Frederick Sontag

From New World Encyclopedia

Western philosophy
Contemporary philosophy
Name: Frederick Sontag
Birth: October 2, 1924
(Long Beach, California)
Death: June 14, 2009
(aged 84)
School/tradition: Existentialism
Main interests
Existentialism; Metaphysics; Philosophy of Religion; Philosophical Theology
Notable ideas

Frederick Earl Sontag (October 2, 1924 – June 14, 2009) was an American scholar, a professor of philosophy and prolific author. He taught at Pomona College in Claremont, California from 1952 to 2009, retiring shortly before his death.

He was known for his academic research into a wide range of philosophical and religious arenas, including the Unification Church, founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon whom he interviewed personally, as well as publishing a book and a number of sympathetic articles on the movement. His enduring legacy is carried by his students and colleagues who witnessed his deep concern and care for all his students, believing in them and their potential as human beings, which earned him their undying respect and love.


Frederick Earl Sontag was born on October 2, 1924 in Long Beach, California. His father was a Russian Jew who survived a pogrom. He left Russia and arrived in New York in 1903. Finding no work there he took a train to California and a bus to Long Beach, where he was offered a job and was able to learn English. There being no synagogue in Long Beach, he began attending the Baptist Church and converted.[1] Frederick Sontag was born in Long Beach. His parents died during his childhood: his mother when he was three and his father when he was 14.[2]

Sontag served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, becoming a sergeant. He graduated from Stanford University in 1949 with a B.A. (with great distinction). His intention was to become a lawyer, but Stanford did not have a pre-law curriculum so he took courses in psychology and philosophy.[1] Realizing his true interest was in philosophy, he then attended Yale University where he earned an M.A. in 1951 and a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1952. During this time he married his wife, Carol Furth, on June 10, 1950.[3]

The Sontags had two children, a son Grant and daughter Anne, who gave them grandchildren Rachel, Lydia, and Chas.

His interest in religion led him to attend Union Seminary during his first sabbatical from Pomona College, but he recognized that he was destined to be a teacher not a minister. Discovering that the Congregational Church did not require a seminary degree and regarded teaching as a ministry, he was ordained there. During his time at Pomona he performed over 100 marriages, many for his students and former students.[1]

He retired after 56 years of teaching, and died soon after of congestive heart failure on June 14, 2009.[4]

Academic career

Sontag was the Robert C. Denison Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College, where he worked from 1952 to 2009. He had also been chairman of the department (1960–67 and 1976–77) and chairman of the Committee on Honors Study (1961–70). He also served as a visiting professor at a number of institutions (Union Theological Seminary, 1959–60, Collegio di Sant'Anselmo, Rome, 1966–67, University of Copenhagen, 1972, University of Kyoto, 1974, and East-West Center, Honolulu, 1974). He was the theologian-in-residence at American Church in Paris in 1973 and Fulbright Regional American Professor, East Asian and Pacific Area from 1977 to 1978.

A brilliant scholar and prolific writer, Sontag's research interests included Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophical Theology. He authored more than 30 books and hundreds of philosophical articles, covering topics such as the problem of evil, the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, and trends in American religious culture including the rise of New Religious Movements such as the Unification Church. His writings on Existentialism in the 1960s placed him “in the forefront of advancing existential philosophy in the United States and even internationally,” said John K. Roth, a former student of Sontag who became professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.[5]

Research on the Unification Church

He was considered an expert on the Unification Church. In the 1970s he interviewed church founder Sun Myung Moon and church members in Europe, America, and Asia while researching for a book.[6][7][8] Sontag spent 10 months visiting church members in North America, Europe, and Asia as well as conducting a nine-hour interview with Moon at his home in New York State. The book, published in 1977,[9] also provides an overview of Unification Church beliefs.[6]

In an interview with UPI Sontag compared the Unification Church (founded in 1954) with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and said that he expected its practices to conform more to mainstream American society as its members become more mature. He added that he did not want to be considered an apologist for the church but a close look at its theology is important: "They raise some incredibly interesting issues."[7]

His connection with the Unification Movement continued after the publication of his book, as he attended international conferences including the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences (ICUS) and the New Ecumenical Research Association (New ERA). A sympathetic critic, he wrote a reflective article on the status and future of the movement in 1981[10] and again in 2000 when the church was reaching its 40th year in America.[11]

Caring for his students

Sontag was legendary at Pomona College not just as a gifted teacher but for his devotion to his students. In fact, he spent so much time on campus, eating lunch with students and welcoming them into his office until late in the evening, that his son remarked that as a teenager he had told his father "I'd rather be your student than your son."[2]

He advised the Kappa Delta fraternity, officiated at their weddings, and generally provided great support to all his students: “He really, really, cared for students,” said Professor of Philosophy Stephen Erickson. “Not just when they were at school, but after they became alumni as well.”[4]

The most surprising example came in 2000 when Sontag offered to let a troubled student spend the night at his home. As he drove the student to his dormitory to pick up some clothes, the student became agitated, drew a knife and stabbed Sontag twice in the neck. Despite being soaked in blood, he telephoned a warning to the Dean of Students about the delusional student armed with a knife, before driving himself to the hospital.[12] The student was charged with attempted murder. Sontag worked with his parents to mount a defense of temporary insanity.[13] He said about the incident: "My genes lack something, I don't seem to hold grudges...I believe in restoring relationships."[14] He testified on the student's behalf and the trial ended in a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.[12] Sontag's colleagues were not surprised by his concern for the student and lack of ill will toward him, regarding it as "vintage Sontag."

