Covenant realism, covenant ontology
Finally, much of Hearing God is devoted passionately to reorienting the way we see reality, to what I call covenant realism and covenant ontology. I believe that this is Willard’s preeminent concern. According to Willard, also operating covertly in our generally defective model is perhaps the most powerful agent—our view of reality. Our view of knowing and our view of reality (what it is that is there to know) are inseparable. They are defective, or they are life-giving, together. In his fresh “model of what is happening,” Willard is doing both epistemology and metaphysics. He pronounces explicitly that what we think about what there is predetermines what we see. (80)
Thus, Willard exhorts us to see ourselves as created for an intimate and transforming friendship with the creative community that is the Trinity. (10) We are to see God as real and dynamically present. (12) He gives an entire chapter the enthralling title, “Our Communicating Cosmos” (ch 4), and another, “The Word of God and the Rule of God.” (ch 6) In the former, he calls us to ask the basic question, what kind of world do we live in? This bears critically on how we conceive of how God relates to us in it—or whether he even can.
An integral part of the special burden of unbelief that the modern West bears is a naturalistic view of reality as entirely physical. It reduces all causality to bare mechanism. It presumably encapsulates human beings and renders God distant and inaccessible. (94). For us to begin to hear God in the context of being in friendship with him, caught up in a life beyond our own---for us to take seriously what Scripture describes!—we must have are view of reality reshaped. Willard argues that, in rejection of the dominant view, not all reality involves space. (96) Willard cites scientists saying that “it is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness”; and “subjective and objective realities, consciousness and matter, mutually create each other”; and “the structure of matter may not be independent of consciousness. (99)
Spirit—God’s and ours, is unbodily, yet causally active, personal power. And the physical and the spatial are in the spiritual, the way your body is in you (not vice versa)—the way that we “live and move and have our being” “in Him.” Because we have our being in Him, he is nearer to us than even our sensations. Far from God being distant, impeded by space and physicality, he is closer to us then we are to ourselves. The whole of reality is penetrated through and through by God. (101) “Every working of visible reality is a movement within the encompassing Logos, the sustaining Word of God, and it rests on nothing else but God through his Son, who was and is the ‘reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Heb 1:1-3).” (104) In such a reality, indeed, God is not very far from us! We are—and all reality is--in God. Obviously this redraws the entire matter of concern in Willard’s book!
This metaphysical exposition—he calls it and intellectual and spiritual hardhat area (80)—is just what we need to strengthen our faith. (101-2) It is the reshaping idea that opens our eyes to see what is there—what is there in Scripture, and what is there in the world.
Willard returns in 3 chapters to extend the exposition by talking about the Word and Rule of God. What place does God’s Word, have in reality? He says there is a single basic truth here: God’s creating, his ruling, and his redeeming just are his word. (156) Our words shape reality too. Modern Western naturalism is in no-way equipped to observe that reality is fundamentally God’s voice. But “in a personal universe whether our own small arena or God’s cosmos, the word directs actions and events.” (171) In reality itself we are all always already hearing God. Reality just is the kingdom rule of God, where kingdom is by definition a network, not of mechanistic causes, but of personal relationships. (159) Thus, “the one who hears God’s voice is operating from the foundation and framework of all reality, not from the fringe.” (155) And reality—our universe—by nature responds to a word, to thoughts and intentions. (171) “Reality, including the material world, is ultimately a kingdom in which authority, personal relationships and communication (words) are basic to the way things run. (177) People who understand this, “and they alone, are at home in the universe as it actually is.” (198)
As if two chapters were not enough, Willard adds an epilogue that returns to the matter of reality. He confesses that he still painfully aware of the one great barrier that might hinder some people’s efforts to make such a life their own. The barrier: “the seeming unreality of the spiritual life.” (282) Given the dominant skepticism—the epistemic posture—of the modern Western world, in which a skeptical person is always deemed to be smarter than the one who believes, “only a very hardy individualist or a social rebel—one desperate for another life—stands a chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today.” (283). Sobering words, indeed. Yet he offers hope in saying that “we live on the Emmaus road, so to speak, with an intermittently burning heart.” We can come to understand that the presence of the physical world no longer has to be a barrier between me and God—that “my visible surroundings become, instead, God’s gift to me.” (288)
I have chronicled Willard’s metaphysical claims extensively here for more than one reason. First, they are the last alignment I mean to note between Hearing God and covenant epistemology. They express without qualification what L2K has articulated as covenant realism and covenant ontology. So we have seen that Hearing God is doing covenant epistemology—espousing it, embodying it. This lies at the heart of its distinctive message and its effectiveness.
But there are a couple other reasons I have taken such a close look at what Willard says about reality. One is that the nature of reality is what seems to matter the most to Willard in his argument. Another is that, for most of my adult philosophical life, and now in a fresh venture of inquiry, it matters the most to me. In the wake of L2K and now its skimmed-cream synopsis in A Little Manual for Knowing, I am returning to study reality. My current project is to update and revise for publication my 30-year-old doctoral dissertation as, “Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and its Value for Christian Faith.”
I have spent the summer plunging with delight into a world of fresh insights about reality. That I am “…created for intimate and transforming friendship with the creative community that is the Trinity” (10) puts a finger on the fountainhead and the dynamically ever-newness of it all. Hearing Hearing God, this summer of my life and work, what Dallas Willard is saying about reality has all my attention. But I am grateful for how Willard’s wise, philosophically attuned, concretely helpful work not only corroborates covenant epistemology, but this summer helps me understand much better how to relate to—and in—God.
With special thanks to Jay Hawthorne, and to Paul Sparks
ELM, Aliquippa, PA, August 2014