To a large extent, Joseph Sittler was a theologian of his time and place. While his reputation as an academic theologian is not sufficient to place him among the giants of 20th-century theology (in the manner of, say, Barth, Tillich, Rahner, or von Balthasar), his life and work do serve to reflect many of the issues that defined the 20th-century North American church scene. His first book, The Doctrine of the Word, was published in 1948 as inherited notions of biblical inerrancy prevalent in North American circles were beginning to strain under the pressures of historical biblical criticism, emerging scientific consensus, and the sense that adherence to doctrines of inerrancy were producing a kind of spiritual aridity in theology and church practice. His assertion that the “word” of God cannot be reduced to the text of scripture, and that scripture is spiritually rich despite its not being completely factual, was disturbing to large sectors of the Lutheran world even as it corresponded well with emerging trends in liberal and neo-orthodox theology. Later, his extensive work with the World Council of Churches (which he often referred to as his “graduate school” in theology, having never finished a doctorate himself) coincided with the heyday of ecumenical optimism in the later 20th century. Meanwhile, his early insistence upon the need to rethink issues of nature and grace in light of a growing consciousness of our responsibility to the environment, while predating public consciousness of ecological issues by nearly a decade, would become informative for a whole generation of “ecological” theologians by the century’s end.
In articulating a given theological theme, he was as likely to cite Melville, Whitman, or Joseph Conrad as he was to appeal to Barth or Schleiermacher.
In other respects, though, Sittler was an odd enough fit in the 20th century that we might risk cliché and describe him as a thinker ahead of his time. While most of the aforementioned work took place amidst the heyday of liberal Protestant Christendom in the United States, Sittler very much saw ahead to a time when the “mainline” would wane, at least in terms of prestige and cultural influence. Indeed, he was vexed by what he saw as the banality that resulted when the church traded the historic thickness of its liturgical and spiritual heritage for fleeting “relevance” within popular culture. That said, he was also strikingly willing to rethink key tenets of the Christian faith in light of insights from contemporary science, literature, film, and philosophy. And his tools for such work were sporadic borrowings from a host of theological currents without any consequent indebtedness to any of them; for instance, even though he taught in the heart of “Chicago-school” process and empirical theology, he casually appropriated what he liked from those methods without ever feeling the need to fully commit himself to their limitations. In articulating a given theological theme, he was as likely to cite Melville, Whitman, or Joseph Conrad as he was to appeal to Barth or Schleiermacher. Such eclecticism might be a given in our own day, but it was a novelty in his setting.
To borrow an old term, Sittler was a “churchman” through and through — but, he was a churchman who wanted the church to always shape its proclamation in ways that would speak in nimble and mutable fashion to the large trajectories of human endeavor on display in his time. And the trajectories that began in Sittler’s time have continued in ours, but with even more profound twists and turns than what Sittler himself might have anticipated. His work against biblical literalism — which he saw as a fight to keep “good poetry from turning into bad science” — has become even more significant as Lutheranism continues to grapple with the growth of evangelical/fundamentalist strands of Christianity in the United States. His assertions that, at any given point in human history, the fine arts (literature, film, poetry, etc.) and NOT theology or sermons might be speaking more effectively to the pathos of the human condition take on deep resonance now, when growing numbers of North Americans turn away from churches and towards movie theaters and the Internet in order to find meaningful discourse on the ambiguities of life in a postmodern age.1 And, perhaps most significantly, his “ecological” insistence that Christians needed to rethink such fundamental theological themes as “nature” and “grace,” not ONLY to address the gathering ecological crisis but also to proclaim the gospel to a humanity now capable of shaping its environment in unprecedented ways, becomes more prophetic with each passing day.
In order for the church’s proclamation to create true unity, it must expand the scope of its proclamation of Christ’s redemption beyond the churches and out into the scope of all of creation itself.
Sittler’s most famous writing, his 1961 “Called to Unity” speech at the World Council of Churches General Assembly in New Delhi, showcases his theological style2 in unique ways. In tackling a characteristically 20th-century ecumenical problem — how might the Christian churches foster greater unity among themselves? — Sittler subverts the issue by expanding it dramatically.3 To unite the churches based solely on their internal theological resources is impossible, he claims, because it is not a lofty enough goal. In order for the church’s proclamation to create true unity, it must expand the scope of its proclamation of Christ’s redemption beyond the churches and out into the scope of all of creation itself. However, such proclamation does not require completely new and innovative theological strategies, but rather a willingness to revisit and reclaim “paths not taken” in Western Christianity — in this case, strands of cosmic Christology present in Irenaeus and other Eastern Christian thinkers. Such a cosmic Christology has the potential to promote the unity of the churches precisely as the ethical vanguard of the unity forged by Christ’s redemptive action across all of creation. As Sittler puts it at a key moment in the address:
The address of Christian thought is most weak precisely where man’s ache is most strong. We have had, and have, a Christology of the moral soul, a Christology of history, and, if not a Christology of the ontic, affirmations so huge as to fill the space marked out by ontological questions. But we do not have, at least not in such effective force as to have engaged the thought of the common life, a daring, penetrating, life-affirming Christology of nature. The theological magnificence of cosmic Christology lies, for the most part, still tightly folded in the Church’s innermost heart and memory… For it is true of us all that the imperial vision of Christ as coherent in ta panta [“all things”] has not broken open the powers of grace to diagnose, judge, and heal the ways of men as they blasphemously strut about this hurt and threatened world as if they owned it.4
A Christology that views the arc of redemption in as wide a scope as the arc of creation not only has the power to address Christological thought to humanity’s contemporary sense of the universe’s vast scope; it also has the ethical force to challenge humanity — Christians first and foremost — to care for creation AS IF it too is the site of God’s redemption, and not simply a disposable backdrop against which the drama of human salvation plays itself out in history. Such a Christology unites proclamation and ethics in a thoroughly grounded fashion.
