Excerpt: 'In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning'

To close the final chapter of his new memoir, renowned philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff tells how he became a student while discussing his own book with prison inmates.

The most moving teaching experience of my entire life occurred during the spring of 2016. The main campus of Calvin College and Calvin Seminary is the Knollcrest campus, located in southeastern Grand Rapids. A few years ago, the college and seminary together established a second campus, this one in Handlon State Prison for Men, located outside Ionia, Michigan, about twenty-five miles east of Grand Rapids. The Handlon campus, like the Knollcrest campus, offers an accredited baccalaureate degree. Prisoners from around the state can apply for admission to the program, and twenty new students are accepted per year. The courses are taught by professors from the college and seminary and are, for the most part, the same as courses taught on the Knollcrest campus. I was moved when I learned that one of [my son] Eric’s closest friends in college, John Rottman, now a professor at Calvin Seminary, was one of the initiators of the program.

Kevin Corcoran, a member of the philosophy department at Calvin, was teaching his Introduction to Philosophy course in Handlon Prison during the spring of 2016. For some years he has included my book “Lament for a Son” in the syllabus for his course. As they were discussing “Lament” in the prison class, Kevin happened to mention that he knew me and that I lived in Grand Rapids. The men in the class brought up the idea of inviting me to visit their class. So Kevin invited me, and I accepted.

The director of the Calvin program, Todd Cioffi, drove me to the prison, explaining the program as we drove and remarking that, to avoid church-state problems, Calvin had paid for decorating and furnishing the room the prison assigned them. After much paper shuffling at the front desk, I was admitted into the prison, and Todd led me to the classroom. I was immediately struck by how ample it was and how beautifully furnished -- far more beautifully furnished than any classroom I had known on the Knollcrest campus. There was a lot of wood: wood trim, and wooden desks and chairs that had been made, and beautifully finished, in the prison workshop. Off to one side was an alcove for the library, and it, too, was beautifully finished. The entire ensemble spoke of dignity. Here, in this room at least, these men were not being warehoused.

What happened next brought tears to my eyes. The twenty men in the class -- later I learned that seventeen of them were in prison for life -- all had copies of “Lament,” and they lined up for me to sign their copies. As I was signing their copies they would say, “We are so honored, professor, that you have come to visit our class.” Never before had students told me that they were honored by my presence in their classroom! Sometimes, when I am introduced as speaker, the person introducing me declares pro forma that the group is honored to have me as its speaker that evening. I take that to mean something like, “It's a feather in our cap that Professor W. accepted our invitation to speak.” These prisoners were not saying it was a feather in their cap that I had shown up.

They -- who were daily demeaned, forced to knuckle under, and ordered around -- were saying that my presence honored them, declared that they were not worthless scum, declared that they possessed honor. At any rate, that was what I understood them to be saying. I do not tear up when someone introducing me declares that the group is “honored” by my acceptance of their invitation to speak. I did tear up when these men declared that they were honored that I had come to visit their class.

After Kevin introduced me, I said a few words about how I came to write the book, and then opened it up for discussion. I had never before discussed “Lament” in a class. Every now and then I hear about its being discussed in some college or seminary course, but I have never been asked to participate in those discussions, and I wouldn't want to. I imagine that, when the book is discussed in a regular college or seminary course, the teacher poses to the class questions like: “What is Wolterstorff's understanding of grief?” “Does that understanding seem correct to you?” “What is the author's theology in the book?” “Do you agree with that theology?” I would find it impossible to participate in such discussions.

That is not how the discussion went in Handlon Prison. The men in the class were themselves in grief -- most of them not over the death of a child but over the ruin they had wreaked on their own lives and the lives of others. They were reading the book not so much as my expression of my grief but as an expression of their grief, similar to the way in which we use the words of the Psalms to pray our own prayers. They would turn to a passage, read it aloud, and explain how the words spoke for them. They were amazingly open, more open than students in any other college class I have ever taught. Some described the crime they had committed; several spoke of how they had destroyed their relationships with the people they loved. Their comments were articulate, emotionally intense, suffused by life experience, eloquent. They offered interpretations of my words that had never occurred to me. I was the student that day -- they were the teachers.

I felt profoundly my common humanity with these men. Yes, I was a professor who had never spent a day of his life behind bars, and they were prisoners, mostly lifers. But we were in this together, reading the text, discussing the text, sharing our grief. I felt more connected with these “lifers” than I have ever felt connected with eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old college students.

At some point the feeling washed over me: What a terrible waste of life! Yes, these men have committed serious crimes and deserve to be punished. But isn't there some alternative to locking them up for life? Must human lives be wasted in this way?

When the class session was over, they lined up to shake my hand, and they again said how honored they were that I had come to visit their class. As the last few filed past, I said what I felt but had not, until then, been able to put into words: They had honored me.

From the book In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning (Eerdmans, 2019), by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.