Joseph Sittler and the Theater of Human Existence

by Linda-Marie Delloff

Dr. Delloff is managing editor of The Christian Century and has had experience with the White House and the United Nations on Aging.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1984 p. 113. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There is no reason why preparation for parish ministry should not be taught by people who have been trained in and who exhibit the soundest scholarship.

Lutheran scholar Joseph Sittler, now nearly 80, is widely considered to be one of the era’s most distinguished -- and best-loved -- theological educators. Those who have been his students, themselves now noted teachers, preachers and scholars, pay homage to his singular ability to relate the academy to the parish -- and to the wider culture. There are few figures of his generation who have so purposefully yet so gracefully passed among those three spheres of endeavor. Nor has this activity ceased during the years of his “retirement.” Since he became emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1973, after teaching there for 17 years, Sittler has been scholar in residence at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Not that he is always “resident” -- for, despite his near-total blindness, he continues his travels for speaking engagements. He keeps well informed through tapes and the services of a reader.

This is the Century’s centennial year, and Sittler has been an important figure in the ecumenical tradition and the cultural orientation which have always characterized this journal’s identity. Thus we decided to seek out this Lutheran sage’s views on the current state of theological education.


Joseph Sittler did not have the type of formal graduate education that he has become an expert at providing for others. When he was a college student at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, he had three main interests: literature, history and biology. The latter was, in fact, his major -- and he intended to become a physician like his older brother. He frequently attended that brother when he delivered babies in the poor sections of nearby Columbus: “We would always take a copy of the New York Times with us because it had more pages in it than any other paper, and because newsprint, due to the heat used in processing it, is fairly sterile. I would simply lay the Times pages all over these hovels . . .” and deliver the babies.

It was through this experience that Sittler began to have doubts about his chosen career -- not because of the depressing poverty he witnessed, but because at that time “if you were going to be a doctor, you couldn’t possibly keep up your interest in anything else: the demands of reading and work as a physician meant that you couldn’t maintain a deep interest in literature and history.”

Having reached this conclusion by the time of his graduation -- but not having defined an alternative career -- Sittler decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter seminary. This he did at Hamma Divinity School in Springfield. According to Sittler, there was one remarkable teacher on the faculty -- Leipzig-trained John Evjen (later fired for his liberal views) -- who was so inspiring that he awakened in his young student a whole new set of interests. “When I got into the seminary, I found out that the studies in biblical language, church history, Christian theology and liturgy were fascinating.”

Sittler became a leader of a group of fairly radical young Lutherans -- mostly Evjen’s students -- in Ohio, and he did further theological study at Oberlin under Walter Marshall Horton, and at Case Western Reserve with Max Fisch. From that time on, Sittler educated himself through extensive reading and through dialogue with experts on various topics. “I was ordained in 1930. It was utterly impossible during that decade to afford graduate school. The Depression was absolute, you know.”

His own lack of advanced formal training is one factor in Sittler’s continued great interest in the field -- and he has many ideas concerning the successes and failures of current theological education.

“Let’s start with what’s right,” he begins: “Most institutions devoted to theological education today are introducing their students, either through carefully structured curricula or in field work, to the increasingly urban settings of the actual parishes. There is nothing new about this, but I think the care with which that intention is built into the planning of faculties and curricula is each year getting more expert, so that we don’t just sort of splash the students through the city but get them to know more about specific aspects of contemporary urban culture, at the hands of and through the mouths of people who are the children of that culture. That, I think, is right because it simply makes practical sense. The people to whom the church addresses its invitation are now primarily urban people.

“That approach, however, is but an aspect of the second and more profoundly right thing: what Johannes Metz has called the theology of the subject; that is, the enhancing of the dialectical relationship between the God who is the object of theological reflection and the persons who are its subjects. The joining of these is realty the fulfillment of Schleiermacher’ s program. It is the deepest internal theological program -- and while it always teeters on the edge of making theology a primarily subjective experience, we have to run the risk of a careless subjectivity in order to keep that dialogue balanced. This line of thought is not new; it is in its second century now, but such a book as Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology illustrates how rich -- when combined with objective, disinterested. sound biblical scholarship -- this approach may be.”

