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In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Published by Eerdmans in 2019

Religion in the University

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Published by Yale University Press in 2019

William Boerman-Cornell is professor of education at Trinity Christian College.

In Europe, and to a lesser extent North America, colleges and universities are being asked to justify student tuition expenditures in terms of direct monetary payoffs in post-graduation salaries. The value of philosophy departments in small private colleges and large universities alike has come under question by parents and sometimes administration and faculty of their own institutions. The criticisms tend to fall into two camps. First, that while philosophers address some admittedly important topics such as justice, education, art, and religion, they do so in an idealistic, abstract, ivory tower manner so that what they are saying, while admirable and perhaps true, has little value in the regular world where real people live. Second, that while philosophers, and particularly Christian philosophers, are saying these good and thoughtful things, they are speaking to an audience largely of themselves—a small community of philosophers, or an even smaller community of Christian philosophers.

Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently published two books that, while dramatically different from each other in format, content, purpose, and audience, somehow both manage to lay out a vision for doing philosophy which addresses both these criticisms. Wolterstorff consistently affirms both the importance of grounding philosophy in vitally relevant questions and expanding the scope of the communities with whom philosophers (especially Christian philosophers) enter into dialogue. More than that, Wolterstorff extends this vision to Christian scholars in all disciplines.

Like Wolterstorff, I am a Kuyperian Christian, and I also hold degrees from two Reformed colleges, taught English at a Christian high school, and now teach at a college in the Reformed tradition. So while I am not a philosopher, I have swum in the same waters that Wolterstorff has and have felt the effects of his teaching and writing. My own discipline is literacy studies, and I practice that discipline in a department of education. There is much in In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning and Religion in the University about how learning works, how we acquire knowledge, what education ought to look like, and what dispositionary stance we ought to take in approaching learning about God’s world. It is such themes that frame this review.

In This World of Wonders

The first of these books I’ll discuss, In This World of Wonders: A Memoir of a Life of Learning, takes the form of an autobiography. It is not meant to be an argument for or against anything, but rather a narrative of Wolterstorff’s life from his boyhood in Minnesota though his early education, college, and graduate school years, his learning to teach and do philosophy, his careers at Calvin College and Yale University, and finally his post-retirement writings.

In This World of Wonders contains far too many aspects of Wolterstorff’s life to effectively summarize. I will instead focus on some thematic strands that surface again and again in the book: the importance of community in education; the aesthetic value of craftsmanship; how education is, at its heart, learning to see and read new things in new ways; how education is a window into a wider world; how there is so much that any given person does not know; and the recent history of Christian philosophy as Wolterstorff experienced it. These recurring themes often circle back to the two criticisms of philosophers noted above and ask: How should philosophy be grounded in content and purpose? And what audience should philosophers—particularly Christian philosophers—address?

The Importance of Community in Education

Almost from the start of In This World of Wonders, Wolterstorff highlights the centrality of communities in his narrative. He explains in the preface:

Mine has not been the life of a solitary individual in an alien world, discovering his true self. Mine has been a life in community…shaped by these communities, by movements and developments within them, by their traditions. (xiv)

Wolterstorff refers here first of all to the small town in Minnesota in which he grew up, speaking of extended family conversations about theology, politics, agriculture, and everything else. They were conversations into which everyone present was welcomed: “women, men, teenagers, grandfather” (31). He describes such conversations as sometimes becoming intense, but says that, when the meal or evening was over, those who disagreed deeply with each other “embraced and went their way” (31).

Through such discussions and other interactions, Wolterstorff received not only a set of foundational beliefs and an awareness of contrasting opinions about issues, but also what he calls “an expansive opening-out from the community of the small village in which I was reared” (xiv). Later in the book we see his communities expand to include Grand Rapids, Michigan; New Haven, Connecticut; Amsterdam, Netherlands; South Africa; and other contexts. He states that though he left his original community and moved to larger communities far from where he began, he did not leave “behind the ways [he] was shaped by that community” (xv).

However, his is not simply a story of being shaped by a village in the heartland, one with small-town values and Norman Rockwell characters, before moving on to the big city. This was a community actively engaged with its own Christian tradition. As Wolterstorff puts it:

I learned to live with integrity within the tradition: how to discern and embrace its fundamental contours while treating its details as matters of indifference; how to appropriate what in the tradition is capable of nourishing one’s own day while leaving the rest behind, how to criticize the tradition from within, expand its scope, celebrate its accomplishments, empathize with its anxieties and its memories of suffering. (52)

The thread of religious community that emerged from his early years loops through the rest of Wolterstorff’s life through participation in liturgy, fellowship, and the life of the church, right down to being involved in the design of the church building in which he still worships. And far from viewing his own Reformed religious tradition as confining, he describes himself as “a member of a community, spread across time and space, whose ways of thinking and acting have, over the years, grounded, nurtured, instructed, guided, and disciplined me” (28).

