For Joseph Sittler, aesthetics — broadly defined — was one of the key elements in theology.
The development of Sittler’s theology offers highly interesting views into the relationship between “Chicago School” theology and other theological movements. Sittler, influenced by both traditional Lutheran theology and liberal theology, in an early phase becomes a kind of neoliberal. He reads intensively the emerging works of neo-orthodox theologians, but at the same time he is deeply interested in culture, nature, science and the arts and is influenced by Chicago School theologians and philosophers. Eventually, Sittler becomes a professor in the University of Chicago Divinity School, essentially because he represented the orientations of both evangelical (in a broad sense) and Chicago School theology. Sittler’s work, which was for the most part spoken and only later collected into publications, influences several fields of theology and aesthetics: literature, architecture, music.
The need of the Gospel became very clear for him, and Sittler believed that literature was a key means in revealing this need.
“I learned to look at the sky in a different way,” Sittler says of his English teacher at high school.1 The teacher would read extracts of classical literature in class, and Sittler and the other students became acquainted with world literature. As a son of a Lutheran pastor, Sittler had been hearing his father’s passionate sermons ever since he was a child, and the spoken word fascinated him. Literature and rhetoric became a passion for the younger Sittler. He delighted in the pure beauty of the prose, but it also had an even deeper meaning for him: literature described accurately the simultaneously sinful and blissful state of humankind and the world. Growing up during the First World War, teenaged Sittler was struck by the news about massacres. He found comfort and answers to his questions in the theology of the cross. The need of the Gospel became very clear for him, and Sittler believed that literature was a key means in revealing this need. Says Sittler in one of his very earliest publications in 1941:
A solid and a broad grounding in the literary tradition of our language provides the profoundest, most various, and most fruitful witness to the need of the Gospel that our mortality can envisage.2
Sittler’s article “On the Literary Tradition in Preaching” was directed to his fellow pastors and also to students of theology. A few years later, when Sittler became a full-time teacher, he emphasized again the importance of literature and lamented the lack of interest in it among the students. Says Sittler, in 1947, about the students:
They know no more about the monumental intellectual and humane, the social and political creations of their own culture than a Laplander knows about the City Ice Company. The most significant voices in modern literature are significant because they are probing, describing, weighing that very spirit of man to which the Gospel of God must today be livingly addressed; and Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Franz Werfel, Feodor Dostoevski have never come within their range.3
Sittler had a strong identity as a preacher, which affected also his writings on systematic theology. He was a confessional theologian, although very ecumenical: he followed the developments in the Ecumenical Movement already from 1930 onwards.
Sittler’s theological identity, with both the emphasis on aesthetics and on neo-orthodox themes, was formed in the 1930s during the conflicts between liberal theology and the rising neo-orthodoxy. Sittler remarks himself that liberal theology, as represented prominently by Harry Emerson Fosdick, was captivating for him and the other students. For Sittler, a major change was brought by an exceptional teacher, John Oluf Evjen (1874—1942), who had earned his doctorate in Leipzig and was deeply influenced by church historian Rudolph Sohm. Evjen was more radical than the other faculty in Hamma Divinity School, and he had a stormy career, having to change positions often. Evjen, who had Scandinavian roots and lots of German contacts, introduced to his students the rising trends in Continental theology. Emil Brunner, the very influential neo-orthodox theologian, even visited Hamma, and young Sittler was fascinated to spend an evening with him.
Sittler … believed that poets, musicians and architects, for example, were often better able to express the life situations of modern humans.
As a result of these influences, Sittler became certain that a way forward would be found in liberal theology corrected by neo-orthodox theology. Sittler was convinced of the superiority of the dialectical theological method of neo-orthodoxy for four reasons: faithfulness to the Scripture, historical consciousness, a better method than in idealism and “a passion for communicative relevancy.”4 The last one, “communicative relevancy,” was one of the key points about also aesthetics for Sittler. He emphasized that the aesthetic and cultural experiences of modern people had to be taken seriously in theology, if communication was to be successful. Sittler was interested in a kind of method of correlation and believed that poets, musicians and architects, for example, were often better able to express the life situations of modern humans. Much later, Sittler would work as a colleague with Paul Tillich, but the relationships between different forms of theology of correlation are beyond the scope of this presentation.
