Education as Furniture and Propellant

by Joseph Sittler

Theological education was prominent among the many interests of Lutheran scholar and theologian Joseph Sittler, who died on December 28, 1988. Following are some of his more provocative reflections on that subject, excerpted from his recent book, Gravity and Grace (Augsburg Publishing House), copyright 1986; reprinted by permission.

This article appeared in The Christian Century February 3-10, 1988, pp. 102-104. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


These provocative reflections excerpted from Joseph Sittler’s book, Gravity and Grace, (Augsburg Publishing House, copyright 1986) express with pungent language and metaphors his lover’s quarrel with higher education in general and with theological education in particular, focusing on the continuing education of clergy, college and university faculties, as well as the laity.

I am interested in education particularly from the standpoint of the deep sadness I feel when seeing students in theological declamations from the very day they are ordained. They will never know as much theology as they do in their senior year of seminary. Ten years later their general culture has been localized; their reading has been vastly diminished; their effort to understand what is going on in principal fields of inquiry -- New Testament, church history, theology-is in many cases nonexistent. In places where I have been asked to help in adult education, I have tested this observation by bluntly putting a question to the group: "How many of you have read a New Testament introduction since you left the seminary?" Fewer than 10 per cent will raise a hand.

In the ministry we somehow have the feeling that the intellectual, historical and literary part of our preparation is something that can be deposited in us, or stuffed into us, in a period of three or four years; and we presume to run a whole lifetime on the original tankful.

When suddenly I had the job dropped in my lap of teaching Christian ethics, I had never read an entire textbook on the topic, and I knew it was too late to start scrounging around through 10 or 12 such books.

So I thought of a way to make the whole process of ethical thinking concrete. I selected four or five pieces of contemporary literature having ethical problems as themes, and then dismissed the class to read. I remember I gave the students Conrad's Lord Jim, Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a series of short stories by Chekhov, Ibsen's The Master Builder and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The dramatic content of these works revolves around a moral core: a moral problem, a failure, an act of dishonor or betrayal, a vague sense of a meaningless life.

Having read the material, the students were ready to hear me talk about ethics and what canons of obedience are appropriate for the Christian message. I didn't have to spark interest in the ethical questions; that was done by the artists.

I would use the same approach for continuing education. That is, don't start off simply with lectures, but find some way to evoke the kind of question that requires a better answer than the students have received from their earlier education. For instance, why not send out reprints of a case study that concludes with an agonizing problem in medical ethics about whether to prolong life or let die. Ask, "At what point is the problem ethical, Christian? What has God got to do with the matter?" This is real education.

There are few things more futile than answering questions no one is asking. When I am called on to do two or three evenings with a group of people, whenever I know far enough ahead, I say to the inviter, "If you will have your people read a couple of things I will send you, then I will come." Otherwise, I come and am expected to be a kind of high-level entertainer. Well, I have enough debts, and my rent is steep enough that I would gladly take the money for it, but I don't feel good about it. The people are not sitting there open, precise, sharpened-up to hear someone address a pressing question.

People do not always respond as I might wish. For example, I was once asked by a group of pastors to discuss Reginald Fuller's The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives and responses to it. And I said, "I will not come unless you promise, every last one of you, to read Reginald Fuller" (this was months ahead of the event). The group inviting me had about 90 members, but only about 40 said they would read the book. (I went anyway.) However, the 40 who said they would do it -- and did -- spent a day in discussion and then wanted another. It was a real educational experience for them. I served in the capacity of ink; they were the blotter.

How can one's college years be spent in such a way that they are not a period of diminishment from religious understanding or a laming of true piety? Most students at our denominational schools have come from families in which, with greater or lesser intensity, the Christian tradition has been represented. In college a student presumably multiplies his or her person, joins the human race, moves away from a province into a great world. These are years of growth in which the individual progresses from a personally centered idea of the self into a notion of selfhood that is constituted by a vaster and profounder world than he or she knew as a child. The college years should indeed offer the opportunity for such opening outward.

