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Intended for anyone interested in the relationship between Christian faith and the environment, Evocations of Grace provides the necessary perspective for thinking seriously about the earth and our responsibility to it.
Picture a shuffler, virtually blind, who has to "see" with his inner eye. Picture him black coat clad under black beret, with white flecks of dried skin and dandruff he cannot see to dust off. He does not only shuffle; he can stride and lope, but usually he looks lost, at least lost in thought. If we could picture his inmost heart, we would know it to have been heavy. For years his beautiful musician-spouse lies passively at home, a victim of multiple sclerosis. He also looks lonely, unless he is being followed by overhearing students who track him around theology school campuses in Chicago's Hyde Park. You have heard that people make some fuss over him and that he is worth fussing over. You wonder why, and how that can be.
Then you hear him speak in a classroom or chapel and see him half-smile. Almost at once your curiosity about this figure is satisfied. This is Joseph Sittler, theologian, rhetor, teacher, exemplar. And after hearing him you know you want to follow up on him through what will become his legacy, his writings. Disappointment follows. Sittler has written several important small books, but there is no large corpus — how he would have loved to play with that term in respect to his writings! —so there cannot be as much plumbing of his depths as you might like.
Fortunately, Sittler was born just late enough for tape-recorders to capture him, and he was surrounded by enough note-takers and transcribers to assure that a significant number of his lectures and classroom presentations survive. Finally, some of those influenced by him have begun writing dissertations about Sittler and his theology and, better for us, have gathered and edited writings. I am happy to say that Evocations of Grace is the most significant venture of this sort to date, and one can only hope for more like it.
I once read a now fugitive line by a Dutch or Belgian phenomenologist whose name eludes me. I know the English edition was bound in bright red. (Noticing that but not remembering names and publishing details is a nice Sittlerian touch.) The philosopher said something like this: "The great person is one who sees already what others do not see as yet." On those terms, Sittler was a great person.
Since the editors introduce this book and its contents quite systematically and satisfactorily, I will try to put "Joe" Sittler's endeavor and their achievement in a context.
Never heard of him? Some of us are chilled at the thought that the effect and recall of a theologian who spoke more than he wrote might before long be forgotten. He might pass into oblivion with the two generations that followed him, many of them already gone and others on the exit ramp. This book helps assure that he will continue to have effect, and to reach people for whom he will be only a literary name and not a rhetorician or a presence.
Hear of him, as you will "hear" him on these pages. Years ago I recall discussing Jewish theologians with some critics. We got to talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel. His juniors made efforts to categorize him. Conclusion: he was essentially a rhetorical theologian. Sittler is his Christian counterpart.
We can still play with categories. I didn't know until I read the introduction to this book that he had been hired at the University of Chicago to be a "biblical theologian." He was that. But not so if that meant that he had joined the company of biblical scholars who exegete texts, molecule of ink by molecule of ink. Think of him more as a "diviner" of scriptures, who worked with them the way water-witches walk over surfaces until their device is pulled magnetically, as it were, to the flowing sources. I've heard of Origen and Luther belonging to such a school of biblical theology. Sittler lived in, was engulfed by, walked in the light of, and ransacked elements of biblical worlds, but look for no precise and formal "biblical theology" here.
When he taught at Chicago we liked to speak of people in his area and discipline as "systematic" or "constructive" theologians. Sittler was not systematic. Repeat: Sittler was not systematic. That fact probably cost him some points against some of those who were given to scrupulosity and protectiveness about their disciplinary definition. He was not a member of the club. Here and there one can sense that he felt a bit left out of their company, but he chose the route he took and knew there'd be a price for him to pay. Fortunately for us, he paid it. This is not a slam at systematic theology so much as a bow to the notion that theology can take numerous forms.
Constructive theologian? Yes, very much so. He could never read texts and let them lie there. He had to shape and build out of what he read, be it a Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet or the Gospels. He constructs a whole theology of nature and grace on the pages you are now opening.
An ethicist? He wrote on ethics, and there are pages here where he acknowledges that he is stepping into the role of the moral theologian. But here as so often he does not follow the rules, and no more turns moralist than he is able to stand back and discuss ethical principles from a distance.
The editors speak of him at one point as being a practical theologian, and he was that, by emergent more than by historic definitions. True, he could also "theologize" on the basis of a psalm, a glimpse of nature, a Richard Wilbur poem, loving the result the way the art-for-art's sake and poetry-for-poetry's sake people do. There is intrinsic beauty and value in the effort and product. It is hard to picture a reader not simply enjoying Sittler enjoying creation. But one also finds Sittler saying little about a theological truth without running it through the wringer of praxis, or seeing anything happening in practice that did not demand and deserve some theorizing. Yes, he was a practical theologian.