The thread of community likewise loops through Wolterstorff’s educational experiences. He speaks fondly of attending Plato Club as an undergraduate at Calvin College, a club in which students and a faculty member would discuss a book or two in meetings that commonly lasted three hours. Similar experiences in graduate school, and in each of the faculties he served in, include the joy of collegial discussion of topics that matter and often connect to shared traditions and contexts.

The Aesthetic Value of Craftsmanship

Wolterstorff’s father derived great joy from drawing and from working with wood, and an appreciation for the aesthetic of both traditional art and craftsmanship runs throughout In This World of Wonders. Wolterstorff compares his father’s woodworking with his own work, writing, “In a good philosophy paper, there is both intellectual imagination and craftsmanship” (30). This high regard for craft (art woven together with practicality, purpose, or work) led him to an important reaction when he first encountered modern aesthetics. From that time, Wolterstorff states that he has

resented and opposed the put-down of so-called crafts, no doubt because as a child I was inducted into both the fine arts tradition and the crafts tradition. The pen-and-ink drawings my father made were fine art, art made for contemplation; the cabinets and other items of wood that he made were craft. He never indicated that he thought of the former as superior to the latter. (22)

This was not only an idea from Wolterstorff’s childhood, however. In chapter 4, “Beyond Teaching,” he tells of designing the house that he and his wife built in the late 1960s, and then of buying a piece of land and designing and building a cottage with two other couples in the 1970s. He further tells of working with a committee to shape the liturgy of the Christian Reformed Church and of serving on a study commission concerning the Canons of Dordt, a foundational document for his denomination. He also speaks of helping to found the Society of Christian Philosophers. In other chapters, he tells of serving on the committee that worked with an architect to design a new building for his church, and of designing and redesigning his garden. And each of these tasks involves as much or more practical craftsmanship as it does a fine arts aesthetic.

Perhaps there is a parallel here to the way that Wolterstorff does philosophy, or perhaps more generally it is a call for Christian scholars to approach their work differently. Rather than only preferring thought and research written for an insular group of other scholars in the same field or sub-field, Wolterstorff implies that a second type of scholarship—one that anchors theory and specialized ways of thinking and understanding to grounded issues in applied ways—is of at least equal value.

Education: Seeing New Things in New Ways

Another persistent theme throughout In This World of Wonders is how Wolterstorff sees education as a way of opening up the world to the learner. He traces this back to a time when he was growing up and walked into his Aunt Trena’s house when the Metropolitan Opera was playing on the radio. When he asked in a snarky tone, “Why are you listening to that?”, his aunt replied: “Nick, this is my window onto the world. Sit down and let me explain it to you.” Wolterstorff reflects, “What is education but a window onto the world? Sit down and let me explain it to you” (24). Wolterstorff describes his Christian high school education similarly, as “vistas being opened up, rather than material being covered.” In his literature classes, he writes that he had the sense of being able to see “the vast landscape of American and English Literature.” He attributes this in part to his teachers assigning works that were not in the textbook and states that it led him to having a sense of there being much more out there in the world.

Wolterstorff applies this way of teaching to philosophy, as well:

In philosophy, it makes no sense to think in terms of covering the material. What would it be to cover the material in a course in modern philosophy or a course in ethics? There is always more. One opens up a vista, hoping that some students will find that vista sufficiently attractive to want to explore it further. (42)

When Wolterstorff got to college, professors like Henry Stob and Henry Zylstra helped him to see that the vista of culture was something that Christians could and should engage in. He speaks of philosophy professor Harry Jellema introducing Augustine’s notion of the two cities, civitas dei and civitas mundi, and telling his students that their calling was “to share in building the civitas dei” (53). Wolterstorff learned this as a characteristic of the Reformed tradition (and maybe more specifically as a legacy of Abraham Kuyper), to view the world as a “dialectic of yes and no. Yes to God’s creation. No to the ravages of God’s creation by that force that resists—in the form of deprivation, suffering, and untimely death—God’s desire for the flourishing of every human creature. And both Yes and No to the deeds and works of human beings” (55).

He came to see this as a calling to “think, feel, speak, and act as Christians” within a community and its institutions. The idea was not that Christians should go off somewhere to set up their own country, economy, art world, or academic world, but that Christians are to participate in the wider world in which they live.