Sittler was a proponent of a theology of Incarnation as applied to nature, and not of natural theology as such.
While Sittler started in the late 1920s and early 1930s to read all the works of Karl Barth and Brunner he could get, it must be emphasized that he was also critical of their work. Brunner was, famously, more open than Barth to natural theology or even to a kind of theology of nature, but Sittler wanted to go beyond Brunner also. Sittler was a proponent of a theology of Incarnation as applied to nature, and not of natural theology as such. A key influence for Sittler was Scandinavian Lutheran theology. It is nowadays not much discussed internationally, but in the mid-20th century Scandinavian theologians were for a few decades very influential in both international Lutheran and ecumenical theology. Names such as Söderblom, Aulen, Nygren, Wingren and Prenter were widely known. Through Evjen, Sittler had become aware of these theologians already before their works were translated into English, and Sittler continued to read them, and eventually also to discuss with them, during the following decades. He stayed in touch with Evjen through a theological circle called The Sohm Foundation, which published a small journal Credo Ecclesiam of which Sittler was the editor. Some of the earliest English translations of certain works by Continental theologians appeared in this very journal.
Sittler wanted to build theology that would address all areas of life.
The Scandinavian Lutherans were in general more open to a theology of creation than the other neo-orthodox theologians. The natural conditions in Scandinavia affected their theology: wilderness was never far away. Sittler wanted to build theology that would address all areas of life, and he found Scandinavian Lutheran theology apparently helpful. Still, Sittler was an American theologian and in closest connection to theologians in the same continent. Sittler was for many years a student of Walter Marshall Horton (1895 — 1966), a self-styled “realist” theologian, whose major influence during the time span from the 1930s to the 1950s is also nowadays much forgotten. Horton wanted specifically to salvage that which is valuable from the “wreck” of liberal theology. He acknowledged the strong influence of Barth and Brunner on his theology, but at the same time he opposed strict neo-orthodoxy. Sittler’s first teaching experience came from working as Horton’s substitute teacher in the early 1940s, and Sittler’s theology has strong similarities with many of Horton’s views.
Horton had earlier collaborated with Henry Nelson Wieman (1884—1975), the Chicago School naturalistic theologian, but the neo-orthodox influences drove Horton and Wieman apart. Says Horton in the 1930s:
I now stand between a liberal theology that is going out and a conservative theology that is coming in — something of a ‘come-outer’ from both points of view.5
And regarding Wieman:
That God works in nature, I grant, but not that he is a mere part of or process in nature. If man must depend upon God as Wieman insists, nature must also.6
Sittler became a teacher at Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary, Maywood, in the early 1940s. He took classes from Wieman, Bernard Meland (1899—1993) and Charles Hartshorne (1897—2000) and was influenced by them, but distanced himself from propositional and philosophical foundations for theology.7 Wilhelm Pauck (1901—1981), the famous Luther scholar and an old friend of Tillich, was closer to Sittler’s theological position and had a strong influence on him. Sittler’s interest in nature, culture, sciences and the arts gained attention in the Chicago Federated Theological Faculty and the Divinity School, and especially important in this development was a luncheon address that Sittler gave in 1953, which was printed in 1954 with the title “A Theology for Earth.”
Sittler emphasizes the essay-nature of his theology and the double task of the theologian: he must address both the academic community and the general public.
