Conversatio Divina

Willard’s Four Critical Commitments

The Essential Quadrilateral for Authentic Spiritual Change and Transformation

Gary W. Moon

01.  Abstract

Dallas Willard’s four critical concerns are simultaneously simple, profound and counter cultural to our modern world. But they are not new. We would go so far as to say that you will find these same four commitments across the centuries in the heart of each Christian saint; and at the heart of every movement of authentic change and transformation within the Christian church that has stood the test of time. These are  bold statements. But they are supported by Willard’s fourth concern. When an individual or a group of individuals are engaged with his first three concerns, the fourth concern, authentic and demonstrable transformation naturally flows forth. If this type of renovation is not happening, look back to his first three concerns to find the problem concerning the experience of Real Presence. In this essay, we will offer an overview of the mission of the Conversatio Divina ( website, provide an overview of Willard four concerns, and then offer insight into why we choose to feature the voices of ancient Christian spirituality, Ignatian spirituality and Dallas Willard.

Converstio Divina is part of the resource development offerings of the Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Research Center at Westmont College. The Martin Institute is dedicated to placing an enduring emphasis on spiritual formation with a particular focus on the path of authentic transformation as an interactive, loving relationship with Jesus Christ. As part of that quest, there is a keen intention to honor the legacy of Dallas Willard while placing his work in the context of other thought and praxis leaders who have developed methods for authentic Christian formation which have stood the test of time.

Emanating from that mission, our goals are to: 1) Support a new generation of thought leaders in the area of Christian spiritual formation; and 2) Help establish this discipline as a domain of public knowledge that is open to research and pedagogy of the highest order.

Our “true north” if you will, is to promote and facilitate the expansion, clarification and integration of the four intellectual commitments that characterized Willard’s work throughout his career. In the spirit of being faithful to these concerns, the Martin Institute, Dallas Willard Research Center, and the Conversatio Divina website seek to focus on and amplify Willard’s voice. We do this because we believe Willard’s guiding concerns can be found at the heart of all pathways of Christian spiritual formation which emphasize authentic transformation as an interactive, loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

In the following paragraphs we will attempt to support our case by presenting: 1) A brief summary of Dallas Willard’s four critical commitments; 2) Indications of these same four concerns at the heart of both ancient Christian spirituality and Ignatian spirituality; and 3) A summary table showing an intimate connection between the spirituality of Dallas Willard, the early church, and Ignatius of Loyola.

02.  Dallas Willard’s Four Critical Commitments

1. Robust Metaphysical Realism:

If Dallas Willard were talking to his philosophy colleaguesWe are indebted to several of Dallas Willard’s philosophy students and colleagues for a more philosophical explication of Dallas concerns. J. P. Moreland and Steve Porter were particularly helpful., he might say that robust metaphysical realism means, for him, at least two things. First, that there is one mind independent world “out there”, and it and the entities within it are what they are quite independent of our thinking (speaking, theorizing, and so forth) about them. So understood, metaphysical realism is in contrast to various forms of ontological relativism, constructivism, and pluralism.

Second, he would argue that this realism is robust in that the world goes beyond the visible, physical realm to include various things (e.g., abstract objects like universals, relations, God, and the soul) that are neither physical nor straightforwardly sense perceptible.

If Dallas were talking to someone outside the guild, he might bring the discussion down a few notches and simply offer that there are important spiritual formation implications for a robust metaphysical realism. Just because you can’t see or measure something, for example, does not mean that it does not exist. In fact, it is precisely invisible things such as soul, spirit, Holy Trinity and the Kingdom of God that are not only part of reality, but the most real things of all.

For this audience, Dallas wrote The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God.  


2. Epistemological (Direct) Realism:

By epistemological realism, Willard meant that the intentionality of the mind and its various mental states is a property of directedness that places the mind in direct contact with its various objects of attention. For example, to think of London is to think directly of London itself; it is not to think about the word “London” or one’s own thought or representation of London. This knowledge by acquaintance involves direct access to the world, especially in various perceptual or intuitional mental states.

That is, when one sees a tree, one has direct perceptual access to the tree itself. And if one has an eidetic intuition (a direct non-sensory perception of certain abstract objects) of, let’s say, the number two, a law of logic, or the Pythagorean Theorem, then one is directly aware of these items. So understood, sensory and non-sensory “perception” is psychologically, temporally and epistemologically basic. We start the project of knowing, not with presuppositions, concepts, language or theories, but with direct awareness of various items of knowledge. Nothing stands between the knowing subject and his or her items of knowledge in cases of direct awareness.

The spiritual formation implication is remarkable. He believed it is possible to interact with realities such as the Holy Trinity and the Kingdom of the Heavens in a manner that knowledge can be obtained and new habit patterns established. A person can step into the invisible real and interact with that reality as a source of true knowledge.

