Wolterstorff’s Wonderful Account of Living in Learning and Wonder

In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning by Nicholas Wolterstorff

In the first paragraph of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s preface to In This World of Wonders, he admits his long reluctance to write about himself as a legacy of his southwest Minnesota Dutch immigrant community’s ethos of self-deprecation, “…[N]ever toot your own horn,” he writes. Such modesty, both generationally inherited and culturally learned, comes as no surprise to those of Wolterstorff’s and my tribe. Unless writers wish to court community opprobrium as narcissists, they must apologize at least once in any self-referencing piece. We don’t like braggarts, except those who boast of Christ. 

NO JOURNALING AND AN AVERAGE MEMORY
Regardless two other introductory notes nearly tempted me to doubt Wolterftorff’s veracity – a serious inclination indeed.

He claims – or confesses – never to have kept a journal. How he built his own hefty shelf of books, articles and lectures in several branches of philosophy (metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics), besides writing on Christian liturgy, social justice, architecture and theology, runs counter to most authors’ habits I know of. They keep reams of journals for decades, contending they never could have produced much of anything without having scribbled volumes of ideas for themes, plots and characters that grew into seedbeds for their own work. But there’s more.

Next Wolterstorff notes, “…[My] memory is no better than average.” What? Here he has given us 318 splendidly readable pages of clear, distinct memories. With every anecdote he masterfully links personal and professional relationships, sketches key points of his many books, describes travels – often with wife Claire and children – and lucidly comments on philosophical topics that have filled his life and mind.

What might Professor Wolterstorff have written had God gifted him with even a merely good memory? All who know Nicholas Wolterstorff attest to his lifelong honesty and disciplined intellect and spirit. So, trusting such testimonies, I repent of the near temptation and pray other readers never similarly slip.

LIVELY, IRENIC AND MOVING REFLECTIONS
Such quibbles aside, this memoir makes for often moving and always reflective reading. Wolterstorff narrates his life and career with remarkable completeness, never bogging down or over-writing on a given theme vignette. As expected of a careful thinking philosopher, Wolterstorff writes with taut discipline, choosing words and ways to engage readers who, after his 60 some years of writing and travelling, belong to many ethnic, intellectual and religious communities. When explaining philosophical discussions in which he has participated via public or classroom lectures, books and correspondence, he uses no jargon, unfailingly uses exacting vernacular and never condescends to non-philosopher readers. 

Perhaps the most attractive traits of In This World of Wonders, though, are its thorough-going grace, graciousness and kindness. Having read many memoirs, autobiographies and biographies of writers, thinkers, politicians and business magnates, this is the only one I recall which the author or subject did not use the book to sharpen blades of past battles to slash at former colleagues or opponents in a last-ditch effort to get back or get even. 

GRATEFUL FOR HIS ROOTS
Not that Wolterstorff might not have had opportunity or motive to do so. Having been born and raised in small farming towns in southern Minnesota populated by Dutch-Calvinist laypersons, he could have stabbed at the spiritual rigidity and religious legalism still evident in certain Reformed enclaves. Instead, he briefly mentions his sub-culture’s foibles without anger or bitterness. 

The only time he broaches criticism, it is not his. Rather he cites his aunt’s gratitude for listening to the Metropolitan Opera on radio as her “window to the world,” a harmless enough quip. Only in a footnote, though, does he add that his cousin remembers his mother’s quote concluding with “out of this dusty little village.” The wry smile that probably graced her face while offering that thought is harmless to the point of affection.   

Wolterstorff clearly is thankful for the virtues and kindnesses of small-town community, along with its ethic of careful work and craftsmanship. In fact, his appreciation for his father’s fastidious carpentry lived long outside his “dusty little village.” It became a metaphor to instruct students: “In a good philosophy paper there is both intellectual imagination and craftsmanship. All the dovetails must be tight.” Sadly, he later dropped the dovetail detail when carpentry-illiterate student responded with puzzled expressions. 

GRACIOUS RESPECT FOR SECULAR COLLEAGUES
Just as fertile a field to sow for intellectual mayhem and vengeance could have been in philosophical disputes among mentors or colleagues. Recounting graduate work at Harvard, Wolterstorff observes that his training at Calvin College ingrained the conviction that “philosophy is . . . an articulation of worldviews that was now standing me in good stead. Thus, when evaluating logical positivism’s foundational belief in the natural sciences to the exclusion of metaphysics, he recalls his reaction to its “claims about meaning as a mixture of annoyance and bemusement.” While agreeing with a colleague’s opinion that positivism “amounts to scientistic hair-splitting, at once arrogant and naïve,” he never demeans its popular practitioners, such as Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. 

Instead he always takes the high road. When, for example, Wolterstorff chronicles the beginnings and current flourishing of the Society of Christian Philosophy, he highlights its growth as a professional organization that has gained respect in the world of philosophy. As well he credits many contemporaries and younger colleagues as those responsible for its reputation and that of its quarterly Faith and Philosophy. Noting that ten of its members have served as presidents of the American Philosophical Association, he does not mention that he and two other Calvin College graduates – O.K. Bouwsma and Alvin Plantinga – were among them. 

How refreshing to read a well-known Christian describe the intellectually demanding process of earning respect among non-Christian colleagues. Many insecure Christians complain of being disrespected and humiliated in North American society. Perhaps if they respected unbelievers, trying with honest intellectual rigour to articulate Christian faith, their own public respect would grow.

JOY AND SADNESS IN FAMILY
Besides this book’s modest tone, an often moving narrative thread weaves throughout Wolterstorff’s frequent references to his family. Beginning with his own early life, he tells of his mother Agnes’s death at 29 when he and twin Henrietta were three-and-a-half. Afterwards the children were moved to extended family because his father was unable to care for them alone. The family reunited when their father married beloved step-mother Jennie Hanenberg. Though Wolterstorff recalls with some melancholy that he never developed a close relationship with his father, he happily recalls learning woodworking from his father and passing the craft on to two of his sons and a son-in-law. 

The many descriptions of family home life and travel adventures offer joyful pictures of a large and healthy family. Understandably the most poignant passage about family is Wolterstorff’s retelling of the profound, lasting effects of son Eric’s death at 25 in a climbing accident in Europe. Recalling his emotionally packed Lament for a Son, he does not open old wounds. Instead he expresses with both grief and gratitude that life can be lived well and purposefully even after such tragedy. 

Finally, this memoir, though not a philosophical paper, is indeed a product of craftsmanship and imagination with all the dovetails tight. Savour it carefully, not quickly, maybe a chapter or two a day for a week.  

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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