Wolterstorff, Nicholas. In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life of Learning. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019.
When someone who has mastered a discipline over fifty years speaks of his experiences in that discipline, and if said discipline also overlaps with your interests, you listen when he speaks–even when he is sometimes wrong. Wolterstorff is the model of how one should do rigorous philosophy. He is clear and thorough and never pretentious.
His “life on the farm” growing up (son of Dutch immigrants in rural Minnesota) has that familiar ring of many in the Depression era. He grew up poor but never really thought about it.
During his time at Calvin he tells of studying philosophy under the famous Harry Jellema. From Calvin he pursued philosophy at Harvard and wrote his dissertation on the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, to which he never returned. That’s probably a good thing. After Harvard he pursued various fellowships in England and the Netherlands. His description of Jellema is just too good:
He mentions a prank some students played at Calvin. They got a local cow and led it up the stairs of a building. Well, they could get the cow up the stairs, but they couldn’t get it down. The janitors had to kill and dismember the cow.
The heart of his teaching career was at Calvin where he teamed up with Plantinga and others, culminating in the Reformed Epistemology project. After Calvin he taught at Yale.
He initially didn’t want to go back to Yale, but Hans Frei really pushed for him. Frei warned the faculty that if they didn’t get someone like Wolterstorff, then some “d*mn process theologian would fill the position!” Wolterstorff tells of how he had to teach a class on theological aesthetics. Not knowing anything about it, he just used the previous professor’s syllabus and book readings. There was a section on Hans urs von Balthasar and Wolterstorff’s first impression was “This is boring.” Then he got to the part where Balthasar praised the “passive receptivity of the Virgin Mary.” Wolterstorff cringed. This won’t go over well with the feminists in the class. It didn’t. The next day the feminists started screaming at each other over Balthasar’s words!
His section concerning the death of his adult son Eric was quite powerful, as was the episode where he taught at a men’s prison.
It might seem bad form to analyze someone’s memoirs, yet Wolterstorff’s thought is so rich one can’t do otherwise. And while Wolterstorff is never as flighty as the current worldview Kuyperians–in many respects he is their polar opposite–one can see the seeds of dissolution early on. He described himself as a feminist from at least the 1970s, bemoaning “sexist language” in his earlier works. His wife was ordained in the Episcopal Church. He also participated in liturgical reform in the CRC. Oddly enough, he doesn’t mention his most recent support for same-sex unions.
He ends with a discussion of his recent books on justice and rights. Here is where he differs from most Social Justice Warriors. Wolterstorff can actually define the word justice without setting a trash can on fire. Further, most Christian social justice activists are disciples of O’Donovan and Hauerwas. Wolterstorff is not. He clearly rejects them. I don’t think he is being fair to Oliver O’Donovan’s work, since O’Donovan is on the opposite end of Hauerwas.
Aristotle said justice is the equitable distribution of rights and benefits. That doesn’t make much sense if we take a horrific case like abuse. On that gloss abuse would be wrong because benefits weren’t distributed equally! That just doesn’t seem right. A better take is from the Roman jurist Ulpian-we render to each person what is his natural ius, or right. Therefore, according to Wolterstorff,
Despite all of that, the book has much value. Indeed, it is a literary masterpiece (something for which analytic philosophers aren’t always known). You can’t help but be drawn into the narrative. It is that well-written.