What I learned from Dallas Willard about the nature of salvation.
By Jim Wilder
The only kind of love that helps the brain learn better character is attachment love. The brain functions that determine our character are most profoundly shaped by whom we love. Changing character, as far as the brain is concerned, means attaching in new and better ways.
This realization brought Dallas Willard to tears. If the quality of our human attachments creates human character, is it possible that when God speaks of love, “attachment” is what God means?
God is described over two hundred times in the Old Testament as being חסד hesed/chesed, a quality God also desires from us: “For I delight in loyalty [hesed] rather than sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). The Hebrew word hesed is translated as “devoted,” “faithful” and “unchanging love.” Could God be speaking of an attachment love that sticks with us?
Dallas’ mind raced ahead of mine in our conversations about attachment. He wondered, “Is salvation itself a new and active attachment with God that forms and transforms our identities?” In the human brain, identity and character are formed by whom we love. Attachments are powerful and long-lasting. Ideas can be changed much more easily. Salvation through a new, loving attachment to God which changes our identities would be a very relational way to understand our salvation: We would be both saved and transformed through attachment love from, to and with God.
Although months passed after Dallas first suggested a soteriology of attachment, he never produced arguments for or against the idea. Salvation through attachment was not something he had previously considered or taught. Had I suggested salvation through God’s will, the intellect, emotional experiences, ritual, good deeds or attachment to a group, Dallas would have been full of comments. Western Christianity has long taught that we are changed by what we believe and what we choose, that is, by the human will responding to God. Attachment to God would functionally replace the will as the mechanism of salvation and transformation.
We know that loving God and loving others are the two greatest characteristics of a godly life. Yet, I had never considered that where Scripture spoke of love, it might mean “attachment.” I had never thought about how I could learn to love in attachment ways. Dallas was proposing a practical shift in theology that would change our Christian methods for developing spiritual maturity. Christians have tried forming character through beliefs, experiences and spiritual power. I knew how churches changed people’s beliefs but not how churches grew attachments. I knew I was to (a) love God and (b) love others but not how Christians develop attachment love.
I considered how I was taught of God’s great love for me. We meditated on how much torture God asked Jesus to endure on our behalf. I was impressed by the greatness of God’s love but, at the same time, not drawn toward closeness with God. Thinking of the cross did little to enhance my attachment to God.
Neither was I drawn much toward Christian people. I did like my friends. Yet, attachments to friends did not always help me develop good character and often pulled me away from being Christlike. My reactions became more like the people in my identity group and conflicted with my beliefs. For example, my friends and fellow Christians didn’t spontaneously love their enemies, although I believed I should. How would I develop spontaneous attachment love for my enemies?
What delightful harmony emerges between neuroscience and theology if building attachment love is the central process for both spiritual and emotional maturity. Suppose we focused spiritual exercises and human relationship exercises less on changing our beliefs or choices and more on building attachment love with God and with people. Would that yield the kind of character transformation we yearn to find? The brain’s need for love-that-equals-attachment could explain why spiritual practices sometimes disappoint diligent Christians. A focus on attachment would have profound implications for our understanding of human character, fellowship and spiritual formation.
I concluded that my relationship to God needed more attachment love. My relationships with people needed more of God’s character. How would this happen? Frankly, I did not expect hesed from church people if my character were to be exposed. Christians had not provided strong enough attachments for me to expose what went on in my brain. So I kept my Christian face on in church. But, unless I had strong attachments with God and people at the same moment, I could not reasonably expect to see much transformation into the character of Christ. Reconciling the church’s practices of transformation to how the brain works will be our topic for this book.
Dallas passed on, but not before urging the ongoing discussion of salvation as hesed. His understanding was that salvation should produce disciples who spontaneously exhibit the character of Jesus. His acknowledgment was that salvation as we conceive of it too often doesn’t. Dallas saw in attachment love a possible remedy.
The Heart and Soul Conference, from which this book emerges, gives us a day with Dallas. His first talk addresses the question of how spiritual wholeness and emotional maturity are related. Let us begin there.
Excerpted from Renovated by Jim Wilder. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.