To help “the rest of us” get the importance of this concern, Dallas Willard wrote the books The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, and Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.


3. Championing a Complete Anthropology and the Development of Comprehensive, Sophisticated, Integrative Models of the Human Person.

Dallas Willard was committed to the idea that one’s view of the nature and practice of formative beliefs and exercises should flow as naturally as possible from an accurate and complete view of the human person. And for him, this meant, first of all, that the human person, while naturally, deeply and functionally integrated with his or her body is, nevertheless, capable of existing and sustaining personal identity in an intermediate state between death and the final resurrection, irrespective of how unnatural or incomplete such a mode of existence is. We are more than our matter.

Given this, he believed that there is a great need to develop models, based on biblical and philosophical insights, which integrate the best of what we know from other fields, especially psychology and neuroscience. These models should explain and highlight the crucial importance of the body and the habits ingrained in it, as well as aspects of the person mostly ignored by modern psychology, such as mind, soul, spirit, heart and will. These more complete anthropological models should shed light on the findings of various relevant fields of study.

The spiritual formation implication for this concern is simply this: Human beings are uniquely designed (in particular because of their non-material aspects) to know God through direct experience.

This critical commitment of Dallas Willard motivated him to write the exemplar book: Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ.


4. Objectivity: If Spiritual Formation is a Domain of Public Knowledge it Should Prove it.

Dallas Willard believed Christian spiritual formation deserves a place in the university, at the big people’s table, right next to biology, psychology and physics. But for this to happen the discipline must develop objective tests—empirical and non-empirical—for different Christian formative practices that, in principle, can place these practices in the domain of publicly assessable knowledge.

Willard’s final commitment is his most bold. He was deeply concerned to establish Christian spiritual formation and its practices as items of genuine knowledge, not leaps of faith. He knew this would involve providing objective ways of testing the effectiveness of those practices. Some of these means of testing would be empirical and not unlike the use of empirical testing of human flourishing, happiness and so forth in psychology. Some would require first-person access to one’s own progress in, e.g., experiencing God, the peace, joy and love of the Kingdom, and so on. On the basis of such access, one could then report one’s progress and recommend to others that they could test for themselves the effectiveness of certain practices by undergoing them in the right way and seeing if, indeed, certain desired outcomes followed.

By way or summary concerning this fourth commitment, Dallas knew that if each of his first three concerns is correct, then Christian spiritual formation and its practices should become established as a field of genuine knowledge. And part of doing this involves providing objective ways of testing the effectiveness of those practices.

To support this notion for lay audiences Dallas Willard wrote Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge. And for the more brave reader, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.

03.  Willard’s Critical Concerns Through the Lens of Ancient Christian Spirituality

As stated in the abstract, Dallas Willard’s four critical concerns are simultaneously simple, profound and counter cultural to our modern world. But they are not new. We would go so far as to say that you will find these same four commitments across the centuries in the heart of each Christian saint; and at the heart of every movement of authentic change and transformation within the Christian church that has stood the test of time. These are  bold statements. But they are supported by Willard’s fourth concern. When an individual or a group of individuals are engaged with his first three concerns, the fourth concern naturally flows forth.

Listen to this description of the early Christians as a new kind of people, written by the Athenian orator, Aristides, to the Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.).

“The Christians know and trust God… They placate those who oppress them and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies. …They love one another. They do not refuse to help the widows. They rescue the orphan from him who does him violence. He who has, gives ungrudgingly to him who has not. If they see a stranger they take him to their dwellings and rejoice over him as over a real brother; for they do not call themselves brothers of the flesh, but after the Spirit of God… If anyone among them is poor and needy, and they do not have food to spare, they fast for two or three days that they may supply him with necessary food. They scrupulously obey the commands of their Messiah. Every morning and every hour they thank and praise God for His loving-kindness toward them… Because of them there flows forth all the beauty that there is in the world. But the good deeds they do they do not proclaim in the ears of the multitude…Thus, they labor to become righteous. … Truly, this is a new people and there is something divine in them. (p. 38)

The Church of the first few centuries was dedicated to preserving “the Way” that was producing this authentic change and transformation within the human hearts, the manifestation of which is described above. In addition to the development of two classic liturgies, the intricate weaving of experiential practices into the church year, and writings of exemplars of the faith, the church of the early centuries also produced a collection of writings by these exemplars, the Philokalia.

Fr. George Florovsky, one of the great theologians of the Orthodox Church, called the Philokalia, “that famous encyclopedia of Eastern piety and asceticism.” It is referenced here because we believe that virtually every key theme within this classic work can be placed under the heading of one or more of Willard’s four critical concerns.