Not desperately urgent about categorizing but hoping to be of help to readers, I would go back to the Heschel parallel and speak of Sittler's rhetorical theology. He did speak and write to persuade. Sittler knew the pathos, the situation of a suffering humanity that was not simply looking for grace but dealing with a disgraced nature. He embodied ethos, the character of a credible respondent to situations in the natural world as well as in the questing heart. And Sittler was ready with logos: content, having something to say.
We co-taught a course of restless seminarians in the 1960s, when relevance was to be the norm for all that we transacted. One day he said to the class, "We give you all the instruments for being relevant, for getting society's ear. And when you get it, you haven't the faintest idea what to say into it." "Saying" became urgent.
Once I was on a program with Sittler during an occasion when he had the audience in tears because this would be his "last" such appearance. He often said that, but would then take new commitments and show up again. Someone in response to his talks queried: if Sittler were asked to put into one sentence the first step for the reform of the church today, what would it be? "Watch your language!" he barked, and that was it. This shows up on page 89 where he quotes Alfred North Whitehead's aphorism that "style is the morality of the mind." One reads it in the marvelous sub-chapters on the rhetoric of recollection, the rhetoric of participation and reenactment, the rhetoric of cosmic extension. Of the middle of these three he writes on page 101: "This type of rhetoric proposed that in the actual life, obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is concentrated both the reality of alienation and its conquest by the grace of God."
I've pointed to them in other portraits of Sittler but must revisit some lines (condensed from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, here on page 161) that get close to Sittler's appeal as a rhetorical theologian. The mighty works of literature on which he so consistently drew "traffic not with cold, celestial certainty, but with men's hopes and fears and breakings of the heart, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women in this brief and mutable traject" of life in what Sittler calls "the creation which is our home for a while, the anchorage of our actual selves." He used to complain that much literature did well with the phenomenology of evil, but that we neeed a phenomenology of grace. You will find it hinted at and pointed to on the pages that follow.
Sittler had, and has, a lot to say into society's ear. And, as this collection makes clear, when he deals with "ecology, theology, and ethics," it all gravitates to, gets focused on, and deals with both "nature" and "grace." The editors are most helpful in introducing that theme, but there is little danger that the unintroduced newcomer could forget it for a minute or a page.
What is the big deal? Sittler grew up in a "grace" tradition of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther, the masters of grace-talk and experience. But from the same writers he lifted up for view a neglected theme — "nature," and how grace related to it. In doing so, as early as 1954, before semi-secular savants were saying it, he was noticing the threat to nature, the unheeding practice of most citizens and believers, and the urgency of the task of alerting all to "care of the earth."
Sittler was in his prime during the fading but still dominant times of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, which tended to sever nature from grace, unbiblically, he thought. When he made the most important speech of his life at the World Council of Churches at New Delhi in 1961 he was met, as the editors point out, with cheers from some (e.g., Eastern Orthodox), jeers from others (e.g., neo-Orthodox), and incomprehension from still others. Joe saw already what they did not see as yet. His "cosmic Christology" was so new to them that they did not remember that it was as old as Paul's Letter to the Colossians or Irenaeus, or Augustine and Martin Luther on their good days. But they began to learn, and we keep learning.
The editors like to point out that Sittler's reflections on the environment date from the time when Rachel Carson and her kith and kind were only beginning to waken the world from its ecological slumber. One notes happily that they do not dwell long on the "who was there first" theme, which gets boring after a paragraph or two. They move instead and at once to the more important question: What is in it for us today, if it is still ahead of us, if it still has promises of what we do not see or have not seen "as yet"? To see that get disclosed, it is time for me to turn you over to capable editors, in whose debt we are, and to Joseph Sittler, in whose debt they are as well.
Martin E. Marty
Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
The University of Chicago
|Introduction: Nature as a Theater of Grace: The Ecological Theology of Joseph Sittler||1|
| A Theology for Earth||20|
| Commencement Address||32|
| Called to Unity||38|
| The Care of the Earth||51|
| The Role of the Spirit in Creating the Future Environment||59|
| Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility||76|
| Excerpts from Essays on Nature and Grace||87|
| The Scope of Christological Reflection||191|
| Evangelism and the Care of the Earth||202|
| Nature and Grace in Romans 8||207|
|Conclusion: Sittler the Pioneering Ecological Theologian||223|
|Joseph Sittler and Environmental Ethics: A Selected Bibliography||234|
|Index of Subjects and Names||238|
|Index of Scripture References||241|