In this text, which became one of the earliest classics of what is nowadays called ecological theology, Sittler emphasizes the essay-nature of his theology and the double task of the theologian: he must address both the academic community and the general public. Using several literary quotations, as he usually did in his speeches and texts, Sittler depicts his theological position:
The largest, most insistent, and most delicate task awaiting Christian theology is to articulate such a theology for nature as shall do justice to the vitalities of earth and hence correct a current theological naturalism which succeeds in speaking meaningfully of earth only at the cost of repudiating specifically Christian categories. Christian theology cannot advance this work along the line of an orthodoxy — neo or old — which celebrates the love of heaven in complete separation from man’s loves in earth, which abstracts commitment to Christ from relevancy to those loyalties of earth that are elemental to being.8
This address especially caught the minds of Chicago School theologians, although some more naturalistic process-oriented theologians were not keen about Sittler’s position. In a few years’ time, Sittler joined the faculty, at a time when his international influence was growing. This would reach its peak in his World Council of Churches New Delhi Assembly keynote speech, “Called to Unity,” in 1961. Sittler’s theological aesthetics became part of University of Chicago theology. Sittler discussed music with Jaroslav Pelikan, who dedicated his book Bach among the Theologians to Sittler; Sittler participated in long discussions with Nathan A. Scott about theology and literature; and Sittler continued his long interest in architecture, organizing conferences also through Divinity School resources (especially with architect Edvard Sövik). Sittler had written his equivalent of a master’s thesis in the late 1920s about Gothic architecture and was a nationally famous participant in theology and architecture discussions by the 1950s. He brought these insights also to the international ecumenical movement, where his literary quotes sometimes provided difficulties for translators. Sittler’s interest in aesthetics also made him a chairperson in the National Council of Churches’ Commission on the Church and the Arts.9 This work put him in direct contact with many significant artists, such as W.H. Auden and Thelonius Monk. Sittler would bring the influences from all these fields to both Chicago School theology and to the mainstream Lutheran theology in America.
Nowadays, this breadth of Sittler’s work is much forgotten — although it should be noted that many of the influential theologians of that period are nearly completely forgotten. Sittler has become more and more famous as an ecological theologian, together with the current rise of environmental concern. Sittler did not intend to write large systematic works, and the lack of a book from him concentrating on theological aesthetics has caused his influential and still fascinating insights in this area to be largely forgotten. However, for Sittler, theology had to include the whole of life, and this meant both ecological and aesthetic emphases. Sittler became part of a new phase of Chicago School theology, albeit one that has been difficult to categorize. The foundation of the Sittler Archives, which has made also my research possible, has been a key factor in shedding new light on the history of both Sittler and the Chicago School.
A longer and fully referenced version of this article will be published in the forthcoming dissertation of Rev. Pihkala, “Joseph Sittler and Ecumenical Ecotheology.”
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Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations, ed. Linda-Marie Delloff (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 84; cf. Interview with Joseph A. Sittler by Robert H. Fischer, Oral History Collection, ELCA Archives / The Sittler Archives [hereafter Oral History], 30.
Joseph Sittler, “On the Literary Tradition in Preaching,” The Lutheran Church Quarterly 14:2 (April 1941), 164; cf. Joseph Sittler, The Structure of Christian Ethics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958; reprint, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 16—23.
Joseph Sittler, “The Grace Note (Critique of Theological Education),” Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary Record 52:2 (April 1947), 5.
Joseph Sittler, review of Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, Lutheran Quarterly 2 (November 1950), 465.
Walter Marshall Horton, Theology in Transition (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1943), xiv—xv.
Horton, Theology in Transition, xviii; cf. Ernst Theodore Bachmann, “The Early Sittler, 1943—1948,” presentation at the First Joseph Sittler Symposium, Chicago, 1989, 24 (Found in the Sittler Archives.)
Joseph Sittler, “Serendipity and Systematics,” Criterion 13:1 (Autumn 1973), 23; Oral History, 14.
Joseph Sittler, “A Theology for Earth” , in Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology and Ethics, ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter W. Bakken (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 20-31.
Oral History, 32-33.