Now while this growth is taking place, the whole religious tradition comes under scrutiny; in fact, it often comes under such scrutiny as leads to its rejection. Often this happens because the student's religious tradition may not seem able to keep pace in its intellectual structure with what he or she is learning in college. During such a period, what a student's intellectual maturation demands is an expanding doctrine of God. The simpler doctrine of God that is rightly and necessarily the one we learn as children remains tightly enfolded within the language, within categories that are simply incapable of filling the space of one's growing intellectual experience.

However, neither lamentation nor castigation of the students is the right way to get at the problem. The way to do that is to ask the faculty to come together to talk about theological enrichment and growth in theological discourse. In fact, these teachers were probably victims of the same circumstances during their own college years.

I meet many faculty people who, despite the enormously sophisticated research they do, are living with an adolescent or childhood notion of God, which is seemingly unable to open any discourse with their learned discipline. Therefore they simply create a compartment. On Sunday they are devout, pious Christians. During the rest of the week they are physicists, chemists, biologists or whatnot, and there is no intersection or crossover among the categories in which they live.

Fundamentally, one cannot live in this fragmented way. One may seem to bring it off. But the first result of these sealed compartments of discourse is that one's own area of specialty suffers. Second, the interior stress creates an intolerable personality tension (one which I have sensed in many of my university colleagues).

Thus the church-related college and its faculty must make conscious efforts to incorporate high-level theological study into the institution's general curriculum. For, indeed, the Christian faith is entirely capable of the ever more capacious interpretation that can parallel a student's or a teacher's expanding needs and understandings.

Wherever did we get the idea that only the "childish" is available or accessible to children? Where did we get the notion that only the absurdly reduced symbol is open to the child's imagination? We teach the children to sing "This is my Father's world," which is a good theological statement, but then we follow it up with little stories about the pansies and the kitty cats. Children can also know something beyond playthings.

Students eventually come to us at the seminary in such a riddled condition, with such an inadequate theology, because we have not thought the growing child's mind capable of including larger references to the meaning of the Word of God and the church.

Our humane education has shriveled under the pressure of our bureaucratic obligations. Our humanity itself becomes bureaucratized, routinized. This shrinkage of our educated and clerical humanity is one of the most discouraging aspects of my life. It is not that I expect the clergy to become theologians in the professional sense, though every ordained one should be a theologian. Nor do I expect them to be great scholars. But I do expect them to be alive human beings; and I do not find this aliveness in proper intensity among many of today's improperly educated clergy.

When I refer to intellectual content, I do not mean big words. For example, consider St. Augustine's sentence, "Thou has made us for thyself, 0 Lord; and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." That is not incomprehensible to anyone. But how many preachers might reach or explore the depths of it with the common people? I preach to congregations of working people as much as I do to those at colleges and universities. And I preach the same sermons. I might use illustrative material that is more appropriate and intelligible and evocative here than there, but the content of the thought is the same. By intellectual I do not mean abstract, multi syllabic, cerebrally impenetrable. I mean reflective -- articulating the way something is. That can actually be done very simply.

If you ask me what makes a good teacher, I can tell you that he or she gives off the notion, "What I'm talking about is enormously important and alluring and exciting, and I wish you knew more about it." When that happens in a classroom, there is something worthwhile going on.

I remember a great, great teacher I once knew. He was a little, wispy, absentminded fellow who taught Romantic and Victorian poetry. The rest of the faculty regarded him as somewhat odd, and he was. He was so wrapped up in 19th-century pastoral poetry that he didn't pay much attention to grades. Therefore all the football players took his courses.

One day I sat in on one of his classes. At the end of the period, the professor said, in his soft voice, "Next Friday, gentlemen, you will have read when you come to my class, 'The Intimations of Immortality,' by Wordsworth. I wish you to come with your minds gloriously adorned." The funny thing was that those hulking, generally not-too-bright football players made the effort. For the man took the students more seriously than they took themselves. He didn't see why a fellow who was a tackle on Saturday shouldn't love Wordsworth. He invested his students with his confidence and the possibility that Wordsworth is every person's possession. This is teaching at its best.

College faculty should be educated persons. This is often not the case. Many of them are trained -- not educated. You can train dogs to jump, and you can train people to report what is going on in chemistry and transmit that information. But education means training the mind to unfold to the multiple facets of human existence with some appreciation, eagerness and joy. It is, in essence, the opposite of being dull. We've got plenty of trained, dull people on our faculties, but not many educated people.