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To Grads. From Harvard and Dallas Willard. How to Live a Successful Life

It’s high graduation season—the time when Valedictorians and VIPs rifle their mental files for Something Significant to say about new beginnings and the quest for the good life. A couple of years ago on our radio program The Things That Matter Most I interviewed Dallas Willard about how we can live a successful life.

It’s high graduation season—the time when Valedictorians and VIPs rifle their mental files for Something Significant to say about new beginnings and the quest for the good life. A couple of years ago on our radio program The Things That Matter Most I interviewed Dallas Willard about how we can live a successful life.

The interview began with questions about an essay in Atlantic Monthly. Journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk was allowed access to the archives of The Grant study, a long range Harvard research project that asked, What Makes us Happy? What should one do to live a successful life?

A team of doctors, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and psychiatrists followed 268 of the brightest and best and most well adjusted Harvard sophomores (including JFK) to document the scientific answer. But the baffling variety of outcomes of these lives shows just how elusive the scientists found the answer to be.

David Brooks summarized the findings in the New York Times: “A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success…There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stand mute.”

The study offered one major scientifically quantifiable conclusion: Relationships Bring Happiness.

Dallas pointed out that not just any relationship brings happiness. Even a mugger has a certain relationship with his victim. The key to happiness is good relationships.

While Universities and Americans in general are focused upon pursuing success and happiness, the more basic questions are, What is real? Who is a good person and how do we become a good person with good relationships? According to the Grant study nothing is more important for happiness and well-being.

And yet, as Dallas pointed out, our schools and Universities rarely teach this subject. There is no Department of Reality or Goodness or even Well Being. No course on Being a Good Person. (Who would teach it?)

From my book, Faith and Culture: Sociologist David Brooks writes in On Paradise Drive, “If you ask professors whether they seek to instill [good] character, they often look at you blankly. They are on campus to instill calculus, or 19th-century history. ‘We’ve taken the decision that these are adults and this is not our job,’ one Princeton professor once told me in an interview. ‘We’re very conservative about how we steer.’ ‘They steer themselves,’ said that school’s dean of undergraduate students.”

My co-author, Kelly Monroe Kullberg, writes, “Here we see…the difficulty of steering college students to develop a shared vision of [good] character or purpose for their education when they are offered athletic and social experiences, both visceral and often visual, rather than a larger story in which to live and thrive.”

In my interview with Dallas on his book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, Willard discussed how we can have knowledge of what it means to be a good person: “Basically, what is good is what you would choose if you knew its ultimate outcome. Desire does not think that far ahead – it’s just wanting what it wants when it wants it.

"But Americans don’t consider alternatives or the long run. They wind up confusing desire and goodness – and that childish attitude becomes the dominate modus operandi of our culture. We have a will and it’s designed to choose what is good and not be the victim of desire. If you are raised in our culture, you have no place to stand against desire.”

Jesus offers a place to stand, a platform of spiritual knowledge we can trust—especially knowledge of how to be good and have good relationships.

Quoting Willard from Faith and Culture/The Divine Conspiracy,  “Jesus is not just nice, he is brilliant He is the smartest man who ever lived …. He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.

In our culture Jesus Christ is automatically dis-associated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informed, brilliant, or smart. Einstein, Bill Gates, and the obligatory rocket scientists will stand out.

“What lies at the heart of the astonishing disregard of Jesus found in the moment-to-moment existence of multitudes of professing Christians is a simple lack of respect for him. He is not seriously considered or presented as a person of great ability.”

Willard challenged our listeners or any thoughtful person to a straightforward comparison between Jesus and anyone else offering answers on how to live a successful life. “Jesus would run well in the race with [famous philosophers like Freud and Nietzsche or other founders of religions like Buddha and Mohammed] because of his answers to these basic questions. Test his words against any of the others.

“Take Freud, thought to be a profoundly brilliant man. But just try to live by Freud or Nietzsche. And then contrast that with the words of Jesus – that’s the easiest way. Among human beings…What works? Compare them and you’ll see that this man Jesus was way out ahead of the pack.

“Look at the effect of Jesus on human history. It’s difficult now because, in order to see Jesus clearly, you have to get past the mistakes of historical Christendom. But it is not an accident that in terms of numbers, Christianity is the largest religion on the planet. Go to the heart of the teaching to assess its truth. The effect of Jesus for GOOD – was far superior to any other person who has addressed these issues.”

Given Jesus’ track record it is astonishing to think that his teaching is exiled from today’s University curriculum. If we, and especially our graduates, want to look for knowledge of how to be a good person and what makes for good relationships we need look no further than Jesus.

The Willard interview has been posted in the archives of The Things That Matter Most website and iTunes.

Willard and 70+ other authors, scientists and artists offer more insights into living a successful life in Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith. In this graduation season here’s what two teens have said about the book:

“My generation excels at separating religion from ‘everything else.’ Faith and Culture successfully meshes these two subjects, and the mixture is hardly forced. The reader is immersed into two-page articles about topics relevant to our everyday lives, and is simply prompted to look at the underlying messages. Perfect grad gift.”

– Mitanjeli, college freshman, 18

“This book took me by surprise. Not once have I found a devotional so full of fascinating information that I find myself telling my friends about it right after I read it. I love that it has truth, real truth, but in bite-size chunks. With my school schedule I never have time for heavy theology books to just pick up in my spare time, but this gives me answers to questions that I frequently hear and can now confidently know how to answer without having to be a studied expert on the subject. Big fan!”

– Natalie, high school junior, 16

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Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.