You can also download this free on iTunes U.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is an eminent American philosophical theologian, writing on such topics as art, Scripture, philosophy of religion and suffering. In 2007, he published %u201CJustice: Rights and Wrongs,%u201D the first volume of a planned two-volume work on justice.
He is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School and taught previously at the Free University in the Netherlands and at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. A member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, he currently serves as a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
Wolterstorff spoke with Faith & Leadership about vibrant institutions, the necessity for Christian institutions to hear the voices and see the faces of those who suffer, and what he learned from his craftsman grandfather and father about how to do philosophy.
The audio clip is an excerpt from the following edited interview.
Q: You%u2019ve written about Christian colleges as institutions that ought to educate for shalom. Why is it important that schools aren%u2019t merely academic but that they contribute to the flourishing of communities around them?
As a young professor at Calvin, I was involved in curricular studies. About two years after I got there, I proposed that the entire curriculum should be revised. I%u2019m astonished to this day that the senior people didn%u2019t just silence this brash newcomer. Instead I became head of a curricular revision committee. It became important for me to figure out what holds a curriculum together. You%u2019ve got sciences and arts and my own passion, justice. What holds it all together? It eventually became clear to me that there is a biblical category of flourishing, of shalom. [It is] %u201Cpeace%u201D in the New Testament, but eirene in Greek is a pretty weak translation of what the Old Testament means by shalom. It means flourishing.
That%u2019s what a Christian college should be about. Not just planting thoughts in people%u2019s heads and getting them into professional positions but flourishing, in all its dimensions.
Q: Is that a model that churches and other Christian institutions besides colleges can also aim for?
Absolutely. When the Scriptures talk about love, commanding %u201Clove your neighbor as yourself,%u201D you may ask, %u201CWell, what%u2019s the goal of this? What%u2019s it after?%u201D It seems to me it seeks the flourishing of your fellow human beings in all dimensions. I had various personal interests: art, justice and so forth. I had to ask how I was going to integrate them. It seemed to me that the category that unites these instead of splitting them apart is the category of shalom. That%u2019s what the gospel is about: how humankind can flourish.
Q: Why is it important that leaders of institutions, who can live pretty sheltered lives, ought to go out of their way to be in touch with humans who suffer?
So, a crucial part of shalom, then, is -- and of seeking shalom -- is justice. You can%u2019t have shalom without justice. I mean, you may con people into thinking that they%u2019re doing okay and so forth but whether they%u2019re conned or not, if they%u2019re suffering from injustice, if they%u2019re being wronged, this is not true shalom. So a crucial part of what Christian institutions should care about in teaching their students and parishioners and so forth to seek shalom is to be alert to the ways in which their neighbors and humankind in general are being wronged, and that%u2019s justice.
So, given that I was sort of plunged into two important issues of justice, being sent to South Africa well before the revolution occurred and getting involved with the Palestinians, and these were eye openers. They were in a classic Protestant sense. They came to me as a call from God. So I had to reflect, then, on why I had been relatively unconcerned with this before, these two situations and others, and why other human beings were, and then it became clear to me that what had happened in my case is that I had read about South Africa and I had read about the Middle East but it was being confronted with the faces and the voices of the suffering. That%u2019s what I found profoundly altering.
And I think that%u2019s true for all of us. It remains an abstraction by and large. Television can help. The pictures of Haiti and so forth are far more effective than just the print in the newspapers. So if a Christian institution, then, is really to seek justice, it has to somehow find a way to have those voices and see those faces, either by going there or having them come to you or whatever.
Q: I%u2019m struck by the Reformed tradition%u2019s particular gift of being articulate about institutions: why they should be founded and tended and what good they bear in the world.
I think that is true. I%u2019m not exactly sure why it%u2019s true, but the Reformed tradition certainly has always had a more institutional character to it than just individuals. I was reared to think of the church and not just a bunch of Christian people getting together. The health of institutions -- educational institutions, ecclesiastical institutions, institutions of all sorts -- has been a crucial part of the tradition.