At a recent convocation on Joseph Sittler, I was asked to comment on his University of Chicago years, which ended in 1973. I had studied with him toward an S.T.M. degree at the old Chicago Lutheran Theological School in Maywood from 1952-1954, after which I went for the Ph.D. at the University, 1954-56. After receiving the degree (which was conventionally seen as a passport to an academic career), in no small measure because of Sittler’s influence I returned to the parish pastorate, my original vocational choice. For seven years I was founding pastor of The Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, but was then prevailed upon to rcconsider my vocation and returned to teach in the Divinity School and the History Department at the University.
One cannot speak or write about Sittler without slipping into “asides,” which were key to his way of communicating.
As an interesting aside — and one cannot speak or write about Sittler without slipping into “asides,” which were key to his way of communicating — I should note that the English District, then a maverick element in the non-maverick Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod — issued me a “Divine Call” to teach at the University, a call which I took seriously then and still follow in my emeritus years.
Meanwhile, during our ten years of overlap the Divinity School I was able to remain a member of [shall we call it?] the Sittler School of theology. We saw each other at least twice weekly for thirty-three weeks in each year of that decade. This meant that I was able to be mentored in informal ways during all that time, and have vivid recall of chats, lunches, parties at our home, visits to the Sittler apartment (where years later during Jeanne Sittler’s years of confinement, the Martys and other friends would drop by to sing hymns, under the highly informal direction of Sittler’s colleague at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Sittler could still read in the years up to 1957, but he did not need the script to sing the chorales that had become part of his make-up.)
In his last years at the University, student protests were de rigueur, and some of the faculty, Sittler (and I) among them, shared the outlook if not all the tactics of those who protested against the Vietnam War and for the civil rights cause, and met regularly with the students and some faculty colleagues. Divinity Schools were often epicenters of protest movements, and Sittler and I were in the company of those faculty members who were, in varying degrees — he more than I and than anybody — bridge builders. On faculty delegations, he was one of two or three “seniors,” I was one of three or four “mid-career” people, and those younger came and went. I recall many asides from Sittler’s musings in our sessions, for example: “Some people, faculty and students, use a university and others are the university.” That is, they took on responsibilities for more than dispensing or pursuing degrees. People like Sittler “were” the university, in this case.
They were also called “Systematic” theologians, and Sittler could never find a system to like, however much he respected and represented much of what systematicians were about through the centuries.
However, he was not a conventional University of Chicago Divinity “type.” Was he ever a conventional anything? The dominant influence at the school in his years was still the “Process” school of late-Whiteheadian-Hartshornean influence, represented by theologians named Loomer, Meland, and others. I respected the school’s members, and learned from them as far as I could understand them, but was comforted whenever Sittler would confess that he also had no clear grasp of what they were about. The School called the work “Constructive Theology,” and he was “Re-constructive.” They were also called “Systematic” theologians, and Sittler could never find a system to like, however much he respected and represented much of what systematicians were about through the centuries. They were “metaphysical,” and he was “physical,” savoring and elaborating on the taste, touch, smell, feel of God’s creation in its limitless forms. They were abstract, and he was concrete. They related ideas to ideas in magisterial ways, while he related ideas to the practical lives of believers in ministerial ways. He was an “ecumenical” theologian, and Chicago students in the main did not flock to inter-faith or inter-church courses, sometimes because they had little interest in “institutional” religion or because they took for granted the “inter-” things which preoccupied ecumenists.
Chicago divines were well aware of Sittler’s world-wide influence, for example in his famed “New Delhi” talk in New Delhi at the World Council of Churches in 1961. But as for viewing his relation to in-house Chicago Divinity understandings, I look back and recall an analogy to his mission in the United Lutheran Church, where after the publication in 1948 of his The Doctrine of the Word in the Structure of Lutheran Theology he was controversial in many Lutheran circles. He once in puzzlement asked the ULC president and his friend Franklin Clark Fry why he was always assigned representative roles in the world church but rarely in the ULC in America. Fry: “Well, Joe, you have to understand, you’re for Export Only.” He was not controversial in Chicago Divinity, but what he represented about “the cosmic Christ,” nature and grace, etc. had a great response in the oikoumene, but less at home. Theology doctoral students had come to Chicago for “system” and “metaphysics” and “process,” and Sittler — popular in chapel or at lunch or in informal sessions, did not represent a greased skid into Ph.D. or career there.
