In This World of Wonders

Memoir of a Life in Learning

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Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When scholars switch genres to memoir—from whatever they’re good at—readers cannot be assured in advance what they are in for. When, a few years ago, Britain’s leading sociologist of religion, David Martin, issued his reflections (The Education of David Martin: The Making of an Unlikely Sociologist, SPCK, 2013), few—except intimates—would have expected such a personal and spiritual tour de force from a scholar best known for extraordinary erudition, global purview, densely layered prose, and game-changing insights.

However, with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s reflections, In this World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning, one gets exactly what one expects. Wolterstorff has always been one of analytic philosophy’s most personal and personable writers, so readers of even his most academic works will expect some combination of vivid illustration, robust good sense, maverick intellectual freedom, and searching—even searing—conclusions. These qualities are here in abundance, in over 300 pages, that will yet seem too short to his fans.

And Wolterstorff has a lot of fans. One of the key movers and shakers of the remarkable resurgence of Christians in North American philosophy, not least through his co-founding of the Society of Christian Philosophers, Wolterstorff (b. 1932) has received most of the plaudits available to someone in his line of work. A Harvard PhD (one has to go somewhere) and professor at Yale (ditto), Wolterstorff has been President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and was the inaugural deliverer of its Dewey Lectures. He has also given the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews, the Kuyper Lectures at the Free University in Amsterdam, the Wilde Lectures at Oxford, the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, and plenary lectures at the American Academy of Religion meetings. Along the way, he received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Danforth Foundation (for excellence in teaching), and many other sources, and in 2006, Wolterstorff was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Charmingly, Wolterstorff reports these achievements, in a typically laconic manner, as details along the way to what he really prefers to talk about: the work, and the people who have helped him in it. So this volume gives us some fascinating background information as to why perhaps the most versatile of modern philosophers—books and articles on each of metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, education, politics, religion, and the history of philosophy—has gone this way and that. Wolterstorff claims to have had no plan to his life work: “[m]ost of what I have thought and written has been provoked by something that befell me” (157). He has simply—and usually profoundly—responded to what was at hand to do at that point in his life: an exemplar of the Calvinist following the will of God.

Wolterstorff is not all about the work, however. In fact, the son of a woodworker who spent long, tough years in the farm country of Minnesota and Iowa, Wolterstorff herein recounts some of his interest in landscape (both gardening and preservation of wilderness), architecture (he designed the family home), music, ceramics, and fine furniture—especially Danish modern chairs. Indeed, the blurring of the boundary between craft and art is crucial to him, and his own philosophical prose demonstrates well-wrought utility with an occasional literary flourish.

Wolterstorff’s account shows us a man raised in very difficult circumstances and who endured privation, loneliness, and very hard work from his youngest years. It shows us a scholar who seemed to have things nicely come his way—from time in the Ivy League to fellowships and lectureships around the world. And it shows us a man crippled by the loss of his young-adult son, Eric—victim of a mountaineering accident—who nonetheless has carried on for decades in fruitful, faithful marriage, parenting and grandparenting—Wolterstorff is disarmingly proud of his accomplished offspring—and academic work with the kind of smile only those acquainted with, but not conquered by, deep suffering can bestow.

As with Martin, then, Wolterstorff was raised at a huge cultural distance from the academic center. As with Martin (who ended up with a doctorate from, and eventually a professorship at, the London School of Economics, as well as an FBA), Wolterstorff patiently took the academy by storm. As with Martin, Wolterstorff retained a nondefensive but also unintimidated composure before established conventions and swirling fads alike. And finally, as with Martin, the outsider-now-insider altered and improved every academic conversation he entered.

In sum, Nick Wolterstorff himself is a wonder. And this book will both delight his fans and attract new ones.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Stackhouse, Jr. is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. Before going to Yale he taught philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for thirty years. His other books include Justice in Love, Educating for Shalom, The God We Worship, and Lament for a Son.


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