellows Program, which is a development opportunity for emerging Christian leaders in academia, the arts, politics, and other public spheres.

Our vision for the future is to stay near to Jesus. I’m serious. We first and foremost want to practice what we preach. We want all of our work to be soaked in the Spirit of Jesus. And that takes intentionality. So, our vision is to draw near to God as he draws near to us and move with him where he is heading.

God is up to good things in the world and he wants his people to be a part of that. This is what Dallas called the “Divine conspiracy.” The Divine Conspiracy is God’s plan and process of overcoming evil with good in human history. God has created a world that allows human persons to learn to draw their life from him and count for good in the universe forever. Unfortunately, that is not the common view of “the good life” in North America or really anywhere. So, our vision for the future is to try to do something about that. We’d like to reclaim Christian spiritual formation as publicly accessible knowledge.

We realize that’s a tall order! But there are baby steps to take and the Martin Institute is certainly not the only organization involved in this work. In fact, one of the things we are going to do this next year is help network other Christian organizations that are involved in reclaiming spiritual formation. We are going to start by holding four zoom meetings in order to gather leaders within four different types of organizations. One meeting will be for those heading up academic degree programs in spiritual formation and direction. We have a lot to learn from one another about how to teach Christian spirituality in a formative manner. A second meeting will be for leaders of non-degree, lay training programs in spiritual formation. We want to help foster mutual support and encouragement—not competition—among spiritual formation ministries. A third meeting will be with pastors of churches who are taking the integration of Christian formation into ecclesial life seriously. And a fourth meeting will be for directors of academic research centers and institutes, like the Martin Institute. We are simply going to host and facilitate these conversations. It’s such a small thing to do, but ministry leaders in each of these areas need to know what others are doing.

Another series of events I am looking forward to this year are four public lectures on Westmont’s campus. Public lectures rarely move the needle in terms of cultural change, but they do create synergy by fostering awareness and generating productive dialogue. The first lecture is by Dr. Barbara Peacock, winner of the Dallas Willard Book Award in 2021. Barbara will be speaking on the topic of her book: Soul Care in African American Practice.Barbara L. Peacock, Soul Care in African American Practice (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020). The second lecture is by Dr. Walter Hopp, professor of philosophy at Boston University. Walter was one of Dallas’s “final four” doctoral students and likely one of the two brightest students Dallas had (I say “one of the two brightest” so all the rest of Dallas’s students can think they are the other one . . . including me!). Walter is going to be speaking on the topic of spiritual formation as public knowledge! The third lecture is by Dr. Todd Hall who is a colleague of mine in the school of psychology at Biola. His book, Relational SpiritualityTodd W. Hall, Relational Spirituality: A Psychological-Theological Pardigm for Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021)., won the Dallas Willard Book Award for this current year. And the final lecture sponsored by the Martin Institute next spring is by the new director . . . some guy named Porter. In that talk I will be trying to set a vision for the Martin Institute. So, stay tuned!

GM:   Thank you, Steve, for responding to God’s call. I have great excitement for where this is heading, and great confidence in you and your vision for the future.