In Memoriam: James Dittes, Integrated Study of Religion and Psychology

A memorial service will take place on Sunday, Sept. 13, for James E. Dittes, a longtime professor of pastoral theology and religious studies at Yale, who died Aug. 24 at his home in Hamden. He was 82.

The service will take place at 2 p.m. in the Yale Divinity School’s (YDS) Marquand Chapel, 409 Prospect St.

Dittes was the Roger J. Squire Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology and professor emeritus of religious studies. He taught generations of pastoral theology students at YDS, beginning in 1955 as an instructor in the psychology of religion.

He arrived at Yale in 1949 as a student at YDS, completing his B.D. degree in 1954 and going on to earn two more degrees from the University’s Department of Psychology — an M.S. in 1955 and a Ph.D. in 1958.

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. At a 2002 gathering honoring Dittes for his service to YDS, she 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, Jim had brought to class — on a clear and bright autumn day — a beautiful multi-colored leaf from a tree on the grounds,” she recounted. “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.”

As a teacher and adviser, Dittes was “supportive, engaged and incredibly stimulating,” and he “clearly cared about his students as persons,” comments Barry Seltser ‘70, ‘80 Ph.D.

A 1949 graduate of Oberlin College Dittes was ordained into the Christian ministry in 1954 by the Cleveland Baptist Association.

Dittes was interested in the way religious values are communicated, not only in church and seminar settings but in the secular world as well. He believed firmly in the value of teaching by example and in other ways that are indirect but firmly grounded in faith.

He was the author of numerous books and articles. Among his most recent books are “Recalling Ministry,” “Pastoral Counseling: The Basics,” “Men at Work: Life Beyond the Office” and “Driven by Hope: Men and Meaning.”

Dittes served twice as director of graduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies and as chair of the department, from 1975 to 1982. He also served as executive secretary of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion 1959-1965 and was the organization’s president 1972-1973.

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.

Dittes is survived by his wife of 22 years, Anne Hebert Smith; his first wife, Frances S. Dittes; three daughters, Nancy Dittes (Curt Johnson) of Branford, Connecticut; Carolyn Dittes (Frank McNamara) of Acton, Massachusetts; and Joanne Dittes Yepsen of Saratoga Springs, New York. He also leaves his grandchildren Emma, Laura and Cole Yepsen; Jake and Ian Dittes; Kyle and Devin McNamara; and Carmen and Annie Smith-Estrada.He was predeceased by a son, Larry, in 1959.

Contributions can be made to the Connecticut Parkinson’s Association (“Restrict for Research”), 27 Alendale Dr., North Haven, CT 06473; the James E. Dittes Scholarship at Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511; or the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, 205 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT 06511.

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