Wolterstorff sees a need to renew a sense of education as opening up vistas rather than closing them off. Students need to have the opportunity to experience awe and wonder, to love understanding for its own sake, and to engage education with both the mind and the heart. He worries:

Today that love of understanding is under threat, both in Europe and in the United States. Colleges are being asked to justify what they teach by reference to its benefit to the economy. Are we to be reduced to cogs in the economic machine? Reality is mysterious—deeply and endlessly mysterious. Are we to renounce that longing to penetrate some of its mystery? (106)

The Limits of Learning: On Not Knowing

Another persistent theme throughout the book is Wolterstorff’s quickness to acknowledge that which he does not know, that which cannot be known, or that which he wishes he knew. If the theme of education being mainly about opening up new vistas is about the expansiveness inherent in learning things, one might expect that this theme might be primarily about disappointment. It doesn’t come across that way though. It seems more a matter-of-factness, with maybe a hint of wistfulness.

Much of that which Wolterstorff does not know centers around his family growing up. When writing of his father’s being fired from his job after being wrongfully accused of embezzlement, Wolterstorff asks, “Was it a mistake for Dad and mother to protect us children from the shame by not telling us what happened? I do not know” (14). After describing a May Day tradition in which the children of his hometown would deliver homemade baskets of candy to each other, Wolterstorff writes, “I have no idea where this tradition came from or what it meant” (16). Regarding his grandfather, a carpenter who died the year before he was born, Wolterstorff states, “Nobody talked about him, so I have no idea what he was like as a person” (17). He wonders if his father ever regretted that he did not finish college and become a graphic artist, continuing, “If he did indeed live with these disappointments, he never mentioned them to me” (20).

In chapter 7, “Living with Grief,” Wolterstorff describes his family’s journey after his son Eric died in a climbing accident. Here what Wolterstorff does not know has less to do with content and more to do with understanding. He describes writing Lament for a Son (William B. Eerdmans, 1987) and discovering that “I understood nothing about grief other than that I would not be grieving over Eric’s death had I not loved him. Grief was the price I was paying for love. More than that I did not understand—nor did I try to understand. Now I understand more” (202). At the time, Wolterstorff could not bring himself to tackle the mystery any more than he had to: “I did not shy away from taking note of the gaping void in me that his death caused. I did not shy away from voicing my lament over his death. But I could not bring myself to try to figure out what God was up to in Eric’s death” (209). He writes further of how things have gone awry in God’s creation, stating that he does not understand why, “nor do I understand why God puts up with it for so long. Rather than Eric’s death evoking in me an interest in theology, it had the effect of making God more mysterious. I live with the mystery” (210). Both the intense interest in an opening up of new areas in which to learn and an acknowledgement of the divine mysteries we live with are integral parts of Wolterstorff’s conceptualization of what it means to learn and to move toward understanding.

Mapping the Philosophical Terrain

One value of a scholarly memoir is the way it can serve as an apprenticeship for those who come later: it encodes practices and dispositions that, while helpful for other scholars to read and think on, would not regularly be recorded as part of a person’s scholarly output. Such is the case with Wolterstorff’s historical perspective on the discipline of philosophy in In This World of Wonders. As Wolterstorff describes his own trajectory of scholarly focus, he also describes the philosophical terrain of the Christian philosophical world in general, and the Reformed tradition in particular, from the 1950s to the present. The volume likewise presents Wolterstorff’s perspective on philosophy as “a social practice, an ongoing activity of thinking philosophically, of writing philosophical texts and of teaching and discussing philosophy” (105).

Wolterstorff explains the two major movements in modern philosophy: “In the philosophy of the past seventy-five years or so, there are two main traditions, commonly called the analytic and the continental. Not all twentieth-century philosophers fit into either of these two traditions….But most do.” Wolterstorff further explains: “Philosophers in the analytic tradition typically prize argumentative rigor and rhetorical precision and clarity….Analytic philosophers are typically sparing in their use of figures of speech…theirs is a dry, literal style devoid of suggestion and allusion” (85). Wolterstorff aligns himself with this tradition, more or less, but states that he engages major figures in the continental tradition, as well.