A theology that has ta panta as its scope will not be parochial or afraid of insights from other disciplines.
I highlight this key moment in Sittler’s work because it so nicely exemplifies his theological style. He is arguing that foundational theological themes — nature, grace, creation, redemption — need to be rethought in light of the contemporary situation (in this case, both the ecological crisis and the growing plasticity of the natural environment to human technological interventions). However, such rethinking proceeds on the basis, not of wholesale theological innovation, but rather recapturing heretofore submerged themes of the Christian tradition. Such themes are particularly useful to the extent that they outflank those aspects of the Western medieval, Reformation, and Enlightenment legacies that have proven to be incapable of remaining compelling in our own day. What emerges from this sort of thinking is a kind of fragmentary, ever-provisional post-Enlightenment theology that is conversant across time and disciplines (particularly in relation to science and aesthetics). A theology that has ta panta as its scope will not be parochial or afraid of insights from other disciplines; rather, it will assume that any discipline that can speak authentically about what God creates — and what Christ redeems — has its own contribution to make to our knowledge of the Christian drama of salvation, even if those contributions cannot ever be systematized in comprehensive fashion.
Indeed, it may be precisely the fragmentary and provisional character of Sittler’s theological provocations that endear him to our century, even as these same characteristics kept his writings from finding a proper hearing among those swept up in previous eras’ mania for multivolume systematic theologies. Sittler, like many of his contemporaries, recognized that he was living in a time when humanity at the global level was undergoing epochal sea changes in its understanding of itself and its environment; in a manner more prescient than many of his contemporaries, however, he intuited that these transitions required a theological style that was less assertive and more probing, less “systematic” and more dialogical, less didactic and more evocative. In one of his most suggestive passages, he offers the following program for how such a theology might consider its own task:
Knowledge gained by [humanity’s] proving into the structure and process of the physical world, the accumulation of evolutionary, genetic, psychological and social facts is so astounding as to shatter the sufficiency of older ways of specifying and relating grace and nature and, on the positive side, suggests a quite fresh and more comprehensive anthropology. While it may not be possible for our generation to fashion for its day and necessity a systematic and an ethics that shall have the coherent authority of the older systems, it may be possible by working obediently to wait creatively.5
Even as humanity suffers the uncertainty of a future in which previous givens have proven fallible, and venerable theological axioms have found themselves under increasing interrogation, the role of the ecclesial theologian proves even more valuable. It is theologians who, at their best, possess an understanding of God’s redemptive activity in the world that is capacious yet fluid enough to follow our era through unprecedented twists and turns in its orientation towards the divine and the creation that the divine loves. Theology as a “creative waiting” holds, if not an exclusive claim, at least a unique potential in articulating both the pathos of our times and the address of grace to our ambiguities. To the extent that Sittler captures this potential in the writings he bequeaths to us, he remains well worth reading today.
This could mean that, to the extent that the phenomenon of “Emergence” Christianity represents a genuine movement and not a passing fad, Sittler’s insistence upon combining ancient sources with contemporary science/aesthetics in order to think past the ills of modernity might trigger interest in his work from new constituencies. Cf. Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What it is, Where it is Going, and Why it Matters (Dartmouth, MA: Baker Books, 2012).
The word “style” as opposed to “method” in important when talking about Sittler’s theology. Sittler himself was fond of the term, particularly in Robert Oppenheimer’s formulation that “style is the deference which action pays to uncertainty.” It is often pointed out by Sittler scholars that he was not “systematic” in his theological method, and this is true. However, the practice of combining past sources with contemporary art, and placing the resulting testimony in dialogue with the best science and philosophy available at a given historical moment, is a consistent element of Sittler’s theological “style.”
Cf. Robert Saler, “The Ecumenical Environmentalism of Joseph Sittler,” Lutheran Forum 44/2 (Summer 2010).
Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Jospeh Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter W. Bakken (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 45-46.
Joseph Sittler, Essays on Nature and Grace (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 18.