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The Table Video

Gerald Sittser

A Foot in Each World: Vocation Between Academia and the Church - Gerald Sittser

Professor of Theology / Senior Fellow in the Office of Church Engagement, Whitworth University
May 17, 2017

How do you navigate a dual vocation? Gerald Sittser of Whitworth University discusses his calling to communicate the big ideas of ancient Christian spirituality to a broad audience. He discusses negotiating and living in the world of ideas, in order to translate, distill, and make accessible those ideas. Ultimately, he says, the task requires living in both worlds.


Evan: How do you conceive of your vocation? How do you think of your call?

Yeah, I thought a lot about that actually, I did, and I have over the years kind of revisited that. I think most people do. They have a good sense of calling and then life experiences take them in a direction and then they circle back to the question again. I would say my central calling is to be a bridge between the world of the academy, the world of ideas, great texts, great ideas, and the world of ordinary people and the church, and so I have to kind of live in both worlds, and that’s pretty demanding, and I try to write in both worlds too. But that’s where I think my sweet spot is.

Evan: Comment on that. What is the challenge that you face as sort of living in that middle space?

Well, I mean, on the one hand, the rewards system, the culture of higher ed, is constantly encouraging only the capacity to speak to people like yourself, and so you write your peer-reviewed articles and you work on your books and that sort of thing, which I’ve done. But it can be a pretty incestuous world. The language you use, the in-group vocabulary for example, the ideas that become incredibly inaccessible and often irrelevant to ordinary people. So you’ve gotta negotiate that world and live in that world, but figure out how to distill it, and so you can communicate to a larger world that needs to learn from these ideas and adapt them and grow in a wisdom. So I wanna make those, at least in part, accessible. So I do try to live in both worlds as best I can.

Evan: Comment on Christian wisdom in the church and why, what’s the relationship of the church to sources of ancient wisdom, contemporary wisdom? What’s the need for the church?

Yeah, well actually I was initially inspired to get my PhD assuming I was gonna go back into the church and be a pastor, because early on in my Christian life, I was converted when I was 20, by the time I was 24, 25, some of my heroes, many of my heroes, were kind of Christian intellectuals who were pastors.

And some of the best theology to come out of the church, or I should say, some of the best theology to come out of the great teachers of the Christian movement, have been pastors. John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Augustine, Chrysostom, the Cappadocian Fathers, many of these people were pastors. Ambrose was a pastor. On and on I could go. Athanasius was a bishop for 45 years. So these folks knew how to preach, and they knew how to speak to lay people. I mean, think about it, John Calvin preached over 200 sermons a year for 15 years, and yet we read him as a scholar. So their example really inspired me to think about becoming at least somewhat learned. I’ll never be as learned as they are.

I feel like I’m a little asteroid revolving, orbiting around Jupiter, when I study these folks, but their example really inspired me to want to pursue something of the same calling, only in a much more modest kind of way. So, I mean, it’s only been in the last maybe 200 years that the wisdom of the church has become a little bit more isolated in the academy, and I’d like to see it brought forth and made more accessible to ordinary people again. At least that’s one of the things I’d like to do, and not the only thing. [gentle music]