Nick Wolterstorff, Magister


by David E. Timmer

After nearly forty years, the memory is still vivid. Nicholas Wolterstorff was delivering an address at the first Conference on Christianity and Politics, held at Calvin College in 1973. His topic, “Contemporary Christian Views of the State,” was one that held great salience for an audience of evangelical academics and activists in the wake of a wounding war and a divisive presidential campaign. As a college senior, I found myself drawn to the ferment that would soon produce the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, Evangelicals for Social Action, and Sojourners magazine. There were a lot of heavy hitters in the auditorium. Nick’s lecture had been much anticipated, even though his scholarly reputation to that point was based on his highly technical work in the field of philosophical ontology.

Nick had spent the first half of the lecture calmly and methodically contrasting two views of the scope of governmental power: one that made the state responsible for the provision of social welfare at the risk of a slippery slope to totalitarianism, and another that strictly limited the state to protection of individual freedoms even at the cost of ignoring social injustice. “Some of us,” he summarized, “cannot ignore the cry for social justice so we put up with the evils of the comprehensive servicestate. Some of us cannot ignore the evils of the comprehensive service-state so we put up with the absence of justice. That is our agony. Is there no escape?” There followed a brief but dramatic pause, during which an audible shiver swept the audience, followed by a gale of nervous laughter. Then Nick’s reassuring resumption: “There is, I am convinced…”

I recall thinking, “So that’s what the term ‘magisterial’ means!”

Nick had certainly been my magister during the previous four years, serving as my teacher both in the classroom and beyond it. Calvin College was a place where the philosophy department, of all things, was red hot. Its professors published books, and the books got talked about in the wider academic world. But they also taught freshman courses, wrote for student publications, and generally mixed it up with the undergraduates. The departmental ethos was bracingly cosmopolitan and, at the same time, reassuringly local. Nick modeled that combination. In the late sixties he had chaired the committee that produced Calvin’s new core curriculum, and his fingerprints were all over its report, Christian Liberal Arts Education. More recently he had weighed in on controversial issues around faculty governance and student autonomy. Always his message was, well, that of an ontologist: avoid ad hoc solutions and trendy gimmicks, identify fundamental principles, and work out policies from that center.

My first course with Nick was, in fact, Ontology; we used his book On Universals, fresh from the University of Chicago Press, as the course text. It was a challenging experience. Written in the uncompromising idiom of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, the book’s prose was so transparent as to be practically invisible. No political asides, no pop cultural references, no existential fear and trembling; just page after page of meticulous, abstract argumentation yielding modest but solid results. If any of us had dared to ask what all of this was for, Nick would no doubt have responded, “First let’s see what is the case; then we’ll figure out what we can do with it.” Relevance, schmelevance. Disinterested scholarship required qualities of patience and Zen-like detachment from the fruits of effort that was, within the politicized and countercultural setting of the early seventies, somewhat countercountercultural.

Of course, I already knew that Nick was no mere ivory-tower intellectual, disengaged from the issues that roiled my generation. In a steady stream of articles and editorials for the Reformed Journal, which I read during breaks from my work-study job in Calvin’s library, Nick had been addressing an impressive array of those issues: the Vietnam War, race relations, prison reform, patriotism, George McGovern and Richard Nixon. He also held forth on matters of specific concern to his denomination: Christian schools and public funding, the nature of biblical authority, church architecture and liturgy. In retrospect, one might discern the emerging pattern of his scholarly work in epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, and political philosophy in this apparent grab-bag of particular concerns. At the time, I wasn’t always sure that I could see the connections.

What helped me was getting to know Nick outside of the classroom. Nick opened his home to students in his upper-level seminars. I recall my first impression of the house itself, which he had designed; and the furniture, much of which he had built. He introduced us to the art of Sadao Watanabe and to the music of Olivier Messiaen. And he introduced us to his wife, Claire, magna magistra in her own right, who would soon become a confidante and counselor for me as I navigated the shoals of early adulthood. Nick’s life and his family projected qualities of wholeness and purpose that had great attraction for a young person facing the widening cultural gyre of the early seventies.

I was able to see those qualities expressed in a wider context of Christian community as well. Nick and Claire were part of a group that met Sunday evenings on Calvin’s old Franklin Street campus for an “alternative worship” experience. Dubbed the “Fellowship of Acts,” the group embodied a spirit of improvisation and communal fervor that we identified with the early church. Over the first few years we ran the whole gamut of liturgical experimentation (conga lines, anyone?); but we were slowly gravitating toward a rediscovery of the rich worship traditions of historic ecumenical Christianity. And Nick was instrumental in helping us to understand that our embrace of this tradition–weekly communion, liturgies linked to the church year, strong lay participation, a rich but restrained musical and artistic sensibility–was not a departure from the Reformed ethos but rather a recovery of its roots. Eventually this group became a congregation within the Christian Reformed Church, known as the Church of the Servant. COS was by no means dominated by Nick; it had far too many assertive personalities to be in anybody’s pocket. But his ideas about the church’s worship, polity, and mission were touchstones for many of us then, and have remained so ever since. I remember equally his willingness to entertain others’ ideas, even those of callow college students, and to make them part of the congregation’s ongoing process of discernment.

I left Grand Rapids in 1974 to pursue graduate work in theology at Notre Dame. But I saw Nick frequently back in Grand Rapids, and also in South Bend, since he held a visiting professorship in philosophy at Notre Dame. So I was able to keep abreast of his developing ideas and interests, particularly his focus on justice concerns in South Africa and the Middle East. But after I decamped to Pella, Iowa, to teach at Central College, our contact was more sporadic. So it was at a distance that I heard of the death of Nick’s son Eric in a mountain climbing accident in 1983, just a few months after the birth of my own son Nick.

When his book Lament for a Son was published four years later, I read it with astonishment and gratitude. The voice I heard there was clearly Nick’s, but now in a different register–personal, vulnerable, searing. No universals here; instead, the very particular inscape of this loss and grief was offered as a gift to those who have sat, or will sit, on the mourners’ bench. And who of us will not? But if it is a lament, it is one born of faith in a God who suffers with us. “It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live,” Nick wrote. “I always thought this meant no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.”

Twenty-five years have elapsed since those words appeared in print. Nick has gone on to his post at Yale Divinity School, and thence to a prodigiously productive “retirement”; Claire has realized her pastoral gifts as an Episcopal priest and spiritual director. There is much that I don’t know about their lives during these recent years. Yet Nick’s magisterial mien remains: his gladness to learn and to teach, his fidelity both to the discipline of philosophy and to the perspective of faith, and his engagement of mind and heart in the renewal of creation.

Along with many others, I have been privileged to know Nick Wolterstorff in many roles: professor and prophet, mentor and mourner, above all friend and fellow believer. I remain grateful for the witness of a great teacher, lived before the face of God and in the company of the saints.

David E. Timmer teaches religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa, where he chairs the philosophy and religion department.