The word Philokalia is derived from two Greek words, “love,” and “beauty.” It means “love of the beautiful, the exalted, the good.” It is a collection, an anthology, of spiritual writings by some thirty Church fathers ranging from the fourth to the fifteenth century. It was put together as a complete collection by two modern saints, St. Marcarious Notaras (1731-1805), Archbishop of Corinth, and St. Nicodemos the Agiorite (1749-1809).

The full title of the Philokalia tells much about the contents of the books, and probably would have made Dallas Willard smile. In English it reads: Philokalia of the Sacred Spiritually Wakeful Individuals: Compiled from our Holy and God Bearing Fathers, by Which the Mind is Purified, Illuminated, and Perfected Through the Practical and Ethical Philosophy.

While a detailed explanation of the key themes of the Philokalia is far beyond the scope of this essay, we will provide a table below which places the majority of these themes in a table that is built around the structure of Dallas Willard’s four critical commitments. We will also include in a footnote additional references for those who want to dig deeperFor additional Philokalia references see: The Philokalia Complete 4 Volume Set, by trans. And eds. St. Nikokimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarious of Corinth (Palmer, GEH., et. al.) 1979; Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts: Selections Annotated & Explained, G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, et. al. (2006); and The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, compiled by Chariton of Valamo, first published in 966..

04.  Willard’s Critical Concerns in Ignatian Spirituality

Our second reformer is St. Ignatius of Loyola. While his life story would take us past the parameters of this essay, you can find a few key resources in the provided footnoteSee, A Pilgrim’s Journey: The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans. and commentary by Joseph N. Tylenda. San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2001; Eyes To See, Ears To Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality, in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, by Lonsdale, David. London, U.K.: Darton Longman and Todd, 2000; and An Ignatian Spirituality Reader. Traub, George W. Chicago, Illinois: Loyola Press, 2008.. For our purposes, we simply want to highlight prominent aspects of Ignatian Spirituality which closely align with Willard’s four critical commitments.

According to Michael Ivens SJ, the Spiritual Exercises is the name given to ways of preparing and making ourselves ready to become free from all disordered affections so that we might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of our life and the healing of our soul.See Michael Ivens, SJ, Understanding the Spiritual Exercises: Text and Commentary: A Handbook for Retreat Directors, (2016). page 1

The Spiritual Exercises have as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of decisions made in freedom from any disordered attachment.Ibid., Michael Ivens., p.22. The two primary consequences of this gift have to do with both: 1) Experiencing the freedom to make more faithful choices and decisions; and 2) Experiencing the freedom to pursue union with God in this world.

At the heart of the Spiritual Exercises is interpersonal engagement with the Trinity. The Exercises become a school for deeper discipleship and apprenticeship with Christ. Dallas Willard complemented the Spiritual Exercises exemplar curriculum. And Ignatius’ curriculum becomes one of interacting with Jesus in the gospel stories by means of a variety of conversational and imaginative forms of prayer: lectio Divina, imaginative contemplation, application of the senses, colloquy (intimate conversation with Jesus), examen, etc. As a result of these experiences of interpersonal engagement with God in Christ, the apprentice may come to experience healing of false views of God, clarity concerning important life decisions, a more keen awareness of “real presence” and, perhaps best of all, falling in love with God again, and again.

Trevor HudsonFrom Trevor Hudson’s lecture, “Exploring the Purpose of the Exercises of St. Ignatius,” for course in Ignatian Spiritual Training, sponsored by the Jesuit Institute of Southern Africa and Conversatio Divina. has pointed out the key to the Spiritual Exercises is “interpersonal engagement” with God. And he underscores that there are two ways of knowing. We can know about through acquired information. But, central to Ignatian spirituality is a knowing that is far more personal, intimate and interactive. It is far deeper than gaining more information. Ignatius is deeply concerned with a knowledge of God that comes out of an interpersonal engagement.

The disciples learned about Jesus through interpersonal engagement. And while Jesus is no longer with us in that same way, the presence of Christ is still available to us in the power of his own spirit. The practical question then becomes, how do I enter into interpersonal engagement with Christ in the power of his spirit?

TrevorFrom Trevor Hudson’s lecture, “The Big Picture of the Second Week,” for course in Ignatian Spiritual Training, sponsored by the Jesuit Institute of Southern Africa and Conversatio Divina. offers us five prominent examples of Ignatian practices designed to facilitate an interactive awareness of the invisible real. As you read about the following practices, don’t be surprised if you hear Dallas Willard’s voice in your head reminding you of his crucial concerns.