Still, whoever was in his sphere of influence at the University or, soon after, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago was being treated to his eloquence, his elegance, his at-homeness in literature and the arts. What name should we give to his approach? My one-time publisher and the Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen always tried to draw me into the penetration of the to-me impenetrable Franz Rosenzweig, and argued for Rosenzweig when I advocated Abraham Joshua Heschel. Cohen treated Heschel with a distance matching that of Hegel when he spoke of the most famous historian of his day, Leopold von Ranke, “Das is nur ein gewöhnlicher Historiker,” “Just an ordinary historian.” Cohen of Heschel: “He’s just a rhetorical theologian.”
Sittler’s persuasion is never with an implied blunt instrument, but with faithful attention to words and spirit.
Sittler a “rhetorical theologian”? Stop. What does that mean? Did he call himself that or see himself thus? Never, to my knowledge. Yet he met all the terms of classical rhetoric. He was devoted to theology which takes its inspiration from II Corinthians 5:11: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others . . .” His persuasion is never with an implied blunt instrument, but with faithful attention to words and spirit. Another aside, light-heartedly: I know of one moment when he was an evangelist of sorts. He was to preach in Rockfeller Chapel on a summer Sunday morning. As he approached it, he passed the adjacent home of University President George Beadle. He was a Nobelist for his work in corn genetics, and he had little corn patch behind the house. As Sittler walked by he could see Beadle at work. The tall theologian leaned over a wooden fence and said, “Mr President, it’s almost church time.” Minutes late Sittler looked down from the high pulpit and saw Beadle in the second pew!
I don’t know whether Sittler read Aristotle very much; we all had to read him some, to have credentials at the University, where President Robert Hutchins made him virtual “canon philosopher” decades earlier. Sittler could chuckle when the canard was cited to him, that the University used “Baptist money to pay atheist philosophers to teach Catholic philosophy (Aristotle-Aquinas) to Jewish students.”
This is not the place to elaborate on classical rhetoric, which Sittler embodied and exemplified. To refresh: it had/has three main markers. First, “faithful persuasion”1 implies pathos, as in “empathy” and “sympathy,” “putting the hearers into an appropriate frame of mind.” The audience is central to Sittler’s oral and written discourse. It was always on his horizon, as one can tell from reading transcripts of his sermons and talks, whether to little congregations, cathedral eminences, students, student pastors, and more.
Second, ethos, the character of the speaker or writer. He or she has to have something at stake, “knowing the fear of the Lord. . .” and has to have credentials born of his or her experience, role, and intentions. This ethos somehow mirrors the ethos, the character, of God. And, finally, logos, the substance of what is communicated. Here is where the Sittler in audio-media or in writings, is the master. Books which reprint lines from these give one a sense of Sittler.
I think of the fact that the last generation to have heard and seen and known him is now in or — do I hazard this? — just past mid-career. But we know that they will stay in the midst of things as they draw on the memories, recordings, and writings of this never conventional but always interesting theologian.
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Sittler, as Marty has pointed out, was exceptional with words and often counseled “Watch your words” to aspiring preachers. He himself was once a young preacher in an Ohio congregation. Following a sermon he greeted parishioners at the door. One older woman, stood back a moment before shaking his hand, paused for effect, and then said. . . “I take it you’ve had an unusually busy week.” Sittler got the message. His gifts of eloquence and keenness of mind had, as the woman rightly perceived, led him to “wing it” instead of probing the text and setting it forth with depth. That one time was enough. It didn’t happen again. His preaching and teaching was all the better for that honest woman’s honest response.
Those who wish to pursue the rhetorical theme would do well to read David S. Cunningham, Faithful Persuasion: In Aid of a Rhetoric of Christian Theology (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.)