PHILOSOPHERS might be described as spending their lives giving advice to people who are happier than they are. Not so in the case of Nicholas Wolterstorff. He is a happy man who, through his family life and distinguished career as a Christian philosopher, has brought happiness and wisdom to a world urgently in need of both.
This is not so much an autobiography as “a series of vignettes, more or less following the story of my life”. His has been a long and productive life, characterised by an extraordinary depth of thought and a breadth of interests — politics, art, music, architecture, nature, education, Japanese ceramics, and Danish furniture.
But it is the part that he has played in the renaissance of Christian philosophy which secures his reputation, and fuels our interest in his journey from a modest upbringing in rural Minnesota to international pre-eminence and respect.
His early years were spent in a small, remote community, nurtured by family, farming, church, and disputation. Here he learned how to disagree well — the key to mature philosophical intercourse. Born from Dutch Calvinist stock, he imbued the doctrinal priorities of sin, salvation, and gratitude with a generosity of spirit which was both liberating and life-enhancing.
His early academic studies at Calvin College, Harvard, and Cambridge led to his finally opting for philosophy over theology; and thus were laid the foundations for his career as a leading ambassador for Christian philosophy. With admirable concision and clarity, he regularly interrupts his biographical vignettes to explain philosophical terms and schools of thought.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, an interest in the rebirth of Christian philosophy
Time spent at Yale honed his critical faculties in a context not altogether sympathetic to Christian philosophy. Perhaps this partly explains his return to Calvin College to teach in an environment better suited to his values and vision.
At this point, Wolterstorff provides a moving account of buying a piece of land to conserve its flora and fauna, and the building of a family home that he designed himself. He also became more and more involved in the life and liturgy of the Christian Reformed Church, both locally and nationally, contributing to its journal, and helping to found a less ideologically orthodox congregation. His devotion to his wife and growing family shines through these events, although he admits to being less emotionally engaged with them than he would have wished to be.
One powerful vignette traces his awakening to issues of justice, especially in relation to Palestine, South Africa, and civil rights in the US. This resulted in some of his most impassioned publications. He also leads us through the gestation of “Reformed Epistemology”, which challenged mere evidentialism by emphasising experience as crucial to the authenticity of religious beliefs.
His profoundly moving reflection on living with grief after the death of his eldest son is a visceral articulation of how his faith was challenged and refined in the fires of lived experience.
Eventually he returned to Yale, so joining one of the most illustrious faculties of philosophy. Here he expounds his continuing developing interest in justice issues and political philosophy, especially his defence of liberal democracy against challenges from Right and Left. For many today, it is this incisive but humane contribution to understanding why and how Christians must not spurn political thought and action which guarantees him a voice in troubling times.
Wolterstorff concludes that “it is the frustration of wanting to understand what I don’t understand that motivates most of my philosophical thinking.” That, and a profound Christian faith that is liberal in its sympathies, and is passionate to see right prevail. All this is conveyed with modest self-deprecation that can seem disingenuous at times, but which is, overall, humbling and inspiring.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a life in learning
Church Times Bookshop £17.99