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James E. Dittes, professor emeritus of pastoral theology, dies at 82

DittesJames E. Dittes, the Roger J. Squire Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology and professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Yale, died Monday, August 24 at his home in Hamden, CT surrounded by members of his family.  He was 82.

Dittes was a fixture on the Yale campus for more than 50 years and taught generations of pastoral theology students at Yale Divinity School, beginning in 1955 as an instructor in the psychology of religion and culminating in his appointment as the Roger J. Squire Professor.  He had arrived at Yale in 1949 as a YDS student, completing  his B.D. degree in 1954 before going on to earn an M.S. in 1955 and Ph.D. in 1958, both from the University’s Department of Psychology.

As a teacher of pastoral theology who straddled the disciplines of psychology and religion, Dittes was instrumental in helping future ministers shape the way they put their faith into practice, especially on the practical level of interaction with parishioners.

Margaret Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Emerita Professor of Christian Ethics at YDS, co-taught a course with Dittes on the psychology and ethics of commitment and, at a 2002 gathering honoring Dittes for his service to YDS, offered an anecdote illustrative of his teaching.

Farley described a classroom session in which she and Dittes were talking about the nature of a “relaxed” grasp on what is loved.  “For his part,” Farley recounted, “Jim had brought to class— on a clear and bright autumn day—a beautiful multi-colored leaf from a tree on the grounds.  He held it out toward the class—cradled lightly in the palm of his hand.  Then he closed his hand—too tightly, so that the leaf was crushed, and it crumbled before us.  To have a ‘relaxed grasp,’ he said, is to be able to continue to hold what one loves, to hold without destroying, without crushing.”

Ralph Barlow ’59 B.D. ’64 S.T.M. and pastor emeritus at Beneficent Congregational Church (UCC) in Providence, RI, said,Jim Dittes was the one faculty member who stayed with me for 50 years following my commencement from YDS in 1959. Faithful to his ongoing principle of client-centered therapy, Jim kept drawing me out about anxieties in my ministry which I shared with him through the years.

“He always affirmed me, conveying a confidence in my ability to work through the resistance infusing all ministry, and move forward, aware as he was of my expectancy—my chronically ‘being on the verge’ of a more fulfilling life. In that way, Jim was addressing the second major concern of his teaching and research: namely, the liberation of men from the restrictions of a society that inhibit their ‘total investment combined with their total abandonment,’ which Jim claimed is the call of the God of the New Testament.”

A more recent student of Dittes, Barry Seltser  ’70 B.A., ’80 Ph.D., commented, Jim was my dissertation director, and was always extremely supportive, engaged, and incredibly stimulating. He was also the sort of academic adviser who clearly cared about his students as persons.

“I remember being somewhat intimidated by his style when I first took a class with him; a meeting with him would usually include long awkward silences, and I felt at first that there was something wrong with me, until I figured out that he was basically very shy; once I realized that, the silences were very productive, and allowed us to think about what we were saying and to enjoy spending time together just bouncing ideas around and exploring alternatives.

“After my graduate study, we would occasionally take long walks on the Sound when he lived there, and it was always heartening to just walk with him and feel his caring presence. I will miss him, and I know how important he was for so many others as well.”

David Bartlett, the J. Edward Lantz & Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication and a faculty colleague of Dittes in the 1990s, said, Jim Dittes possessed a remarkable combination of psychological insight, theological depth, and practical wisdom.  His teaching, his writing and his friendship had an immeasurable influence on my ministry and on my teaching.”

From early on in his career, Dittes was keenly interested in the way religious values are communicated—not only in church and seminary settings but in the secular world as well—and believed firmly in the value of teaching by example and in other ways that are indirect but firmly grounded in faith.

In the early 1950s, Dittes worked as a teacher at the American School of Boys for Talas, Turkey, under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions of the Congregational Churches.   At that time, the historic Muslim resistance to missionary proselytizing made it illegal to overtly discuss religion in the classroom.

Nonetheless, Dittes believed that during his time there as a teacher he was able to instill Christian values in his students.

In an article about his missionary experience in Turkey, Dittes wrote, “The Christian teacher here is forced to distil out what is truly vital in his faith.  In doing so he realizes that Turkish restrictions apply largely to lesser things.  He is perfectly free to communicate many of the rich basic values of the Christian faith.  For this, he finds a welcome.  All that is needed is the daring and the imagination to develop a new means of communication.”

In addition to his teaching duties at both YDS and the Department of Religious Studies, Dittes served twice as director of graduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies and as chairperson of the department, from 1975 to 1982. He also served as executive secretary of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1959-65, as president of the Society in1972-73, and as editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1966-71.

At various time during his tenure at YDS, Dittes served as chair of the Committee on Professional Studies, chair of the Disciplinary Committee, and as faculty marshal.

He was the author of numerous books and articles, the first of which was Vocational Guidance of Theological Students: A Manual for the Use  of the Theological School Inventory (Educational Testing Service, 1964).  Among his most recent books are Re-calling Ministry (Chalice, 1999), Pastoral Counseling: The Basics (Westminster John Knox, 1999), Men at Work: Life Beyond the Office (Westminster John Know, 1996), Driven by Hope; Men and Meaning (Westminster John Knox, 1996).

He earned a B.A. from Oberlin College in 1949 and was ordained into the Christian ministry in 1954 by the Cleveland Baptist Association.

He has held a Fulbright appointment, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a faculty fellowship through the American Association of Theological Schools.

In 1996, The James Dittes Scholarship, open to all YDS students, was created by an admiring alumnus.

A worship service in honor of Dittes, with a reception to follow, will be held at YDS on Sunday, September 13, in Marquand Chapel at 2:00 pm.  YDS is located at 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT.