Eyes Open to the World: PW Talks to Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff (Lament for a Son, Hearing the Call), who at age 87 is currently Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, reflects on his childhood in Minnesota, his education at Calvin College and Harvard University, and the experiences—including the death of his son and witnessing South African apartheid and Palestinian oppression—that shaped his life in his new book, In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning (Eerdmans, Jan.).

Why were you, as you say in the preface, “reluctant” to write this book?

The reluctance was twofold. First, I was brought up in a Dutch Reformed immigrant culture in Minnesota, and both Dutch culture and immigrant culture conspire to say you should never talk about yourself. Second, my adult life has been the life of a philosopher—reading philosophy, writing philosophy. Really gripping stuff, right? So it was not on my agenda to write a memoir. But I had friends who kept urging me. And then it occurred to me that I didn’t have to write it as the story of my life but could do vignettes that highlight certain episodes. And when I actually got into it, I enjoyed it. It was fun.

What is different about this book as opposed to your others?

My other books have an audience of philosophers, but with this book it was less about addressing an audience and more about recalling these vignettes from my life. I want my fellow philosophers to read it, obviously. But I want other people to read it as well, people who might have some interest in a certain kind of life. So my challenge was to make the philosophical sections accessible to non-philosophical people, while not boring the philosophers. That’s a very fine line to walk.

Can you talk more about your role as a Christian philosopher?

A good many American Christians in the present context have become very belligerent and angry, and every now and then I bump up against those who were sort of reared to be anti-intellectual, who believe that cultural enterprises such as art, music, and philosophy are to be avoided, and who believe that contact with other religions should be aimed at conversion rather than cooperation and dialogue. I want to show people that a Christian should not be a world denier but should be open to the world. That culture is to be engaged, not avoided. That one should work side-by-side with those of other faiths or no faith. I hope that what comes through in this book is a picture of a Christian who is not angry, but instead grateful. A Christian whose eyes are open to the world—to Scandinavian furniture, to things in my garden, to sedge grasses on my land.

What do you hope readers take away from your story?

I hope they take away two things. The first is that a life in philosophy can also be a life engaged with the world, with beauty, with justice, and with other people. I want them to come away with a less otherworldly image of philosophy. The second is a sense of my gratitude for the life I’ve been offered to live. That was my goal with the title, to keep the reader in this world of wonder, to hope that my sense of gratitude inspires a corresponding gratitude.

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