Wolterstorff describes himself as being called to be “not just a good philosopher, but a Christian philosopher” (101). In chapter 4, he maps out the major divisions in Reformed Christian philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century. He sees all Reformed philosophers as descending from Abraham Kuyper’s contention that Christians have a responsibility to engage all of human culture. From that common point of origin, Wolterstorff divides Reformed philosophers into two groups. On the one side are those philosophers who were trying to construct a comprehensive, systematic way of applying Kuyper’s call to engage all of culture. This included Herman Dooyeweerd, who developed a comprehensive approach he called the Philosophy of the Law-Idea, and Dirk Vollenhoven, whose own systematic work led him into a sustained engagement with the history of philosophy. On the other side were Hendrick Stoker of the University of Potchefstroom in South Africa and Harry Jellema of Calvin College. As Wolterstorff explains, Jellema had little use for constructing a systematic approach to philosophy. His own interest was in considering the ways that the ancient, medieval, and modern philosophers had shaped the worldviews of their times. Jellema found those who followed the systematic tradition to be triumphalist in their claim that the Philosophy of the Law-Idea was the first true Christian philosophy and too dismissive of the Christian medieval philosophers he saw as modern Christian philosophers’ forbears. He thought that the historical philosophers should be studied seriously and not merely acknowledged and then dismissed because of their non-Christian thinking.

Wolterstorff himself had no interest in developing, as he puts it, “a twelve- volume system” (156), a long work trying to be comprehensive. He preferred to write “provoked by something that befell me” (156). From early on, Wolterstorff felt strongly that God was calling him to focus his work on justice, especially for oppressed people. Chapter 6, “Awakenings,” describes how, while serving with a team of consultants to help executives at Herman Miller Corporation (a modern furniture manufacturer) reflect on whether there is a moral imperative in design and whether growth is compatible with intimacy, Wolterstorff attended a conference in South Africa that changed his life and made justice a central focus of his work. Chapter 9, “Return to Yale,” and 10, “Still Vistas,” detail some lectures and writings that grew out of this focus, including the books Until Justice and Peace Embrace (William B. Eerdmans, 1987), Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, 2010), Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World (William B. Eerdmans, 2011), and Understanding Liberal Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Wolterstorff acknowledges that some people contend that the fascination with justice issues is a fad among young people today, but states that he personally knows many young people for whom justice is not a fad but a reason for deep commitment and action. And perhaps at this time in educational history, the prospect of Christian philosophy addressing questions of justice may be an excellent way of making clear not only its relevance to the world our students are living in, but also, by extension, to all disciplines in the academy. This may also be one of the easiest ways for Christian philosophy in particular to have a voice in public institutions. And that is the focus of Wolterstorff’s second book.

Religion in the University

Memoirs may have themes and a narrative flow, but by their nature, they seldom move in a linear or even a predictable pattern. While Wolterstorff brings order to the way he sees his life in his memoir, the writing is very different from the sustained, clear argument that he puts forth in his book Religion in the University. In this book, Wolterstorff addresses the current dominant societal stance of the minimal place religion ought to have in the university. He considers this in a broader historical context, considers recent developments in the epistemology of religious belief, and suggests how we might reconceive the proper role of religion in the contemporary university.

Paul A. Macdonald Jr. addressed this topic in his Christian Theology and the Secular University (Routledge, 2017). While MacDonald ‘s argument is cogent and well structured, it is also shaggy, with enough sub-arguments and digressions that it is easy to lose the thread of his overall points. Wolterstorff’s approach to the same topic is stripped down to its most basic form, and consequently reads as more streamlined, persuasive, and conclusive. It is also a book that has some echoes of In This World of Wonders.

Consider the way Wolterstorff initially frames the question the book seeks to answer: “[Is] there a place in the contemporary university for a voice such as this…a religious voice of one who spies behind the beautiful snowflake and gorgeous earth a craftsman—their craftsman, master of insight and beauty. Is there a place for a voice such as that?” (3). Wolterstorff’s choice of the word craftsman, apart from its unintentional gender focus, certainly connects back to the passages examined earlier, connecting God’s creation of the earth not only to fine arts, but also to practical arts like carpentry and gardening, seeing that such arts have just as much claim to insight and beauty.

Wolterstorff begins by looking at the argument articulated by German sociologist Max Weber that each sphere within society defines that value of its own area and that value shapes the actions within that sphere. For example, a businessper- son, acting within the affordances and constraints of the business world, must naturally submit to the notion that decisions must take into account the bottom line, and those who don’t will likely end up out of business. Weber then argues that in most fields, one’s faith is at best irrelevant and at worst an obstruction to success—mostly because it introduces a set of rules separate from the ones which govern each sphere. A scholar guided by faith, Weber argues, would be kicked out of the scholarly conversation (and maybe the university itself) because he or she is guided by a different set of rules. Wolterstorff summarizes Weber thus: “Whenever ‘the man of science’ allows some additional value to shape his activity, whenever he ‘introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases’” (19).

