A Feature Review of
In This World of Wonders:
A Memoir in a Life of Learning
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2019.
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Reviewed by Aaron Morrison
All humans philosophize, but few make philosophy their career, and fewer still do so since Nicholas Wolterstorff first became a professor. Even so, the practice of philosophy–as with the rest of the humanities—remains ever relevant for our own search for what makes a life well-lived. In This World of Wonders: A Memoir in a Life of Learning functions as a moving testament to what a lifetime spent around the subject of philosophy can look like from the perspective of one of Christian Philosophy’s significant figures over the past generation. Even if readers are unfamiliar with Wolterstorff’s corpus, they can glean wisdom for finding beauty, acting justly, and meditating on grief.
At the urging of friends, Wolterstorff wrote his memoir for those who might be interested in learning about his life, and for those who might be interested in the communities who have shaped him and in which he has contributed. Wolterstorff has participated “in an extraordinary renaissance of Christian Philosophy—and of Christian learning more generally.” He witnessed this movement as an insider, while he grappled with its critics and its own shortcomings in relation to Apartheid in South Africa, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and American civil rights movements. His memoir narrates his involvement, while interweaving stories about his other passions: raising a family, gardening, and well-crafted furniture.
Wolterstorff intends for his memoir to be read by a general audience. While the content appeals most to academics and friends who are acquainted with his life and work, he has an interest in engaging “those who are not religious, and those whose religion is different than mine.” Wolterstorff claims this task is a “challenge of being particular without being parochial.” Having wrote this book in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, he is concerned with making a distinction between his “way of being religious” from the “aggressive, aggrieved, and adversarial way” he views as dominant among Christians in American public discourse. The most probable audience for Wolterstoff’s memoir will already know this difference, but the fact that he felt the need to express it demonstrates his desire to make his audience inclusive.
In writing a memoir, Wolterstorff decides not to “write the story of [his] life,” but rather “a series of vignettes” in chronological order. He focuses on moments he views as most formative of his identity and dreams–piecing them together as “scenes on a journey through the landscape of memory.” In choosing this method, Wolterstorff says this means he will not mention “famous people” he has met; it also means he will also leave out mentioning some lifelong friends—not because he does not appreciate them—but due to a need to focus the content.
Wolterstorff divides In This World of Wonders in nine parts, titled as “My People,” “Vistas,” “Yale,” “Teaching in Turbulent Times,” “Beyond Teaching,” “Awakenings,” “Living With Grief,” “Amsterdam, Church, Garden,” “Return to Yale,” and ending with “Still Vistas.” A brief preface and epilogue bookend the memoir. Wolterstorff’s reflection on why he has remained in the Reformed tradition of Christianity represents one early highlight. Whereas he acknowledges the bitter experiences of those who left the Reformed tradition, Wolterstorff has found it “life-affirming rather than life-negating. It was less about theology and getting to heaven than it was about living gratefully, joyfully, and responsibly in this world.” His teenage stories of many living room discussions around theology, politics, music, and herbicides with “home-baked sweets in abundance” and “a lot of coffee” illustrate this point well.
Throughout the latter two-thirds of In This World of Wonders, Wolterstorff offers the background which formed the arguments for his landmark books on justice, education, and aesthetics. Of note are his tales of experiencing apartheid first hand in South Africa and later his encounter with the struggle of the Palestinian people. Even as he had addressed justice in his academic life, he “had not put justice on [his] personal agenda” until these moments. Wolterstoff writes how these incidents “awakened” him to act because he heard the voices and saw the faces of the oppressed, which he interpreted as the voice of God to his conscience. Including these stories highlights a consistent theme Wolterstorff has strived for in his writings–that “Christian social action and Christian worship each requires the other for its integrity and sustenance.”
Perhaps the most moving part of In this World of Worders is Wolterstorff’s account of writing Lament For A Son, which he wrote while grieving for the sudden loss of his son, Eric, during a hiking accident. Lament For A Son has provided many readers with solace as they deal with their own grief, and Wolterstorff reminds us of the challenging journey he traversed to write it. At first, he regretted exposing so much of his raw anguish for public consumption. “Lament For A Son”, says Wolterstorff, “is not a book about Grief—it’s a cry of grief.” He notes how some critics have accused his theodicy of heterodoxy, and to these critics he found himself unable to respond because “my grief got in the way.” Wolterstorff says Lament consists of fragments interspersed with the “white space” of silence for a reason: “In the face of death, we should not talk much.” The connections Wolterstorff makes between love & lament and the tension between believing in a good God while acknowledging the reality of suffering will stay in many readers’ minds.
Readers will find Wolterstorff’s writing style crisp and demonstrative as he describes his personal experiences. When he needs to explain a concept in philosophy, his writing exhibits a tonal shift towards a more academic voice. Perhaps the transition could be more seamless, but this is a minor critique. The way Wolterstorff organized his chapters represents another critique. The pattern of personal story and pause for explanation of academic subject could be repetitive for some readers, and others may not be bothered at all.
Another minor critique is the inclusion of some vignettes which seem to drag a little long. While Wolterstorff’s passion for gardening or art is admirable, his description feels a bit copious in comparison to more compelling sections both before and after. Perhaps those who are more interested in his life outside of philosophy would feel otherwise. Wolterstorff’s thoughts on why humans collect art or love well-made furniture were more captivating than his description of the objects themselves.
Furthermore, some aspects of Wolterstorff’s life and thought may have merited further description. The last story Wolterstroff describes, for example, is a delightful account of the impact teaching prisoners about philosophy had on him. Yet, it comes across as a sudden end to this book. Only a brief page-long epilogue follows. There are some beautiful sentiments of gratitude from Wolterstorff here, but it might leave admirers of his work yearning for a more extensive coda reflective of the previous chapters.
As the major figures behind Reformed Epistemology and the Society of Christian Philosophers enter their final stages of life, memoirs like Wolterstorff’s will help clarify how this period of Christian thought in America came to be. Not every author is able to provide material to help future expositors understand their work in context with their life. For this reason, Wolterstorff’s memoir is an added gift for those who have found great wisdom in his words.
Aaron Morrison is Adjunct Professor of Ethics at the University of Southern Indiana.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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