1. Interpersonal Engagement through Colloquy:

Throughout the Spiritual Exercises one is encouraged to ask Jesus to reveal himself to us as we ask for the grace we desire and enter into intimate conversation with Him. (Some find it very helpful to place an empty chair in front themselves as they ask Christ for the grace and share what is going on during this intimate form of prayer.)


2. Interpersonal Engagement through Keeping Company with Jesus in the Gospels:

Ignatius immerses us in Gospel stories. He knows that we can keep company with Jesus in the Gospels, getting to know and love him more as we follow him across the pages of his life-story. Trevor reminds us that “there is a lot of space between the words on paper and the living Christ. As we keep company with Jesus in the gospels, we step off its pages in the power of his Spirit we encounter Him in the present moment.”


3. Interpersonal Engagement through Imaginative Prayer:

Ignatius is using this word, imaginative, in a particular way. For him, there is a deep benefit in entering the stories with our imagination. We ourselves, for example, begin to participate in that story with the grace that is the fuel of the prayer.

Gerald Hughes SJ, who was a Jesuit and longtime friend of Trevor’s, says that when we do Imaginative contemplation, we can:  1) Encounter Jesus in his humanity—and it is through his humanity that we encounter his divinity; 2) Contemplate Christ in the gospel and thereby open ourselves up to who we can become in him; and 3) Contemplate the gospel stories always with awareness of the relationship between Christ and his Father.


4. Interpersonal Engagement through Structured Exercises:

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius is inviting us into a school of discipleship. He has created a number of structured exercises in which we are called into a deeper identification and communication with the risen Lord. A few of these exercises are: 1) the call of the King); 2) the Two Standards (the way of Christ and the way of the evil one); 3) Three Types of Persons (to help bring us into more freedom and availability); and 4) Three Degrees of Humility (where we are called into a deeper identification with the gentleness and humility of Christ as opposed to that of the world).


5. Interpersonal Engagement through Discernment:

A key, and for some a crescendo, feature of the exercises includes very specific guidance concerning discernment in the areas of: 1) Recognizing the good and the bad spirit; 2) Recognizing whether we are in seasons of consolation or desolation; and 3) A variety of life-choices, including vocational discernment.

05.  Willard Four Critical Concerns and Their Presence in Ancient Christian Spirituality and Ignatian Spirituality

The Mind-Independent Presence of Invisible Realities such as the Trinity, and the Kingdom of God• Nepsis: Which means vigilance, watchfulness, alertness and inner attention
• Nous: The purified intellect that understands divine truth and presence by immediate experience
• Learning to find God everywhere and in all things
• Becoming aware that God is offering presence and interactive friendship, here and now
• Discovering that God is continually creating us
The Ability to Interact with the Real Presence, Here and Now, as a Source of Knowledge
• Ascesis: Training or Discipline
• Hesychia: Inner stillness for the purpose of descending with the mind into the heart to become more aware of the presence of God.
• Antirrhesis or Counter Speaking: Speaking back to Logismoi (unwanted thoughts from bad spirits).
• Learning to look at God who is looking at us in prayer
• Interpersonal engagement with God through Ignatian Colloquy (Intimate conversation with the Trinity)
• Rules for the Discernment of Spirits—Good and Bad
• Emphasis on the importance of our God view
The Role of Each of the Aspects of the Person in this Interaction• Heart: The central faculty for loving and desiring God. God is found in the inner closet of the Heart.
• Purity of Heart: Alignment of human will with the will of God.
• Passions: Disordered desires, pathology that leads away from union with God.
• Apatheia: Dispassion or a total state of dependence on God.
• Logismoi: Thoughts that befog or pollute the mind.
• The Gift of Tears: A “second baptism” of repentance and received forgiveness.
• Interpersonal engagement through Imaginative contemplation
• Paying attention to our emotions and our thoughts as part of the discernment process.
• Developing new patterns of thought and behavior
• Importance of childhood relationships with parents to our God view
Real Change is Expected and Should be Measurable• Theosis or Deification: Union with God.
• The Inner Flame: The life of the Holy Spirit within.
• Real Change as an Expectation of Completing the Spiritual Exercises
Sozo as “Healing”:
Grace Is Opposed to Earning but not Effort
• Synergy: Interplay of grace and participation that characterize our pathway to healing union with God.• The Principle and Foundation

06.  Conclusion

In this essay, we have attempted to offer an overview of the mission of the Conversatio Divina ( website, provide an overview of Willard four concerns, and to explain why we choose to feature the voices of ancient Christian spirituality, Ignatian spirituality and Dallas Willard. Willard’s core commitments shaped his entire academic and ministry career. Perhaps he knew he was building an important platform for supporting the most important work to be done on the planet, the renovation of the human heart through direct experience with Real Presence.