In chapter 2, Wolterstorff makes it clear that he thinks Weber got it wrong. He argues that when religious voices get squeezed out of academic conversations, it has less to do with those voices not functioning within the rules of particular spheres, and more to do with “all too human reasons [like] misunderstanding, resentment, bias, hostility and the like—these sometimes evoked by a religious voice that is itself resentful and hostile” (33). Wolterstorff argues that while evidence plays a part in our understanding, we construct, test, accept, and reject theories more based on experience than on evidence alone. Further, the contemporary academy seems open and interested in accepting a variety of different stances and perspectives. Wolterstorff states that 50 years ago, the influx of racial, cultural, and gender diversity into the academy would have been considered subjective or biased. Now we take it as a given that all academic positions are influenced by race, culture, and gender, leading to an acceptance and “legitimization of pluralism in our universities” (31).

This means, Wolterstorff argues, that the scholar must “be entitled to those particularist values and beliefs that shape her scholarship—as indeed she must be entitled to her non-particularist values and beliefs.” But if this scholar is, for example, a political scientist specializing in twenty-first-century American politics, she is “not entitled to base her views exclusively on what she hears on her favorite news channel. She is obligated to read and listen carefully” (51).

Chapter 3 addresses the argument that religious thought exists outside of that which is rational. When a person claims to have a religious experience, the argument goes, that experience is inaccessible to all but the recipient of that experience; therefore, it cannot be verified by others; therefore, it is irrational. Further, critics argue, religious people do not hold their belief in God based on arguments but on faith, which is also separate from rationality. Wolterstorff states that there are two ways to respond to this argument. The first is to point out that many people do base their faith upon solid arguments and then develop those arguments to demonstrate the rationality of belief. The second is to challenge the criticism by arguing that “the criteria for rationality of religious belief that the critic employs is mistaken” (74).

It is this second approach that Wolterstorff embraces. He makes a distinction between perceptual evidence and experiential evidence, but points out that in spite of 300 years of philosophers trying to prove the existence of an external world, the bottom line is that all beliefs and all evidence for anything are ultimately perceptual. Wolterstorff then points to religious experience and testimony as not necessarily different from other examples of perceptual evidence.

In the final chapter, two of Wolterstorff’s concluding arguments particularly stood out to me. The first is that religion can make an important contribution in the context of a pluralistic university. Wolterstorff writes,

For it is in such a University—where else—that living proponents of all significant positions are brought together in one grand dialogue, each gleaning from the other what she thinks worth gleaning, each contributing what she thinks worth contributing, with the result that more of ourselves and our world is uncovered, explained, and hermeneutically understood than any party in the dialogue could have achieved by itself. (146)

The second is that the whole notion that it is possible to have a university without faith, is itself flawed. Faith is, in fact, a part of everything that every person thinks, whether they understand this to be the case or not:

The main burden of what I have to say in this book is that choice is misconceived. Reasoning is fundamental to our existence; to be human is to reason. But though reason may often appear king in the realm of learning, close scrutiny shows that in scholarship and teaching, our capacity for reasoning is always functioning in the service of some particular faith or love, or in the service of some intuition or interpretation of how things are. (118)

Religion in the University is a strong book and would be useful to any Christian scholar submitting work to the larger public academy. It would also be valuable to any scholar considering teaching in the public sphere, as well as for scholars working in public universities to consider what people of faith could bring to the academy. Religion in the University might be most helpful to Christian scholars considering their own Christian institutions and work. As we read about why Christian voices should be valued in the public sphere, we also consider why our voices should be valued in our own institutions and what messages, learning, and understandings we should be concentrating on. In my own field of education, for example, it is easy for professors working in a deeply Christian context to get distracted by state standards, requirements, and assessments, so much that we minimize the value of wisdom and understanding drawn from our faith and the ways these inform our concepts of what education is. In setting forth arguments why Christian voices have a place in the public university, Wolterstorff also challenges scholars in Christian colleges and universities to consider what wisdom they have for a world beyond the edges of their campuses and what that means for how they teach their students and prepare them to fully engage God’s world.

Wolterstorff gives us two books, one that helps us see what Christian scholarship over a full academic life looks like, the other that argues for bringing that life of Christian scholarship to the public sphere. Both books would be enriching for Christian scholars in any academic discipline.

Cite this article
William Boerman-Cornell, “Learning about God’s World for the Common Good—An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:4 , 407-416

William Boerman-Cornell

Trinity Christian College
William Boerman-Cornell is a professor of education at Trinity Christian College.