Such a focus will lead eventually, thinks Sittler, “to both an honoring of and a renovation of the whole theological vocabulary.” However, if the renovation takes place without the honoring, it will become trivial. . . . It’s a hundred years now since the search for the historical Jesus has indeed proven, as Norman Perrin said, to be a futile search in purely historical results, or hopes. It has nevertheless disclosed the strength, the uniqueness, the incomparable challenge of the reports about Jesus, so that the figure of the New Testament Jesus emerges mysterious but powerful for the contemporary mind.

“Now, that means that the way this mystery and this power were related backward to the whole of history fashioned a kind of theological vocabulary of messianic kingship, sonship and kingdomship. We must now reexamine these concepts in order to reinvest them with substance which more clearly intersects the nature of evil and the loss of meaning in contemporary life. If you sweep away everything with which our fathers invested their search, you will trivialize. If you don’t sweep it away, you will make the language less and less alluring.”

In terms of the actual classroom situation, Sittler thinks that both teachers and students are now more open to new ways of thinking than they have been in recent years. “Both students and teachers have had their fingers burned by the banality of new theologies seeking to operate without a historical foundation.

“I think in many cases the movement to evoke and unwrap all theological truths from the quest for personal spirituality is narrow -- first in that what is meant by spirituality bears the marks of the anxieties of recent years. Further, it ignores the vast spiritual literature of our history. I think the movement is blowing up because it’s not going anywhere, because spirituality is rifling around in pure inwardness, which has not been enriched by the inherited classical works of the centuries.”

When asked what is making students today more interested in those classics, Sittler replies characteristically. “I’m going to go ‘way out on a limb, and if I’m wrong, I’m blazingly wrong; but one must take chances. I think the political and social disenchantments of the ‘70s have chastened the minds of this generation, so that they know they must not be fixated by the moment. They’re not going to hitch their expectations to the febrility of revolutionary changes which students hoped for 15 years ago -- changes that haven’t come along.”

In this context, the surrounding secular culture has played an important role. “I think social and political sophistication, the modifying of our expectations according to experience, is also shaping minds that are willing to take a new look at the old dogmas, doctrines and liturgies which were given a vehement heave-ho in the excitement of the ‘60s.”

These same years have brought to the fore much of what Sittler thinks is wrong with theological education today. He locates one basic problem not with the schools but with the churches that send their ministry candidates to those schools. “There are certain expectations of contemporary theological education which the schools have got to fight against. One of these, generated by the church, is that the pastor is to be a combination of master of ceremonies and soothing friend. The schools, despite the integrity of their own intentions, the appropriate preparation that they demand of their faculties, and the desire to do the hard and critical work, are expected to turn out students who ‘meet the approval of the church accrediting committee.’”

Sittler does not place much faith in the churches to alter their expectations independently; rather, he thinks, the schools must resist these trends -- and might, in fact, attempt to engage in some lay education to bring these expectations under criticism.

In another problematic area of theological education, however, Sittler places blame directly on the schools: the proliferation of academically dubious professional degrees. For example, he labels many current D. Min. programs “banal at best, absurd and fraudulent at worst.” He continues, “It’s a program for which you get an academic degree for the reported exercise of common horse sense. ‘The history of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in the creation of a new educational system . . . or new educational building.’ They give you the dimensions of all the rooms, who the architect was, and so on. . . .

“I think we ought to have a good MA. program for people who want to do serious advanced work in theological studies. They could take one day a week Out of their parish duties and come and study: preaching, church history, no matter what. There’s a place for continuing education, but it should be academically demanding. . . The master’s degree is really a degree for the continuing renovation of competence -- though it’s not a research degree.”

And the D. Min. degree, he thinks, exists simply so that the recipients can redo their church letterheads. He thoroughly disapproves of such overcredentialization and castigates schools that go along with this trend -- some of them solely to bring in more tuition dollars, or to create new cadres of loyal degree-bearers who might later aid the institution financially or in some other way.