His compassionate mentoring of students, believing that each student was "really a good kid," earned him recognition by the college as a whole.[15]


Upon his retirement from Pomona College in May 2009 after serving on the faculty for 57 years, Sontag was awarded the Pomona College Trustees’ Medal of Merit, as "an extraordinarily magnanimous member of this community."[15]

A research fellowship fund, a gate, a theater, and a residence hall are named in his honor.[15]

In 1997, Pomona College Alumni showed their affection for Sontag by raising funds for the renovation of the Greek Theater at Pomona College, originally built in 1920. It was renamed the Sontag Greek Theater in his honor.[16]

Major Works

  • American Life (2005). University Press of America. ISBN 9780761834410
  • A Kierkegaard Handbook (2003). Wipf & Stock Publishers.
  • The Mysterious Presence: A Spiritual Odyssey. (2001). University Press of America.
  • Defense of God. (1999). Paragon House. ISBN 0913757276
  • The Descent of Women (1997). Paragon House. ISBN 1557787190
  • Truth and Imagination (1997). University Press of America. ISBN 076180921X
  • The Acts of Trinity (1996). University Press of America. ISBN 0761803637
  • Uncertain Truth (1995). University Press of America. ISBN 081919851X
  • Wittgenstein and the Mystical: Philosophy As an Ascetic Practice (1995). An American Academy of Religion Book. ISBN 1555409938
  • Emotion: Its Role in Understanding and Decision (American University Studies Series V, Philosophy) (1990). Peter Lang Pub Inc. ISBN 0820410691
  • Unificationism and Modern Society: An Appraisal of the Thought and Work of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon with Thomas G. Walsh. (1988). International Cultural Foundation and the International Religious Foundation. ISBN 978-0892260621
  • The Elements of Philosophy (1984). Scribner.
  • God: The Contemporary Discussion with M. Darrol Bryant. (1982) Rose of Sharon Press. ISBN 0932894127
  • What can God do? (1979). Abingdon Press. ISBN 0687446007
  • Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church (1977). Abingdon Press. ISBN 0687406226
  • Love Beyond Pain: Mysticism Within Christianity (1977). Paulist Press.
  • God and America's Future (1977). McGrath Pub. Co. ISBN 0843406410
  • The American Religious Experience: The Roots, Trends and the Future of American Theology, with John K. Roth (1972). Harper and Row.
  • How Philosophy Shapes Theology: Problems in the Philosophy of Religion (1971). Harper and Row. ISBN 006046349X
  • The Problems of Metaphysics (1970). Chandler.
  • God, Why Did You Do That? (1970) Westminster.
  • The God of Evil: An Argument from the Existence of the Devil (1970). Harper
  • The Crisis of Faith: A Protestant Witness in Rome (1969). Doubleday., ASIN: B0020CM7AW
  • The Future of Theology: A Philosophical Basis for Contemporary Protestant Theology (1969). Westminster.
  • The Existentialist Prolegomena: To a Future Metaphysics (1969). University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226768198
  • Divine Perfection (1962). Harper & Brothers.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Richard Whittaker, Interview: Frederick Sontag: A Time of Searching Conversations, April 10, 2002. Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jordan Cohen, Community Gathers to Remember Professor Fred Sontag The Student Life, October 16, 2009. Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  3. Frederick Earl Sontag World Biographical Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 3, 2021
  4. 4.0 4.1 Noah Sneider, Sontag, Longtime Pomona Philosophy Professor, Dies at 84 The Student Life, September 25, 2009. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
  5. Elaine Woo, Frederick E. Sontag dies at 84; Pomona College philosophy professor Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2009. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Who is this Pied Piper of Religion?, St. Petersburg Times, February 4, 1978. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Moon: an objective look at his theology, Boca Raton News, November 25, 1977. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  8. Marc Fisher and Jeff Leen, Stymied in U.S., Moon's Church Sounds a Retreat, Washington Post, November 24, 1997. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  9. Frederick Sontag, Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church (Abingdon Press, 1977, ISBN 0687406226).
  10. Frederick Sontag, "The God of Principle: A Critical Evaluation" in Herbert W. Richardson (ed.), 10 Theologians Respond to the Unification Church (Rose of Sharon Press, 1981, ISBN 0932894100).
  11. Frederick Sontag, The Unification Church: Theory vs. Practice / Ideal vs. Reality Journal of Unification Studies 3 (1999-2000): 41-56. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pomona Exemplar Stanford Magazine, November/December 2009. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  13. Making the Best of a Painful Experience Stanford Magazine, March/April 2001. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  14. Kenneth R. Weiss and Richard Winton, Professor's Philosophy of Life Unshaken by Stabbing Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2000, Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Presentation of the Trustees’ Medal of Merit to Frederick Sontag Pomona College Commencement 2009, May 17, 2009. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  16. Our Venues Ophelia's Jump. Retrieved September 3, 2021.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Richardson, Herbert W. (ed.). 10 Theologians Respond to the Unification Church. Rose of Sharon Press, 1981. ISBN 0932894100
  • Sontag, Frederick. Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church. Abingdon Press, 1977. ISBN 0687406226

External links

All links retrieved April 11, 2024.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.