Thursday, 2 July 2009

Jaroslav Pelican

Jaroslav Jan Pelikan (1923–2006) was one of the world's leading scholars in the history of Christianity and medieval intellectual history.
He was born in Ohio, to a Slovak father and a Serbian mother. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1946 when he was 22. Pelikan wrote more than 30 books, including his magnum opus, the five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971-1989).
He joined Yale University in 1962 and in 1972 was named Sterling Professor of History, a position he held until achieving emeritus status in 1996. Dr. Pelikan received honorary degrees from over 40 universities all over the world.
For most of his life Pelikan belonged to the Lutheran Church but in 1998 he and his wife were received into the Orthodox Church in America in St Vladimir's Seminary Chapel.
Pelikan died at the age of 82 after a battle with lung cancer. It was reported that, before Pelikan died, he delivered the last in a lifelong series of memorable aphorisms: "If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen -- nothing else matters."
During his memorial service at Yale University, Robert Wilkin (University of Virginia) spoke about Pelikan’s life, he said: “Throughout his life, Pelikan never wavered from the conviction that it was the central orthodox tradition-orthodox with a small 'o'- that was the most consequential, the most adaptable, the most enduring. In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought not only to seek to understand the Gnostics or other forms of so-called 'lost Christianities,' but also to become their advocates and to suggest, sometimes obliquely, sometimes straightforwardly, that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument and truth but by power and coercion. The real heroes of Christian history, it was said, were the heretics whose insights were suppressed by the imperious bishops of the great Church. Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation. In the classroom, in public lectures, and in his many books, he was an advocate of creedal Christianity, of the classical formulations of Christian doctrine. In one of his last books, he cited such writers as Edward Gibbon, Adolf von Harnack, and Matthew Arnold, who believed that 'creeds pass' and 'no altar standeth whole.' But he answered them with John Henry Newman, who said that dogma is the principle of religion. And with Lionel Trilling, who wrote that 'when the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalized emotion and ethical intention ... and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being.”

This came back flooding to my mind as I was reflecting on the current state of the Church of England as a result of a healthy conversation I had with a friend. I managed to fish it out from notes I made when I read it over two years ago. Abandoning orthodoxy, dismissing with Dogma has left us in a very confused place. The Church has become a question mark rather than an exclamation point, and as the late lamented Fr Neuhaus said: “Whilst people are ready to give up even their life for an exclamation point, it is not so for a question mark.”

The Holy Father has spoken openly to Christians so many times during his pontificate. Before all else what we need to do is to have an intimate and obedient relationship with our Lord and mould our lives on his perennial teaching (orthodoxy) rather then engaging in the building of the tower of Babel and trying to fashion Jesus in our own image and thoughts (heresy). It is so obvious!

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