Sittler thinks, further, that schools should determine exactly what their specific purposes and strengths are -- and not stray from them. For example, he argues that the schools with primarily a scholarship/research orientation (he cites his own former employer, the University of Chicago Divinity School) “ought not to touch the parish. They should have nothing to do with the training of pastors and preachers. That’s not their best contribution to knowledge, nor, in the long run, to the church.”

On the other hand, he continues, “That does not mean that a school which is interested in the preparation of persons seeking ordination is to invite or practice bad scholarship -- by no means. There is no reason why the preparation for parish ministry should not be taught by people who have been trained in and who exhibit the soundest scholarship.”

The most important point, says Sittler, is to keep the two goals -- scholarship and preparation for the ministry --  distinct, so that each school can accomplish its defined task as consistently as possible.

In addition to “overcredentialization,” “fradulent degrees” and misapplied emphasis, another fault that Sittler finds in current educational practice concerns the overspecialization of students, although he grants the often grim necessity of the latter in seeking employment.

Of the Ph.D. degree he notes that students, while pursuing a doctorate, are often compelled to leave by the wayside the broader implications of their studies. Later they may say, “‘I’ve got the damn diploma, now let’s get educated.’ That’s an awful thing to say about the nature of graduate study, but I’m afraid it’s true. You set aside the humane end of education in order to acquire enough skill to get a job. Then, having got the job (if you can) you say, ‘Now let me learn something about what’s humanly important. ’” In many cases, however, that transition never takes place, says Sittler. “Many specialists remain only that.”

This situation can be remedied in part by introducing courses from other disciplines into the religion curriculum. Sittler has long been an advocate of interdisciplinary endeavors and has an abiding interest, especially, in the interrelation of religion and the arts. His particular regard for poetry and architecture consistently finds its way into his speeches and sermons. Currently he is re-examining the Greek tragedies.

Sittler’s other preferences in methods of theological education reflect this broad-based cultural orientation. For example, in discussing how to teach preaching (if that is indeed possible), he states, “If you’re going to teach people to preach in a way that serves the truth and the faith of the church, several thinks are crucial. Students must [do] basic work in language and in the critical-historical examination of the Holy Scriptures and of church doctrine. In addition, one must maintain wide exposure to one’s surrounding culture. These requirements are absolute.”

This theme of “getting back to basics” is one of Sittler’s favorites. In fact, when asked what one word of advice he would give to current theological education students, he replies, “Master the classical texts. They will generate energy and demands for relationship,” thereby leading to further development of one’s knowledge and skills. And he doesn’t mean just the classical theological texts, but those in other fields including literature, history and the natural sciences.

Currently he is especially concerned with the latter. “It may well be that the most illuminating focal point for the coming generation of theological students will be some precise knowledge of the methods and projections with which the natural sciences operate. If you want to talk about God and the world, you had better have some clear understanding of what kind of cosmos constitutes the theater of human existence. All my theological notions are shaken by the work of the cosmologists. Our solar system is only a speck in the cosmos, and, as the scientists tell us, will most certainly not last forever. What about when our earth is gone? We define God absolutely in accord with our anthropological view, but what will concepts of sin and redemption mean without our own presence?

“To do one’s daily work with care, and at the some time to be aware of the haunting truth of the inevitable annihilation of our earth, is an operation both disturbing and deepening. To keep up on the new work in the Gospel of Mark and take seriously scientist Robert Jastrow’s Until the Sun Dies ,for example, requires a balancing adroitness which is both demanding and expanding.”

Those who know Sittler point to him as one of the best exemplars of his own advice. They know that in addition to the fields just mentioned, he is fascinated by music, by machinery and the manual arts, by the epical nature of baseball, by ships and the ocean. (He has expressed the wish to be, above anything else, “the captain of a fine sailing vessel.’’) All of these areas he sees as interrelated and as aspects of an organic whole. There is no compartmentalization in his thought. “You know,” he says, “I simply cannot draw a line around the subject matter of theology. The subject matter is discourse about God: theos logos. What isn’t? That’s what Euripides was writing about: whatever is, permanent, fundamental, at the center, absolute. All of it is discourse about God. I can’t think of anything that is not. There’s no time when I say, ‘Now I’m going to think theologically.’ I don’t think any other way.”